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The Champlain Canal

Champlain Canal Lock 12, Whitehall, NY
Champlain Canal Lock 12
Whitehall, NY

The Champlain Canal (aka Champlain Barge Canal) connects the Hudson River with Lake Champlain. The canal route stretches more than 60 miles from Waterford to Whitehall, NY.

In 1792, the Northern Inland Lock Navigation Company was incorporated; its purpose was to construct a waterway connecting the Hudson River to Lake Champlain. However, the company made little progress in this endeavor despite spending more than $100,000.

In 1812, the New York State Legislature authorized the borrowing of funds and the acceptance of land grants for construction of the Champlain Canal. Over the next several years, canal commissioners (Stephen Van Rensselaer, De Witt Clinton, Samuel Young, Joseph Ellicott, and Myron Holley), appointed to explore the route between the Hudson and Lake Champlain, expressed the importance and feasibility of a canal between the two water bodies.

New York State was comprised of large ares of wilderness, mountains, swamps, waterfalls, and lakes. This made land transportation between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean difficult and expensive. There were ample supplies of lumber in northern New York that could be sold along the Hudson River and in New York City. There were also vast iron ore supplies in northern New York and marble in Vermont, both of which could be exchanged for salt and gypsum in the west. For these reasons, a canal system in New York State would significantly improve the state's economic standing.

Construction of the Champlain Canal began in 1817, and 12 miles were completed by 1818. In 1819, the portion of the canal between Fort Edward and Whitehall was completed and opened for navigation. The entire canal from Troy to Whitehall was opened in 1823.

Construction of the Erie Canal, which stretches from Waterford to Tonawonda, NY (363 miles), also began in 1817, and was completed in 1825. Other canals - the Oswego and Cayuga-Seneca - connected the Erie Canal to Lake Ontario and Cayuga and Seneca Lakes, respectively, thus giving New York State an extensive canal transportation system.

In order to deal with the various elevation changes along the canal route, locks were constructed where necessary. A lock consists of a canal section closed at each end by a set of water-tight doors. As a boat approaches, the water level within the lock section is raised or lowered to match the water level on the side from which the boat is approaching. One set of doors opens to allow the boat to enter the lock. Once the boat is completely inside the lock, the doors close and the water level is adjusted to match that which the boat will be entering. Once the levels are even, the other set of doors opens to allow the boat to exit the lock and continue on its way.

Champlain Canal, Whitehall, NY (c. 1908)
Champlain Canal, Whitehall, NY
c. 1908

The original Champlain Canal had 23 locks, three of them (21-23) at Whitehall. It was approximately sixty-four miles long and five feet deep. The canal route was separate from and parallel to the Hudson River from Waterford to Fort Edward, where the canal then ran to the southern tip of Lake Champlain at Whitehall. As pictured at right, the canal at Whitehall was separate from and parallel to Wood Creek. In the photo, the canal is seen on the left and Wood Creek on the right.

On the old canal, canal boats were towed by mules or horses, and, beginning in 1903, small tugboats. Typical towing teams consisted of three or four mules traveling in single file, or two horses traveling side-by-side. They travelled along a tow path that ran along one side of the canal. In the photo on the right, the tow path is seen running along the right side of the canal. At points where the tow path switched from one side of the canal to the other, a "change bridge" allowed the team of mules or horses to cross over without being unhitched.

On the Erie Canal, canal boats were equipped with stables in their bows which allowed the towing team to be transported on the canal boat. However, Champlain canal boats were not so equipped. The Lake Champlain Transportation Company, aka The Line, was headquartered in Whitehall and, in addition to operating a fleet of tugboats and owning and leasing canal boats, provided teams of mules for towing canal boats on the Champlain Canal. They also provided Line barns along the canal route where canal boat operators would have a driver and team of mules assigned to tow their boats. The team would tow the boat to the next Line barn (approximately 12 miles) and a fresh team would be assigned.

Teams of horses towed canal boats operated by members of the Inland Seaman's Union, which was comprised of boat owners who wanted to prevent The Line from monopolizing canal traffic. The Union had offices in Whitehall and Waterford. Teams of horses, also called "trip teams," towed the canal boat for the entire trip from one end of the canal to the other. They would stop to rest wherever it was convenient when the team became tired.

The canal went through many improvements and enlargements over the years. The most significant was the transition from the original canal to the Barge Canal in the early 1900s. The entire canal system was enlarged to accommodate much larger boats and hence larger cargoes. In addition, much of the original canal system was abandoned. Instead of running entirely parallel to existing waterways, many of these waterways were canalized. For instance, the Champlain Barge Canal is actually a canalized Hudson River from Waterford to Fort Edward, which then follows a landcut to Whitehall, where the last section coincides with Wood Creek and enters Lake Champlain at Lock 12 (the number of locks was decreased from 23 to 11: Locks 1-9 and 11-12).

Oil Barge in Lock 12, Whitehall, NY (Year Unknown)
Oil Barge in Lock 12
Whitehall, NY (Year Unknown)

The Champlain Barge Canal opened in 1915. In addition to being wider and deeper than the original canal, the use of mules and horses for towing canal boats was eliminated, as was the need for drivers and Line barns. Line barns and resting sheds closed, and saloons and small grocery stores that had been frequented by drivers, steersmen, and other canal boat crewmen were forced to close due to lost business.

It was not long before competition from the railroad, freight trucks, and alternate waterways such as the St. Lawrence Seaway caused a decrease in the amount of freight transported via the NYS canal system. In the years after World War II, the transport of petroleum products, especially jet fuel bound for Plattsburgh Air Force Base, represented the bulk of commercial usage of the Champlain Canal. This also came to an end in the mid-1990s with the closure of the air base.

In 1992, legislation transferred the 524-mile New York State Canal System from the Department of Transportation to the New York State Canal Corporation, a subsidiary of the New York State Thruway Authority. Its goal was to develop the canal system for recreational use while preserving its history and that of adjacent communities.

The NYS canal system played a major role in the history of New York State. The Erie Canal helped make New York City the nation's leading port. Communities along the canal system route enjoyed much economic success, and Whitehall was one of those communities. Its location at the juncture of Lake Champlain and the Champlain Canal made it a major transportation hub. Boat building became a top industry in Whitehall, and other industries followed. In the canal's heyday, Whitehall was thought of by many as a metropolis with culture and wealth in abundance. Although that prosperity has dwindled significantly since then, Whitehall still benefits today from the canal's tourism and historical significance.

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