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The Canal Era: The Champlain Canal and the Growth of America

Boats awaiting the opening of the canal. – Waterford Historical Museum and Cultural Center

“. . . the communication long since contemplated between Lake Champlain and Hudson’s river may easily be effected; and, thus, another of those great avenues be opened, which Providence has so well prepared, that little more is left for the State than merely to will the possession of wealth and power.” Annual Report of the Canal Commissioners (1814)

Building the Canal

In 1817, work began on the Champlain Canal south of Whitehall. Twelve miles of canal prism and towpath were completed by the following year. In cross section, a canal is narrowest at the bottom and widest across the top. This canal “prism” was 40’ wide at the water’s surface, 28’ wide at the bottom, and 4’ deep. Miles of towpath were graded and compacted by ox and mule teams dragging scrapers across dirt excavated from the canal prism. By 1821, the canal was useable south to the Saratoga Dam and Fish Kill Aqueduct, south of Saratoga (Schuylerville). Ten boats plied the canal that year. The Champlain Canal officially opened on September 10, 1823. Boats could travel 66 miles through 20 locks, from Cohoes on the Hudson to Whitehall on Lake Champlain, impeded only by bouts of low water, faulty lock mechanisms or a worn out mule team.

The Champlain Canal and Erie Canal (opened in 1825) diverged at a long-since-disappeared hamlet known as Juncta in Cohoes. The Champlain Canal route extended northwestward inland to the mouth of the Mohawk River. Here, boats crossed open slackwater behind the State dam, before continuing northward in a dug channel that parallels present-day Rt. 32. A sidecut at Waterford allowed boats to enter the canal from the Hudson. This sidecut is now a spillway parallel to Lock E-2 of the Waterford Flight of Locks, a series of locks at the eastern end of the Erie Canal built during the 1905-1918 Barge Canal improvement.

North of Waterford, boats continued in an artificial channel inland paralleling the west bank of the Hudson through Mechanicville, Stillwater, and Old Saratoga, now Schuylerville, generally following a route to the west of present-day Rt. 4. At Northumberland, north of Old Saratoga, the canal deposited boats into the Hudson, where they crossed open water before re-entering the canal on the east bank of the river near the present-day Northumberland Bridge. The canal ran north around the Fort Miller falls, paralleling modern Rt. 4 to the east, where the old, abandoned canal bed and later stone lock walls are still clearly visible. North of Fort Edward, the canal climbed over the drainage divide between the Hudson and Champlain watersheds, passing through Fort Ann on its way into Wood Creek, then down into Whitehall and Lake Champlain.

Watering the Canal

Boats on the Champlain Canal gain 140 feet of elevation from Waterford to the canal summit near Smith’s Basin between Barge Canal locks 8 and 9 north of Fort Edward. The drainage divide between the Hudson and Champlain watersheds forms the canal summit. The descent from the summit to Lake Champlain is 40 feet. As an artificial waterway, the canal requires water to be supplied to its summit and other points along the length to retain enough water to float a boat. Water flows by gravity down through the canal. The Glens Falls Feeder Canal brings water from the Hudson River to the summit, feeding the inland portions of the canal.

The lock gates, dams and weirs within the canal regulate the water level. The “pounds” between locks (also called “levels”) constitute the canal route itself, but also store water used in filling a lock for locking up, and receive water discharged from locking down. If too much water is discharged into a pound, it exits the canal through a waste weir. Waste weirs also allow floodwater to exit the canal into nearby streams. The grade of the canal—how fast it rises and falls in the landscape, regulates water speed. Water flows through the Champlain Canal at about one mile per hour on either side of the summit. The slower the flow, the easier it is for boats traveling against the current to move through the canal.

The annual reports of the canal commissioners recite a litany of repairs and replacement of failed or inadequate structures. Early locks wooden locks were subject to rot. Locks built and rebuilt from the 1830s onward were constructed of stone, much of it quarried in Washington County. Kingsbury cut stone and hydraulic cement became the standard for quality lock construction. Despite changes to the canal width, depth and route over time, many stone lock walls can still be seen today along Rt. 4 from the Northumberland Bridge to Fort Edward, a testament to their substantial construction.

