With the completion of the
In 1837, after numerous surveys and petitions from residents of the
The canal had to be carved out shale, a soft, brittle rock that not only holds water poorly but lends itself to the formation of sinkholes that might cause a wall or even the bottom of the canal to disappear. In places, the towpath--which formed one wall of the canal--had to be erected on precipitous hillsides high above the Lansing Kill. Here freshets threatened to wash out the canal, and landslides threatened to bury it. At other places, where the gorge was narrow, the canal and Lansing Kill ran side by side, separated only by the towpath.
In 1840, contracts for the entire canal had been let, but work was suspended between 1842 and 1847 because of the state's growing debt. Nonetheless, in the spring of 1850, the southern section of the canal between Rome and Boonville opened. In the following year, the canal was open as far as Port Leyden, and by 1855 the overland canal was fully operational.
Designed to accommodate 70-ton boats, the individual locks were the same size as the original locks on the Erie Canal: 90 feet long with an interior width of 15 feet. Most locks had a lift of 10 feet, but the lift varied between 4 and 12 feet. (Table of Lock Lifts.)
Built largely by Irish immigrants, the locks were constructed of locally available limestone, much of it quarried in the Lansing Kill Gorge and at Sugar River. Many of the locks are still extant today, including a five-lock combination in the Lansing Kill Gorge, and four-lock combination just north of Boonville. (How a Lock Works.) In addition to the locks, various toll booths, bridges, aqueducts, culverts, waste-weirs, and spillways had to be built.
In addition to the main canal, a ten-mile, navigable feeder canal from the Black River at Forestport to Boonville was built to maintain water levels in both the Black River and Erie canals and to provide an adequate supply of water for the mills north of Lyons Falls. (1874 Map of Erie Canal Feeder) A 200-foot dam was built at Forestport, allowing as much as 16,000 cubic feet of water to be channeled down the feeder canal, with two-thirds of the water flowing south to the Erie Canal and one-third north to Lyons Falls.
Three smaller feeders were built: the Delta Feeder (which enters the canal just north of the Mohawk River aqueduct), the Lansing Kill Feeder (near Lock 70), and the Sugar River Feeder (north of Lock 84).
To ensure water levels in drought years, the outlet at
When the overland canal was finally completed in 1855, the cost had reached 3.5 million dollars. For the state, the canal itself was never a financial success. Tolls on the
Timber, sawn lumber, and other wood products (pulp wood, firewood, shingles) were by far the most important commodities shipped on the canal, accounting for more than 90 per cent of the tonnage in the early years. In 1866, 29,000,000 board feet of lumber, 135,000 cubic feet of timber, and 10,000 cords of wood were shipped on the canal, destined primarily for Capital region, the
Virgin spruce from the area was instrumental in building the
Boat-building became an important local industry. The original boats were “foreign”--imported from other canals throughout the state--but by 1875, most boats were built, owned, and manned by locals. Canal Boat Diagrams.
Operating the canal itself was an important source of employment. Lock tenders--political appointees all--were hired. And large maintenance crews were employed to mend the frequent breaks in canal walls, repair lock equipment, clear landslides, fix sinkholes, and remove fill that washed into the canal.
The new prosperity was evident in downtown Boonville. In the years following the Civil War, blocks of handsome, three-story brick and wood-frame buildings--many with high false-fronts, cornices, and decorative brackets--replaced earlier commercial structures. Increased trade, spurred by the canal, led to wealth for many local merchants, and handsome residences in the Italianate Revival style, replete with cupolas, began to dominate village streets. The Comstock Opera House, a venue for itinerant entertainers, sprang up next to the canal.
As local forests were cleared, farming became an increasingly important industry. Cheese and butter were shipped on the canal, as were wheat, rye, maize, and root vegetables. Over time, potatoes became the dominant export crop, though it would never rival the export of timber. In 1880, 152,000 bushels were shipped on boats, each carrying a standard load of 3,000 bushels. (McCullogh Mural). Boatmen typically traveled to
By 1900, tonnage on the canal had fallen drastically, and it had become clear that the canal had outlived its usefulness. There are several reasons for the canal’s decline and demise. First, the canal was never adequately funded. Disrepair, constant breaks, and low water made canal shipping a risky enterprise from the very beginning. Second, even as the overland canal was completed in 1855, the
The principal reason for the decline in canal business, however, was the fact that the region’s vast forests had been largely cleared. By 1892, when 2.8 million acres were set aside for the
A temporary reprieve for the canal came with the construction of the Barge Canal System between 1903 and 1918. Massive quantities of limestone and high-quality sand were shipped from Boonville to construct Delta Dam on the
This brief history draws on Thomas C. O'Donnell's Snubbing Posts: An Informal History of the Black River Canal, published in 1949 by Black River Books, Boonville, and reprinted in 1972 by North Country Books,