The Mohawk Valley Section
When you approach Rome, you enter the
Mohawk Valley. This historic river cuts the only
near-sea level route through the uplands of the Appalachian
Region. The river, however, is not retro-fitted for easy transportation,
since it drops over three hundred feet before reaching the Hudson River at
Waterford (north of Albany). It also has frequent
periods of time when it floods and when it is nearly dry. But, it
beats any alternative anywhere on the East Coast,
When Clinton's Ditch was constructed here in the 1820s,
a separate channel (only four feet deep) was dug next to the river,
but never in its bed. For most of the route it was on the south
side of the Mohawk, but crossed to the north side at Rexford on
a 1100-foot long aqueduct, and then back to the south side near Crescent on a second aqueduct. Then the canal went around the falls at Cohoes down to Albany. This was one of the most challenging sections of the canal
to construct, and it was one of the last to open. (The modern "Barge Canal" sits, on the other hand mostly in the Mohawk River itself. A series of dams
and locks keep it navigable between May and November. More about that later).
The section in the vicinity of Rome was much easier to
build, since the land was flat and mostly made of loose glacial deposits.
Therefore, the canal construction began here on July 4, 1817 with appropriate
hoopla. (By 1820 the middle section from Montezuma to Utica was in operation).
You can visit the approximate location where the digging began at the
Village just west of the City of Rome.
You want to give yourself a couple of hours to visit
this important living museum of the canal. Not only is there a piece
of the old canal here, but you can also ride on it in a horse-pulled packet
boat, which is very leisurely, as it was in DeWitt Clinton's time.
There are many displays on the canal's history and a working 19th-century
If you follow Rte. 49 into the city proper, you will
be on Erie Blvd., which was once the bed of the canal. Watch for the
signs for Fort Stanwix National Historic Park. It sits near the
point where the abandoned Black River Canal met the Erie. This was one
of the branch (or lateral) canals that connected other parts of the state
to the main line. The park itself is definitely worth visiting. The clock
is turned back to 1777 when the fort was under seige by the British.
The fort held, and the Redcoats returned to Canada. This victory was
a precursor to the major American triumph at Saratoga the following autumn.
Why was Fort Stanwix so important? It guarded the divide between the Mohawk
River and nearby Wood Creek, which flows into Oneida Lake. In other words,
it controlled the road to the west. So, it is no accident that the Erie
Canal was later built along this route.
From Rome, the Old Erie went in a southeasterly
direction through Oriskany, Whitesboro, Yorkville, and Utica,
roughly parallel to Rte. 69. (The new canal is in a deeper channel next
to the Mohawk River). Look for the bridge that sits on the old aqueduct
in Oriskany. Near this village is the monument for the Battle of Oriskany,
also fought in 1777. It was one of the bloodiest conflicts in the American
Revolution, where American "Patriots" fought American "Tories," and Iroquois
nations also fought each other. It was one of the bitterest conflicts
in the war.
The modern canal continues down the valley in a separate
channel from the natural river. At Frankfort the two merge. With
the exception of a short stretch near Herkimer, the Mohawk River
is controlled by dams and locks. As for the old canal, there are a few reminders
of its course along the south bank of the river, but it is mostly overgrown
If you follow Routes 5S and 167, you will arrive in
Little Falls. As the name suggests, the Mohawk tumbles
down a cascade of around forty feet. Before the Ice Age, this was a divide.
One river flowed eastward in a similar course to the modern river. The
other one flowed toward Rome and Oswego. But meltwaters from the dying
glacier changed that, blasting a channel through the divide. You can still
see reminders of the flood. Look for huge potholes on Moss Island,
just across the river from Little Falls village. This huge lift Lock
17 is also found there, on the south side of the island, which you should
In a sense the Erie Canal was born here in Little Falls.
In 1797, the Western Inland Navigation Company built small locks around
the falls, helping navigation in the valley. But they were only a band-aid,
and visionaries like Jesse Hawley, Governeur Morris, and later DeWitt Clinton,
proposed building a canal across the entire state. One of the locks of
that canal can be viewed on West Main Street in the village itself. While
in Little Falls, visit Canal Place, next to the cascades on South
Ann Street. The old structure used to be a mill powered by the falls. Today,
it is a complex of shops and cafes.
Take Rte. 169 out of the village. After crossing the
bridge, look for the sign for Lock 17 and Moss Island. Turn hard right
and drive into a small parking area. Nearby along the cliffs are locks
from the Enlarged Erie. Of course, you can walk along the modern lock chamber
and explore the island to see the potholes close up. It's a great place
for a picnic lunch.
Return to Rte. 169. Turn right and drive until you reach
the intersection of Route 5S. Turn left and continue the journey east.
There are little hints here and there of the abandoned canal along this
route. The highway passes through canal towns of Fort Plain and Canajoharie.
Look for evidences that the old canal went through these towns. On the
outskirts of both villages are Lock 14 and 15, controlled by dams on the
river. A few miles beyond Canajoharie the valley narrows again. Two cliffs
emerge, the "Noses." Here, the river, the old canal
bed, the Thruway, and the Conrail tracks are squeezed in a narrow gap, another
critical "choke point" on the canal route. (See photo at the top of the
Route 5S follows the river through Fultonville.