Glens Falls Feeder Canal

A feeder canal supplies Hudson River water to the inland portions of the Champlain Canal. The first feeder canal, built in 1822, extended a half-mile from the river at Fort Edward, but soon failed when a flood destroyed the dam that fed it. Two years later, a new dam upstream of Glens Falls watered a seven-mile-long feeder canal, producing an adequate water supply for navigation and lockage to the six-mile-long summit, between Smith’s Basin and the outskirts of Fort Edward, that drained both north toward Lake Champlain and south toward the Hudson. Improvements during the 1830s made the Glens Falls Feeder Canal navigable. By 1839, twelve locks of dressed local Kingsbury bluestone replaced the earlier wooden structures. A thirteenth wooden lock was finally replaced by stone in 1875.

The feeder canal expanded industrial site potential of Glens Falls and Hudson Falls beyond the falls of the Hudson. Mills and warehouses for goods shipped in and out of the region sprung up along the feeder canal, including stoneyards, lime kilns, sawmills, lumberyards and coal yards. Industry along the rivers and canal processed the natural resources of the region into merchantable goods for New York, Montreal and other distant markets. Pulp and paper; stone, lime and cement; apples and potatoes grown in the orchards and fields surrounding the canal—all were shipped through the canal on boats made in local shipyards. The last commercial canal boat on the Feeder Canal, the W.E. Boise owned by Finch, Pruyn & Co., left Glens Falls in October 1928, with a boatload of paper destined for New York City.

The Rise Of The Railroad

By the time the Champlain Canal opened in 1823, the railroad was already creating competition for markets. In 1825, it was being reported that “. . .the introduction of the locomotive has greatly changed the relative value of railways and canals. . . . where rapidity of transit becomes important, it cannot be doubted that railways will receive a preference. . . .”

The Rensselaer & Saratoga Railroad came north through Waterford and Mechanicville in 1835, the line later continuing to Fort Ann as the Saratoga & Whitehall Railroad in 1848. The Troy & Rutland ran through Washington County to the slate yards of Vermont. The Boston & Maine, the Fitchburg, and a tangle of small rail lines criss-crossed the region, extending beyond the confines of the canal. Consolidation in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries brought most of these lines under the control of the mighty Delaware & Hudson (D&H) Railroad, which presided over a powerful and unified transportation empire. It should be noted that the D&H Railroad was an infinitely more successful outgrowth of the D&H Canal, built to bring coal from Pennsylvania to the Hudson River.

By the mid nineteenth century, the railroad eclipsed the canal in volume and speed, becoming the preferred method for transporting most industrial goods to market. Although railroads offered faster transportation, the canal offered advantages to the small-scale producer. A farmer could own a boat and ship his goods directly. The railroad was more inclined to ship large quantities of goods from major producers, not from the individual farmer. Until the economy shifted from individual to industrial scale, the canal still had relevance.

Travels On The Canal

Old canalmen would say that if you could boat on the Champlain, you could boat anywhere. The Champlain wasn’t as well constructed or maintained as the Erie Canal. Its upstream current, narrow route and irregular lock dimensions made towing a challenge. Because early locks varied in size, boat builders had to know the dimensions of the smallest lock to build boats guaranteed to fit. Boats were designed to fill the lock entirely, to carry maximum cargo. Most canal boats were boxy barges, powered by mule tow, tug boat, and later, diesel engines. The wooden canal schooners of the second half of the nineteenth century were larger than a modern tractor trailer and could carry more cargo—five to ten times as much by weight and 25% more by volume.

The dimensions of the Old Champlain Canal were enlarged three times before the Barge Canal finally supplanted it in the early twentieth century. With each enlargement, improvements were made to the quality of the locks and the prism. New classes of boats were then built to take advantage of the larger dimensions. Even so, after many years of northern winters, by the late nineteenth century the stone lock walls at Bassett’s Lock near Fort Miller were leaning inward, making a tight fit. In such places, a block and tackle was sometimes used to pull big boats into the locks.

On a standard dirt road, a team of four horses might haul a one-ton load twelve miles in a day. A single horse could tow a 30-ton barge on the canal at a steady two miles per hour. Mule teams and horse teams were tethered to a 70- to 90-foot-long rope to tow laden boats through the canal. The length of rope kept the boat from being pulled into the canal embankment. Teams were guided along the towpath by a driver, or “hogee”, usually a boy, who walked behind the team. Ramped “change” bridges at Schuylerville, Fort Miller, Fort Edward, north of Fort Ann and south of Whitehall allowed teams to cross the canal when the towpath switched from one side of the canal to the other. The bridges and ramps were designed so that teams could cross without unhitching from the tow. Many cargo boats had living quarters for both crew and draft animals -- stables forward, crews’ quarters aft. Humans and animals would work two shifts per day in a six hours on/six hours off rotation around the clock. Horse and mule power was the standard until 1903, when the first steam tugboat made its way through the canal. Animal power disappeared entirely when the Barge Canal system opened in 1918.

