Report of the Joint Legislative Committee on The Barge Canal

Chapter 2 -- A Description of the Barge Canal

The present Barge Canal was constructed following approval by the people of a 1903 referendum. Forty per cent of the water resources of the Empire State are included in its vast water system. (See Map, Appendix A.) At the time of its construction during the period 1904-1918, the canal was the most modern inland system of water transportation in the world. It united such important bodies of water as Lakes Erie, Ontario and Champlain, the St. Lawrence and Mohawk Rivers and, through the Hudson River, the Atlantic Ocean. After the completion of the deepening of the Hudson River to a depth of twenty-seven feet at the Port of Albany in 1951, the canal's eastern terminal was actually an Atlantic coastal port.

Today this canal system is what it was in 1918 with one exception: the 1935 and 1945 programs of improvements with federal funds on the Great Lakes-Hudson Waterway from Oswego to Waterford.

The entire Barge Canal system is 527 miles long. There are 151 miles of artificial land-cut channels and 376 miles of canalized rivers. The designers of the canal utilized as far as possible natural waterways such as the Mohawk, Hudson, Oswego and Seneca Rivers and Oneida Lake.

The controlling depth of the system was twelve feet; all channels, natural and artificial, were dredged to that depth. These channels were also cut to a width of 200 feet in river sections; In rock sections the width was ninety-four feet, and in earth sections 123 feet at the surface and seventy-five feet at the bottom. These dimensions prevail today throughout the whole system although lock sills in the Great Lakes-Hudson Waterway are presently being lowered to thirteen feet with a fourteen foot channel.

The canal system is crossed by approximately 309 highway and railroad bridges. Of these, twenty-one are lift or swing bridges of some type; 288 are fixed bridges. The controlling height of these bridges over the canal level is fifteen feet. However in the Great Lakes-Hudson Waterway a program is underway with the aid of federal funds to raise the height to twenty feet.

There are 57 locks on the canal (Appendix B). All are built of concrete. Some have been refitted. with steel plates. While the length between lock gates is 328 feet, the available length inside the lock chamber for vessels or floats is 300 feet. The width of the lock chambers is forty-five feet and the depth of water over the lock sills is twelve and thirteen feet. In many cases the locks are operated by electric power generated at a power house located at an adjacent lock dam. The locks vary in lift from six feet at Locks 25 and 26 on the Erie Canal at May's Point and Clyde, to 40.50 feet at Lock 17 at Little Falls. At the time of its construction Lock 17 was one of the highest lock lifts in the world.

The designers of the system also provided for guard gates at various locations on the canal. These are designed to protect down stream areas from flood damage in times of high water.

There are forty dams along all of the canalized rivers. In the Mohawk area these are principally movable or taintor gate dams which are lowered during the shipping season to provide a level pool of water for navigation purposes. During the winter they are raised to allow the river to return to its normal depth and prevent flooding conditions. In the Oswego River and in the Hudson River portion of the Champlain Canal the dams are permanent fixtures.

The state and private interests have provided approximately fifty-eight docks or terminals at various points along the canal system; some have warehouse facilities (Appendix C).

The State Department of Public Works operates the canal through its Division of Operation and Maintenance, Canals and Waterways. The division has eight workshops for maintenance. As far as possible, all maintenance operations are done in the summer months. But major repairs to locks and other facilities are carried on during winter to avoid interference with navigation.

To carry out its maintenance program, the Department of Public Works has a number of dredges and other vessels. It also operates all of the locks, and sets out and is responsible for all buoys and navigation aids. At the present time the Division has 1,140 employees. In 1960-61, it operated on a budget of $5,774,264. The 1961-62 allocation is $5,661,498.

The canal system also includes state-owned power houses built at Vischer Ferry and Crescent on the Mohawk River east of Schenectady. There are fixed dams at these sites and each has a capacity of 6,000 kilowatts. The Crescent station supplies electric power to the two guard gates at the top of the Waterford flight, the five locks, the large canal shop and canal drydock, and a nearby highway shop. The surplus power is sold to a public utility.

The Vischer Ferry power station near Erie Lock 7 provides locking power and the surplus energy is sold to Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation under a long-term contract. The state nets in excess of $200,000 annually from the sale of power at these two stations. This income is paid into the state's general fund.

The Barge Canal receives its supply of water from Lake Erie and an area which encompasses more than one-half of the land surface of New York State. These sources include the reservoirs and lakes which fed the old Erie Canal, the Finger Lakes and tributary rivers and artificial reservoirs constructed at the time of the building of the canal for impounding Adirondack and other waters, and the Hudson River.

