Find out how the Erie Canal shaped Upstate New York at the Erie Canal Museum

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SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) — The Erie Canal played an instrumental part in Syracuse becoming the city it is today. Many have forgotten about the impacts the canal has had on the city’s development, but all of the canal’s history still lies within the Salt City.

Vehicles zoom through the paved streets of downtown Syracuse every day, but 200 years ago, the famed Erie Canal ran right through Syracuse, occupying what is now known as Erie Boulevard. 

“Downtown Syracuse got rid of the water portion of the Erie Canal in the 1920s,” Executive Director for the Erie Canal Museum Natalie Stetson said. “So, Erie Boulevard, just outside these windows here, that was the Erie Canal for about a century.”

The Erie Canal played a critical part in connecting New York State for the transportation of goods, and it is a major reason why Syracuse is the metropolitan city it is today. You can learn all about the canal and how it relates to the Salt City right here in Syracuse.

Stetson said, “We are not the only site that tells the history of the Erie Canal. We are the most comprehensive Erie Canal Museum. We are the only ‘The Erie Canal Museum.’ So, you can go to different sites, even ones pretty nearby, and get little bits of the story, but we really work to tell the story of the Erie Canal all the way from the idea of the canal, to the present day canal system.”

The Erie Canal stretched from Buffalo to Albany, connecting the Hudson River to the Great Lakes, allowing goods to be transported to the midwest.

“At the time, it opened the west,” Stetson said. “It was one of the very first things that opened the west, which is kind of crazy to think about because we consider the west to be far west of where we are standing right now. But in 1817, 1825, Rochester was the west, Buffalo was the west, Syracuse was the west.”

The canal can be considered the Thruway of the 1800s, and yes, they even collected tolls along the Erie Canal, much like they do on I-90 today. 

The museum in downtown Syracuse occupies the old building where they used to weigh the boats traveling on the canalway, and construction for the Erie Canal began 200 years ago, right here in the Salt City. 

“So, the first portion to be finished went from Utica to Montezuma, it was 94 miles long,” Stetson said. “This is the flattest part of New York State. So, they were able to spend those years constructing this portion, kind of figuring out what they were doing because they didn’t know what they were doing. There were no trained engineers in the country, engineering wasn’t a job that existed in 1817.”

Once you are done learning about the Erie Canal that shaped Syracuse and much of Upstate New York, you can walk along the historic canalway for yourself.

“The historic canal was not paved over and it still exists, and you can go see that water,” Stetson said. “So, you can go to DeWitt, the Old Erie Canal Historic Park goes from DeWitt all the way to Rome. It’s 30 miles long, you can walk on the historic Towpath, that’s where the mules and mule drivers walked towing the boats. You walk, run, bike on that Towpath and see the historic canal right there in front of you.”

You can learn more about the canal as you walk, with plaques guiding you along the way. It’s a big piece of history that many Central New Yorkers don’t realize is right in their backyards.

“I don’t expect that people are going to be doing a lot of traveling right now. So, I’m hoping that people who are feeling a little stir crazy, or want to just explore, see something new, learn a little bit more about their community, will come in and pay us a visit. We have numerous people who walk in our doors who have lived here their whole lives that don’t necessarily realize the history that’s right here around them,” Stetson said. 

The Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse reopened on Thursday, July 30. If you would like to learn about the canal that once ran through downtown Syracuse, simply make a reservation on the museum’s website.

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