Life on the Canal

“The [canaler’s] boat…is a floating home, and the captain carries with him his wife and his children…the cat, the dog, the canary-bird, and the potted plants. . . .On the cabin walls there are framed chromo-lithographs of bright colors. . . and on the cabin roof, there is almost sure to be a little garden. . . flowering in old tomato-cans or starch-boxes or red earthenware pots.” Howard Pyle, 1896.

The canal brought prosperity to the residents of the communities it served. Those who worked the canal, operating the boats that delivered goods to market, were residents of the canal itself from April or May to the freeze in early winter. Wherever they were when the canal closed was where they made their home for the winter, be it the docks in Brooklyn, along the shores of Lake Champlain, or some port in between. A separate school was opened for the children of seasonal canal boat families in Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain; in Brooklyn, canal children attended the nearest local school.

New York State Barge Canal

During the 1890s, it took 30 hours to get from New York City to Albany under steam power. To sail the same route would take a week or ten days. From Waterford, it might take two to four more days under horse or mule power to lock through to Lake Champlain. The railroad, which had offered fierce competition to the canal beginning in 1830s, was winning out over the poor canal maintenance, seasonal limitations, and the slow pace of locking through.

Nevertheless, ground was broken for the Barge Canal in 1905. Then-Governor Theodore Roosevelt spearheaded the project to improve, enlarge and standardize the entire system, including the Erie, Champlain, Oswego, and Cayuga-Seneca canals. Concrete and steel construction allowed the new canal to have fewer but larger locks—11 on the Champlain Canal in place of the original 20. Locks were 45 feet wide by 325 feet long, with a minimum depth of 12 feet. Bridges limited clearance to 15.5 feet. Barges and self-propelled motorships designed to fill the locks could carry more than six times the cargo of towpath era canal boats.

Industry on the Canal

The Champlain Canal region was among the most productive industrial areas in the country during the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century, possessing abundant water to power mills, all manner of raw material to process into merchantable goods, and access to major transportation routes to deliver goods to market.


Among the earliest commercial mills established along local waterways were textile mills. By the end of the 1700s, cotton and woolen mills were operating on the falls of the Hoosick at Hoosick Falls and Schaghticoke. One of the earliest linen mills in the area spun flax on Fish Creek in Schuylerville in 1810.

Victory Mills was established on Fish Creek in 1846—by 1900 it was spinning and weaving over seven million yards of cotton cloth a year. The building still stands beside the creek in Victory.

United Shirt and Collar came to Stillwater during the 1890s, a spill-over from nearby Troy, which was known as Collar City for the innovation and manufacture of detachable shirt collars. Saratoga Knitting Mills, expanded out of Ballston Spa into Stillwater, made shirts, socks and underwear well into the second half of the twentieth century. Waterford was similarly engaged in the textile industry.

Whitehall was home to shirt and collar manufacturers during the late nineteenth century. The Champlain Silk Mills located there in 1874, turning out silk ribbon and fabric until the synthetic rayon became the preferred fabric in the 1940s. The mill closed during the 1950s and the buildings at Whitehall Harbor burned in 1966. One of the mill’s chimney stacks still stands between Rt. 4 and the canal in Whitehall.

Pulp & Paper

Paper manufacture was a mainstay of the regional economy in the late nineteenth century. Pulpwood from Adirondack forests and rags shipped up the canal from New York City were processed into all manner of paper and paperboard products by local mills.

During the early 1880s, the largest dam on the Hudson River was constructed to power paper milling at Mechanicville. The West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company, located in Mechanicville, grew into the largest book paper mill in the world in the first quarter of the twentieth century.

Iroquois Mill of Thomson made rolls of unprinted wallpaper. Schuylerville’s Liberty Branch of the Standard Wallpaper Company employed 200 people--mostly men and boys, turning out 50,000 to 60,000 rolls of quality printed wallpaper per year around 1900.

In support of these local paper mills, companies like Noble & Wood in Hoosick Falls manufactured paper mill machinery from the late nineteenth until the middle of the twentieth century.