Its twin, Fonda, is on the north side of the Mohawk. Then, around
six more miles downstream, the road crosses Schoharie Creek. Turn left into
the village of Fort Hunter. Follow the signs to Schoharie Crossing
State Historic Park. First, you should visit the little museum. Look
at the exhibits describing the history of this place. Ask for a brochure that
maps out the important sites in the park. Most obvious is the famous Roman
arch aqueduct, that once carried the Enlarged Erie Canal over Schoharie Creek.
If you have a boat or a canoe, you can get a closer look. What makes this
place special are the remains of both of the old canals, including locks.
Originally, the first canal (Clinton's Ditch) crossed behind a dam, which
proved dangerous, especially after flooding. Take time to hike to the different
landmarks. If you drive down to the river, you can also visit modern Lock
Return to Route 5S outside of town. Notice how the cliffs
of the Heldeberg Escarpment close in on your right. You will leave the river
temporarily, but you will return as you enter South Amsterdam. The
City of Amsterdam is across the river. Also along the old canal route
are the villages of Pattersonville and Rotterdam Junction.
Drive on the side streets of both towns. What evidences can you find that
the old ditch ran through there?
The highway merges with I-890 a few miles down river.
Take it into Schenectady, taking Exit 4C. Follow Erie Blvd. and
Washington Ave. into the historic Stockade District. Many of the
old homes here go back to colonial times, including many that were built
during the golden years of the canal, just a couple of blocks away. A good
place to start is the Schenectady County Historical Society Museum at
32 Washington Street. Get a map of the district there, and explore! Note
that you are in a wedge between the Mohawk River to your north, and the
old canl bed on Erie Blvd. to your south. What is the geographic significance
Return to Erie Blvd. and go east, a right turn. Soon
you will see the signs for the Mohawk Towpath Scenic Byway.
If you follow this route, you will very closely parallel
the old Erie Canal all the way down to the Hudson River. At first you leave
the city of Schenectady along the south bank of the river. Soon the street
name changes to Aqueduct Road. Just before the end of that road is Aqueduct
Park. Stop there to see where the canal crossed the river over a 1100
foot water bridge, which, alas, is no longer standing. A map on the signboard
will give you an idea of its route. Turn left as you leave the park and
take the bridge over the Mohawk to Rexford. The byway immediately
turns right on to Riverview Rd. You will climb up a hill to a bluff overlooking
the river. The view here is very spectacular, although you will need to
park on the side of the road, so be aware of traffic.
The road eastward stays close to the north shore of
the Mohawk. You will soon see a water filled ditch on your right, the remains
of the old canal. After passing through the quaint hamlet of Vischer's
Ferry, you will find a small park with an iron bridge, the Whipple
Truss Bridge. It dates back to 1862, and it still crosses the Enlarged
Erie Canal. A short distance further down the road is the site of the Clute's
Dry Dock, where boats were repaired. Several miles later, in the Town
of Half Moon, you will reach the crossroads of Crescent. It is located
on a sharp bend in the river, hence its name. The byway crosses the Mohawk
again (on Rte. 9), just as the old canal once did, returning to the south
bank. (If you stay on the north side, you will enter Waterford and the
modern canal.) A quick left puts you on Cohoes-Crescent Road, with the
old canal on your right and the Mohawk River on your left. Look for the
twin dams that produce slack water for the modern canal, before it separates
from the river in nearby Waterford.
The 19th century canals stayed on the south side of the
river until meeting the Hudson in Watervliet. There are a couple remains
of locks in Cohoes just off of Mohawk Avenue (part of the scenic byway).
Look for School Street on the left. Park the car and view the Cohoes Falls.
Unless you are there in early spring or during a flood,
there won't be much water, since most of it is diverted for hydropower. But
in any case, it should be obvious that this was a major obstacle to water
commerce, and that bypassing it was a miraculous achievement in 1823.
If you continue a few more blocks down Mohawk Ave., you
will pass by Harmony Mills, which was a major textile complex in the 1800s.
Turn left on to Saratoga Avenue and cross the river to Waterford.
Immediately after the bridge turn into Museum Lane, and
visit the Waterford Historical Museum. Here a some good exhibits on
the history of the canal in this crossroads community. This is where the Champlain
Canal met the Erie. (The old Champlain is still used to water the modern
canal today). They can direct you to the modern locks nearby, the famous
Flight of Five (#2-6). Just below the first of these locks is the
Waterford Visitor Center, the official entry point of the
Erie Canal today.
Next, you should cross the Hudson River to visit historic
Troy, the home of the original Uncle Sam. Make
sure you visit RiverSpark, the visitor center for the "Collar City."
You will learn about the industries of the past, stimulated by water power
and the transportation corridor created by the canals. On the south edge
of the city is the federal Lock #1, more commonly referred to as the "Troy
Lock." You can go through this lock if you take the cruise on Dutch Apple lines.
Of course, the eastern terminus was at Albany,
the Capital City of New York. You should end your Erie Canal journey with
a visit here. Especially relevant is the Albany Heritage Visitor Center,
with some nice exhibits on Albany's history as a port.
Click on the arrow to learn about some of the
branch (or lateral) canals that connect to the main line
Click here to back to the Main Erie Canal Page!