To provide water for the summit level of the artificial channel near Rome and the general system in the Mohawk Valley, the Hinckley and Delta Dams were built to hold the southern Adirondack run-off. These dams create lakes of 4.46 and 4.33 square miles respectively. The Delta Dam outlet flows into the canal at Rome; the Hinckley into the Mohawk River near Herkimer.

Our study indicates that these water sources for present canal operations are more than adequate, the supply having been designed to service a canal with a maximum traffic capacity of ten million tons annually.

Divisions of the Barge Canal

There are four divisions of the Barge Canal: the Champlain, Erie, Oswego and the Seneca-Cayuga Canals. A brief description of the outstanding features of each follows.

Champlain Canal. The Champlain Canal which runs from Waterford, at the junction of the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers, to Whitehall at the foot of Lake Champlain, is sixty-three miles long.

For forty miles it utilizies the Hudson River in the section between Waterford and Fort Edward. The remaining twenty-three miles runs through a land cut between Fort Edward and Whitehall. The canal contains eleven locks, five in river sections and six in land cuts These raise the level of the canal from 15.2 feet at Waterford to 140 feet at the summit level in the artificial channel between the Dunhill Basin and Smith Basin locks. The waterway is then lowered by the remaining locks to the Lake Champlain level at Whitehall of 96.8 feet. The canal has a twelve-foot controlling depth throughout Other features include a guard gate, forty-four bridges and nine canal terminals (See Profile, Appendix A.)

The supply of water for this canal appears to be adequate. The artificial section is supplied principally by the so-called Glens Falls feeder which is an offshoot of the Hudson River. This drains a large section of the eastern slope of the Adirondack mountains including the Sacandaga River.

The primary traffic on the Champlain Canal runs from the Albany area to points on Lake Champlain principally Plattsburg and Burlington, Vermont. Navigation on Lake Champlain is controlled by the Federal Government and its buoyed channels run from Whitehall to Fort Henry, Burlington, Plattsburg and Rouses Point at the head of the lake.

Vessels proceeding north from Lake Champlain to the St. Lawrence River use the Richelieu River to Sorel, a distance of eighty-one miles. Sorel is approximately forty-six miles northeast of Montreal on the St. Lawrence. A portion of the Richelieu River is bypassed by the Chambly Canal which has nine 120-foot locks with a 6.5-foot depth. Because of the size of these locks, only small vessels can proceed from Montreal to Albany or New York. During the past few years there has been a growing demand for the construction of a deep ship canal from the St. Lawrence to Lake Champlain, and from Whitehall to Waterford.

Erie Canal. The Erie traverses the historic westward route of the nineteenth century. From the Hudson River it passes through the Mohawk River, thence by land to Wood Creek and to Oneida Lake, on down the Oneida River to Three Rivers Point; thence along the Seneca River to May's Point, and westerly along the Clyde River and by land cut channels to Tonawanda on the Niagara River, the western terminus. At both its eastern and western terminals the canal joins federally controlled waters, on the east at the Hudson River and on the west at the Niagara River. In both instances federal locks are negotiated by vessels leaving the Canal to enter the ports of Albany and Buffalo. From Frankfort on the Mohawk River to Wood Creek and from Lyons to Tonawanda the canal is in an artificial waterway. For many miles between Rochester and Lockport it is higher than the adjacent terrain, in some cases as much as sixty feet.

The Erie Canal has thirty-six locks which lift a vessel from the Waterford level of 15.2 feet to the Lake Erie level of 565.6 feet. The most spectacular rise occurs at the Waterford flight of five locks near Cohoes Palls in the Mohawk River; these raise the level from 15.2 feet to 180.0 feet. The five locks occupy an area of 1.5 miles, and the lifts range from 32.5 feet to 34.5 feet.

The summit level of the canal section between the Hudson River and Oneida Lake is between Lock 20 and Lock 21 near Utica in an artificial channel where the elevation is 420 feet. The canal then proceeds westward through Oneida Lake to the Oswego River. Where it joins the Oswego River and the head of the Oswego Canal at Three Rivers Point the level drops to 363 feet. From that point westward it rises 202.6 feet to the Lake Erie level.

This section has ten movable and two taintor gates principally to control the flow of the Mohawk and twenty-four guard gates two of which protect the Waterford locks; others prevent flooding in the sixty-mile level between Rochester and Lockport. Two hundred twenty-eight fixed and seventeen lift bridges straddle the Erie.

