Postcards from the Erie Canal’s Past

Submitted by Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor

Before Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook, there was no better way for people to send short messages to friends and relatives than postcards. Thousands of postcards from the Erie Canal remain in private and public collections. Not only do they provide a record of the past, but canal postcards also offer a fascinating visual comparison with what you’ll see as you travel along the trail today. Postcard views from east to west.

Work and Play- Both the Erie Canal and Mohawk River have long been arteries of commerce as well as places for recreation. Amsterdam was known as the “Carpet City” where massive mills turned out thousands of yards of floor covering every day to be shipped on the canal, and later the railroad. (Amsterdam, canoeing on the Erie Canal)

Alternate Routes– The Erie Canal and Mohawk River originally had separate channels. That changed, starting in 1915. Canal boats now travel on the river. The Thruway was built on top of the old canal in 1954. The railroad bed now carries the Erie Canalway Trail. (Canajoharie)

A Big Lift– It once required five locks to lift or lower canal boats past Little Falls. Those were all replaced by today’s massive Lock E17. Lifting boats more than 40 feet, it was the tallest lock in the world when it opened in 1915. (Little Falls)

A Watery Past– The Erie Canal ran through downtown Utica until 1915, when it shifted to its present route north of the city. Oriskany Boulevard now runs on top of the old canal bed. You can still find traces of the city’s watery past in buildings and businesses that line the boulevard. (Utica)

Worth its Weight- From 1850 to 1882, the Weighlock Building in Syracuse weighed, on average, four boats per hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Tolls collected paid for canal maintenance. The building has served as the Erie Canal Museum since 1962 and is the only remaining weighlock in the U.S. (Syracuse)

Sweet Spot– The next time you enjoy peppermint candy, think of Lyons on the Erie Canal. The fields and rolling hills around Lyons were once covered with peppermint plants. From 1841 to 1990, H.G. Hotchkiss Essential Oil Company crushed the leaves and refined especially pure peppermint oil. The oil was shipped around the globe and used to make food, candies, medicines, and perfumes. (Lyons)

A “Fair Port”- Described as a “fair port” by early canal travelers, Fairport still lives up to its name. The Erie Canal transformed Fairport from a marshy hamlet to a thriving commercial center. Farmers brought their produce here to be shipped to urban markets by canal and rail. Fairport’s canneries preserved local fruits and vegetables for their long journeys. (Fairport)

Still Standing– Do you recognize the building on the right? Located in Albion, it dates to 1823 and is one of the oldest canal-side structures in the country. Although the Erie Canal was widened and deepened over the years, it still follows the same route in western New York as it has since it was first constructed. The swing bridge was replaced in 1915 with a lift bridge that remains in operation today. (Albion)

Side by Side– Erie Canal traffic grew so rapidly that the original 1825 Lockport Flight had to be replaced with larger chambers by 1842. The row on the left was replaced in 1915 by the two massive chambers that are in service today. (Lockport)

Just Add Water –Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo and many of the smaller towns and villages along the canal were among the “boom towns” that sprung up or greatly expanded after the Erie Canal opened in 1825. The Erie Canal became affectionately known as the Mother of Cities. (Buffalo)


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