the Way West, Shovel by Shovel
By JAMES BARRON
ALBANY, Nov. 23 – What were the
words to that song? Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal? Today, Stephen Jones went
15 centimeters, maybe 20, on a trip that was frustrating in a
so-near-and-yet-so-far kind of way: he did not find the one thing that maps and
charts and careful calculations had convinced him was buried right beneath his
What he was looking for was a
remnant of the original Erie Canal, the 363-mile liquid
highway that opened the way to the Midwest in the 19th
century. Specifically, Lock No. 53, a wood-and-stone bulwark that lowered boats
heading south to the level of the Hudson River and
raised Buffalo-bound vessels for the trip along the high and mighty Erie.
tough digging,” said Dr. Jones, a visiting professor of anthropology at Union
College in Schenectady.
His work carried him vertically
through layers of soil, instead of horizontally along the canal that Thomas
Jefferson dismissed as “little short of madness,” but if Lock No. 53
eluded Dr. Jones and his colleagues from Union
College, other fragments of the
canal have not. In two years of archaeological detective work in a neighborhood
of warehouses and vacant lots about a mile from the State Capitol, they have
uncovered evidence of a weigh lock, used to help canal operators decide what
tolls to charge. Nearby, they discovered the foundation of a toll collector's
house, a grand-looking structure with columns.
And last month, about 200 feet
from the pit for Lock No. 53, they found the smooth granite blocks that topped
a wall of a lock from a later version of the canal.
“This is the start of
everything,” said Denis Foley, a Union
College research professor in
anthropology, showing off the top of the lock wall. “The
start of the westward movement. This is what made New
York the Empire
State. This is what made New
York City the pre-eminent commercial city in the United
The history books tell the story:
the Erie Canal came along at just the right moment, and
was the first important national waterway built in the United
States. The laborers who laid out the locks
and installed the equipment that made them function were working in the
wilderness – there were no roads to haul in the supplies needed to build the
canal. Their champion was De Witt Clinton, who by the time the canal opened had
been mayor of New York City and
governor of the state. His enemies tried to laugh off the canal as “Clinton's
But it quickly became a moneymaker.
It also lowered the cost of shipping raw materials (the cost of transporting
flour had fallen to a penny a ton by 1830) and cut travel time between here and
Buffalo to six days, from two weeks
It opened in 1825 with Clinton
making an inaugural trip from Buffalo
to New York City. His departure was
signaled “by the booming of a line of cannon stationed at suitable
intervals all the way across the state to Albany
and down the Hudson.” So declared Roy G. Finch, the state engineer and surveyor, on the
canal's 100th anniversary. Finch called the celebration “a grand
salute 500 miles long, announcing to the people of the state the completion of
the most stupendous undertaking of their time.”
was going canal crazy, building more than 4,000 miles of waterways and opening
back-country towns to hard-drinking, hard-driving barge captains. The Erie
was modernized and rerouted twice to handle larger vessels and more traffic,
but only short stretches of the latter-day New York State Barge Canal System
follow the channel dug for the original Erie.
Each time the canal was recast – in the 1840's and again between 1905 and World
War I – the engineers figured out how to make do with fewer locks, ultimately
trimming the number to 35 from 83.
The hunt for the old Erie
began with Dr. Foley and F. Andrew Wolfe, the chairman of the civil engineering
department at Union College.
Copying old maps and matching them against modern ones, they calculated where
the locks had to have been. The maps were not always reliable – “The
streetscape has changed,” Dr. Foley said – and a 1972 study said the
structures from the old Erie had
Still, after digging a few test
holes, they found Lock No. 1 next to a parking lot. That discovery led them to
press on toward Lock No. 53. They knew they were in the right area because the
maps showed both locks in the same milelong basin
that was in effect a changing area.
The mules that had pulled canal
boats from Buffalo were unhitched
where the archaeologists had been digging, Dr. Wolfe said. From there the
steam-powered predecessors of tugboats took over for the ride down the Hudson
to New York.
“We thought that, since we
know all the measurements, why don't we find the original canal?” he
Off to the woods, and the pit
where Dr. Jones was digging for Lock No. 53 (on the original Erie,
the locks were numbered east and west from Rome,
N.Y.). Dr. Jones found bits of clay pipes
like the ones 19th-century canal users would have smoked and tossed overboard.
Also in the pit was an iron handle that looked like one end of a shovel. Dr.
Wolfe speculated that it was part of a hay-bale pick.
So was there anything else down
there? Dr. Wolfe wanted to know what Dr. Jones had been finding.
“Slag, slag and more
slag,” he said. “There's no industry recorded as being close to here
to explain this type of slag, but that's archaeology for you. You always find
more questions than answers.”