1918: The Barge Canal
It was unheard of. Citizens were turning their backs on their aging friend, the Erie Canal! On October 26, 1903, a statewide vote on $101 million in proposed canal improvements was just a week away.
But many people in upstate New York, including some residents of Binghamton in Broome County, believed that a new Barge Canal, with its proposed 1,000-ton vessels, would not be worth the taxpayers' money. That much money (more than the value of all the public schools in the state) was too much, especially for Broome County citizens.
Canal traffic had decreased in the last few years, and many more people and goods now traveled by train. Durable rails, large cars, greater loads, faster speeds, and more reliable delivery made railroads a better choice for transportation.
Trains were a common sight in Binghamton, and a number of railroads were well established there by the turn of the twentieth century. In addition, the Chenango Canal, which had linked the city with the Erie Canal in the mid-1800s, had closed thirty years ago, severing the county's loyalty to canal travel. Most Broome County residents saw no direct benefit from the new Barge Canal, which was located seventy-five miles away from Binghamton.
Those in favor of the proposed Barge Canal System argued that the new canal would be much deeper, wider, and more modern than the Erie Canal and its branches. Boats would no longer have to be pulled by mules or horses. New vessels built for the improved canal would be either self- propelled or towed by tugboat.
New engineering would allow the Canal's improvers to harness rivers and lakes for navigation instead of ditches. Concrete, a relatively new building material, would replace cut stone during construction of the larger locks.
These improvements would eventually allow boats to carry 100 times more cargo than boats on the Erie Canal. Barge Canal supporters appealed to the patriotic pride of New Yorkers to maintain their national treasure.
When the vote did on the new Barge Canal took place on November 3, 1903, almost 75 percent of the 1,100,000 people who went to the polls approved the canal proposition. It had great support in the populous counties at either end of the Erie Canal.
Supporters hoped the Barge Canal canal would help New York City remain a commercial giant, because grain and other products from the western states would still be shipped there. Buffalo would get cheap raw materials for its iron and steel industry. Other communities that benefited from bulk shipments for manufacturing also voted for the canal improvements.
Although voters authorized $101 million for the Barge Canal at the time, the costs eventually increased to $170 million. The first shovel-full of dirt was dug in 1905, and improvements were completed on May 15, 1918.
Even though the Barge Canal is no longer used for commercial cargo, many New Yorkers remember the days when barges loaded with oil, grain, molasses, fertilizer, wood, sugar, and even automobiles would pass through their villages and cities on the Canal. In 1951, when Barge Canal traffic reached its peak, oil was shipped in greater quantities than any other product.
Today, the Barge Canal keeps history alive by allowing people to use it the way the way the old Erie Canal was used. Pleasure boats have taken the place of huge barges and rugged tugboats. Boaters today can still travel more than 500 miles of waterways on the old Erie, Oswego, Champlain, and the Cayuga—Seneca canals, which make up the Barge Canal System.
Boaters can still rise and descend slowly in their boats through the fifty-eight locks, pass under the dozen or so lift bridges, and at a leisurely pace enjoy the many small villages, wide lakes, and picturesque rivers of this part of New York.
Amazingly, much of the same operating machinery installed in 1918 — the lock gates, gears, and control panels, for example — is still used, which adds to the historic charm of the waterway. Let's dig into the archives and see what the evidence tells us about the Erie Canal and the Barge Canal in 1918.