The picture of a lock above, from the New York State archive, is titled “The opening of the first section of the Erie Canal” and is dated May 15, 1915. My memories of first learning US history in elementary school are pretty hazy, but the canal opened in 1825 and contributed greatly to New York City’s prosperity in the nineteenth century by providing a direct link from the Hudson River (and therefore New York harbor) to the Great Lakes. So, uh, what?

The canal was the only real link between the Atlantic coast and the inland US, north of Pennsylvania, through the 1850s. By the mid-1850s, the Erie and New York Central Railroads provided competition, but the canal’s freight carrying capacity was, at that time, higher. The railroads gradually took nearly all passenger traffic and most smaller freight from the canal, leaving only bulk and non-perishable freight. 

Between 1905 and 1918, New York State greatly expanded the capacity of the Erie and several connecting canals, renaming them as the New York State Barge Canal. The new name makes the intent clear: the greater width and depth was to allow for bigger and more barges carrying bulk freight. Railroad traffic was nearing its all-time peak in the US, and large amounts of low-value freight must have seemed like an impediment best left to the old-fashioned canals. So the picture above is the opening of the first section of the new and improved Erie Canal.

To finish the story, truck traffic, and increased freight rail efficiency as passenger rail declined, killed off freight on the canals through the mid-1900s. And the “Barge Canal” name has in ordinary use reverted to “Erie Canal.”

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