By the time Thomas S. Allen wrote The Erie Canal Song (as the song is most commonly referred to) in 1905,1 the famous canal had already been in operation for 80 years. Allen chose the title Low Bridge, Everybody Down because the canal had just ditched the mules for steam power and he wanted to pay homage to the animal so critical to canal operations.2 That Allen celebrates the mule Sal tells us he’s commemorating a then not-too-distant past. Incidentally, the title wasn’t the only thing about the song that changed over the years, including, ironically, the word “years.” The original lyrics were “fifteen years on the Erie Canal” and refers to the length of the partnership between Sal and his owner, while the new lyrics are “fifteen miles on the Erie Canal,” referring to how many miles the average real-life Sal would pull a barge before resting.3
Today we think of the Erie Canal as a pleasant linear recreation park we get to play in every summer. It’s hardly a hidden gem given its notoriety (I mean, besides The Erie Canal Song, there are at least five other folk songs about it4). We cannot, however, understate the power of the canal. Just as Joseph Ellicott had earlier predicted, the Canal would spur both economic and population growth into and around the Greater Western New York Region. And as we’ll discover in a later chapter, its early life led to a dramatic national cultural phenomenon. But you’ll have to wait for that story.
This story is about one of the many canal towns that sprung up with the advent of the Canal. In fact, it’s the town where the final piece of the Canal was constructed. Here’s why. It involves two things we’ve already addressed: the Mesozoic Era that created Greater Western New York’s geology and Niagara Falls, specifically, why the water falls the way it does. It’s called the “Niagara Escarpment” and it stretches all the way from Watertown, New York across the Great Lakes through Wisconsin and into Illinois.5 The Niagara Escarpment is a geological formation known as a “cuesta” – essentially layers of rock with a slight upwards tilt.6 At the edge of a cuesta, the different layers erode at different rates and, like the Niagara Escarpment, often form a cliff.7
The Niagara Escarpment is not only responsible for the Niagara Falls, but also for the Genesee Falls in Rochester. While these wonders of nature certainly merit the awe they’ve received, it’s the man-made waterfall created by the Erie Canal in the town of Lockport that we honor in this chapter. The Niagara Escarpment presented a never-before-seen engineering challenge for Canal builders. Somehow, they needed to devise a method for moving the water up and down the sixty foot drop caused by the Escarpment.
Nathan Roberts came up with the idea of a dual set of five locks, considered by many at the time (and even today) an engineering marvel.8 Visiting America to celebrate our country’s 50th birthday in 1825, the French General Marquis de Lafayette, after seeing Niagara Falls, went out of his way to travel to Lockport’s famous “Flight of Five” locks and said, “Lockport and Niagara County contain the greatest natural (Niagara Falls) and artificial (Lockport Locks) wonders, second only to the wonders of freedom and equal rights.”9 Within a decade after his visit, Asher Torrance, owner of a Lockport foundry, and Washington Hunt, a lawyer and future governor, had the idea of reversing Lafayette’s path to direct some of the thousands of Canal passengers on a twenty-three mile detour to become America’s first tourists10, but we’ve already covered the consequences of that in our chapter on Niagara Falls.
During the construction of Roberts’ locks, contractors bored the first tunnel through the Mesozoic rock, ostensibly to carry surplus canal water.10 More than a generation later in the 1850’s, Birdsill Holly, inventor of the fire hydrant, central steam heat and the rotary pump, blasted the 1,600 foot Hydraulic Tunnel through the literally rock sold limestone.11 The tunnel used natural gravity to create a water race that powered adjacent industries.
Back then, the tunnel was filled with water. It was last used in 1941. Today it is an empty shell – and a very cool place to visit. And by cool, I don’t just mean “hip,” “jazzy” or “wow-did-you-see-that!” No, I mean temperature wise. Just like any underground journey, the tunnel remains relatively cool no matter how hot the outside temperature is. And it all comes courtesy of Lockport Cave and Underground Boat Ride. