The One Minute Geographer: The Amazing Importance of the Erie Canal, Part 7

Jim Fonseca
6 min readAug 9, 2022
The Allegheny Portage Railroad in Pennsylvania used stationary steam engines to pull canal packet boats uphill on rails. Illustration dated 1839 from Wikipedia.

We’re getting close to wrapping up our discussion of important aspects of the Erie Canal — how it helped shape US geography and history.

14) The Erie Canal is enjoying its retirement. We’ve noted before that the Erie Canal is still operating but it’s used now almost entirely for recreational boating and cruises. How did this happen? Railroads, and then trucking on Interstate highways, and finally the St. Lawrence Seaway completed in 1959, put the canal first out of the passenger business and then out of the freight business.

How railroads replaced canals is a fascinating story and I’ll give some examples, not all directly related to the Erie Canal, to show what happened to canals across the country. I’ll also talk a bit about the evolution of railroad technology which I hope you find as fascinating as I do. I was tempted to give a subtitle to this section called “Hi! I’m from the railroad and I’m here to help.”

Initially railroads were established as ‘high-speed’ components of canal routes. The first railroad in New York state was the Mohawk Hudson railway connecting Albany and Schenectady, by-passing the locks around the Cohoes Falls. It was completed in 1831 — just six years after the entire length of the Erie Canal was opened.

The engine was named the DeWitt Clinton in honor of the governor who promoted the Erie Canal. As you can see in the illustration below, it was a passenger-only operation. Freight was prohibited in the charter granted by the state because New York didn’t want to lose canal toll revenue that was paying off the bonds the state had issued for canal construction. (Just-in-time delivery and Amazon next-day weren’t around yet!) In theory, the railroad would promote more passengers on the canal because they could make that 16-mile trip between the two cities by rail in an hour instead of taking a full day to go through the locks.

The DeWitt Clinton wood-fired steam train on the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad. At first it carried only passengers. The illustration is not a real photo from the time because photography had not yet been invented. It’s a photo of a replica constructed for the 1893 Chicago Columbia Exposition and it looks like the people were superimposed. Is this a ‘deep-fake’? LOL Photo from Wikipedia.

However, early rail engines, like the one in the illustration, could not make it up the steepest inclines, so passengers had to take a stagecoach at each end of the line to get to the…

Jim Fonseca

Geography professor (retired) writes The One Minute Geographer featuring This Fragile Earth. Top writer in Transportation and, in past months, Travel.