Three major companies are still manufacturing paper in the region. Mohawk Paper of Waterford and Cohoes specializes in high quality printing and art papers. International Paper, once one of the major private owners of Adirondack forestland, produces fine book paper in Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain. Finch Pruyn, once a diversified paper, pulp, mining and lime operation, still makes paper in South Glens Falls.

Quarrying & Mining

Quarries and mines tapped the natural mineral and geological variety of the region. Slate Valley along the New York-Vermont line to the east is one of the richest slate regions on earth, and is the only source of red slate. Black marble was quarried along the Hudson in Glens Falls during the nineteenth century and floated by boat down the Glens Falls Feeder Canal to the Champlain Canal. One of the first macadam roads was built to transport lime burned in the lime kilns at Bald Mountain near Greenwich to the Champlain Canal near Fort Miller. The Mount Hope Iron Mine and Furnace in Fort Ann is said to be a source of iron used to plate the iron clad The Monitor during the American Civil War. Adirondack iron ore, loaded at docks in Port Henry and other ports along Lake Champlain and bound for blast furnaces in Troy and the lower Hudson Valley constituted a large portion of the traffic on the Champlain Canal.

Canal locks, bridges and aqueducts; the Bennington Battle Monument, parts of the Saratoga Battle Monument & the Brooklyn Bridge were all built from stone quarried near the canal in Kingsbury. “Kingsbury Bluestone” is actually a dolostone, a smooth, sedimentary rock containing the mineral dolomite (calcium magnesium carbonate).


The history of the Champlain Canal is populated by industrial innovators. George Washington Eddy founded the Mohawk and Hudson Iron Foundry, later the Eddy Valve Company, in 1847. Eddy’s foundry cast railroad wheels, stoves, fire hydrants and more. His patented “taper seat valve”—a flow shut-off device, was honored with awards at the World Columbia Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The Eddy Valve Company operated until 1963. Fire hydrants stamped with the Eddy name are still in use across the country.

Shipyards & Drydocks

Shipyards and drydocks were essential to canal life. Drydocks along the canal route were places a boat might be pulled for repair or stored in the off season. Notable shipyards along the Champlain Canal included the Ryan Boatyard in Whitehall, Jesse Billings’s boatyard in Northumberland, and John E. Matton’s yard at Waterford. Billings also shipped ice that was cut from the Hudson each winter. The Matton yard and drydock was originally established on the Champlain Canal between Waterford and Mechanicville. That section of the canal was abandoned during the Barge Canal enlargement of the early 20thcentury and the Matton family moved their operations to Van Schaick Island at the confluence of the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers in Cohoes, where it continued to produce large tugs and military vessels.

From Milltowns to Suburbs

Nineteenth-century industry brought workers by the thousands to the Champlain Canal region. Immigrants from Ireland, Canada, Italy, Poland—all over northern and southern Europe, worked side by side with New Englanders who had moved west to find new opportunities. As in Victory Mills near Schuylerville and in the Champlain Silk Mills of Whitehall, the mill was the center of community life. Workers lived in mill-built housing, shopped at the company store, played on mill-organized sports teams, were entertained in mill-owned halls

If you didn’t work at the mill, you might have worked at the quarry, on the farm, or on the canal. A local horse-drawn streetcar began in Waterford by 1861, and by the 1880s, the streetcar system ran along the lower canal corridor, branching out to reach nearby towns and villages. By the 1890s, most of the lines were running electric trolleys. By 1901, the Hudson Valley Railway could take you from your rural mill town to school, to shop in the neighboring village, or even to the cities of Troy, Albany or Glens Falls.

Waterpower sites that originally drove mills and factories were adapted to generate electricity during the late 19thand early 20thcenturies. The Mechanicville Hydroelectric Plant, which started generating in 1897, is the oldest continuously operating hydro plant in the country. Much of its original equipment remains in service. There are more than a dozen other hydro stations in the Champlain Canal corridor, some old--some very modern, generating electricity from the flow of the Hudson River and its tributaries.

In the years following World War II, the country experienced tremendous economic and social change. People preferred their private automobile to the streetcar, and rail lines were torn up and scrapped Industry faded into the background along the Champlain Canal. Textiles and paper could be made cheaper in the south or overseas. Limestone farther south on the Hudson produced higher quality lime. Buildings and bridges were being built of cast concrete instead of quarried stone and brick. Once-booming working towns like Stillwater and Mechanicville became bedroom communities for white-collar workers in the Capital District.