Water for the eastern part of the Erie, Albany to Three Rivers, is furnished by Oneida Lake, the Mohawk and Oneida Rivers, Delta Dam and Hinkley Reservoir, much of which is mountain run-off. It is further supplied by several old Erie Canal reservoirs south of the summit level.

Regulated Cayuga and Seneca Lakes with their large capacities provide water for navigation on the Erie Canal from May's Point to Three Rivers as well as a portion of the needs of the Oswego and Cayuga-Seneca Canals. The western section of the Erie has an unlimited water supply from Lake Erie by diversion from the Niagara River at Tonawanda The balance is used to supply Erie Canal levels between the Genesee River and May's Point where the canalized Clyde and Seneca Rivers meet. Surprisingly, when water is low in the Oswego Canal, Lake Erie is tapped up to 375 cubic feet per second to maintain proper levels. The Niagara diversion then is important not only to the far west of Rochester but to water levels as far east as Oswego.

Oswego Canal. The canalized Oswego River for its entire twenty-four miles from Three Rivers to the Oswego Harbor on Lake Ontario serves as this section of the Barge Canal. Seven locks carry vessels north from the 363-foot level at Three Rivers to the 244-foot level at Lake Ontario. There are two terminals, one each at Pulton and Oswego.

In 1958 the state gave to the Port of Oswego Authority the canal terminal facilities on the west side of Oswego Harbor consisting of a one million bushel grain elevator and, at that time, a 12,000 square feet transit shed later enlarged to 28,000 square feet. In 1960 the state made a $4 million advance to the Authority for the construction of a terminal on the cast side of the Oswego Harbor. This new installation will be at the northern terminal of the Oswego Canal.

The canal is crossed by eleven fixed bridges and three lift or swing bridges.

The water for the Oswego Canal is provided by the Oswego River, Oneida Lake on the east and the Finger Lakes and their tributaries to the west, with occasional amounts of Lake Erie water in periods of low level.

Cayuga-Seneca Canal. This part of the Barge Canal starts where the Seneca and Clyde Rivers join at May's Point. It runs south to the head of Cayuga Lake. There one section continues south through the lake to Ithaca. The other portion goes from the head of Cayuga west to the head of Seneca Lake, south through the lake and then by a two and one-half mile artificial cut to Montour Falls. There are four locks in this canal which is ninety-two miles of canalized river and lake except for the land cut from Watkins Glen to Montour Falls and a quarter mile inlet at Ithaca at the foot of Cayuga Lake.

One lock is required between the 370-foot level of the Seneca River and Cayuga Lake at 381.5 feet. Three locks lift vessels from the Seneca River at 381.5 feet into Seneca Lake at 445 feet. There are three terminals on this canal. It has four guard gates and one taintor gate dam, and is crossed by sixteen fixed bridges.

The water supply for the Cayuga-Seneca Canal is Cayuga and Seneca Lakes.

Great Lakes-Hudson Waterway. The 1935 River & Harbor Act allocated federal funds to the State of New York under federal supervision for improvement of the section of the canal from Oswego to Waterford, a distance of 184 miles. This involves the Oswego Canal and the portion of the Erie Canal east of Three Rivers Point. The act provided for the deepening between locks to fourteen feet below normal pool level, widening at bends and elsewhere and increasing the overhead clearances at bridges to twenty feet at maximum navigable stage. The widths of the channel are to be 104 feet in earth cuts, 120 feet in rock cuts and 200 feet in river sections. The 1935 act limited federal expenditures to $27 million. The River & Harbor Act of 1945 modified the project by authorizing the deepening of the lock sills to thirteen feet. No limitation was placed on expenditures for this project. The Army Engineers state that this work is about eighty percent complete. Practically all of the deepening and widening has been accomplished. Sills at nine locks are still to be lowered and seventeen bridges and guard gates must yet be raised to the twenty-foot level. This program will gain increased impetus by reason of inclusion in the 1961-1962 state budget of a $15 million first instance appropriation.

A total of $24,884,000 has been appropriated by Congress for the 1935 and 1945 programs. The federal budget for fiscal 1962 recommends an additional $770,000. Of the funds spent to date $23,916,000 have been under the 1935 act and $968,000 on the 1945 program for lowering the lock sills. Twelve million dollars will be required to complete the 1935 program. With authorization for slightly more than $3 million remaining it will be necessary to request Congress to raise the ceiling to approximately $36 million for its completion.

It is estimated that $1.6 million will be required to complete the 1945 program. Congress placed no monetary limitation on this work.

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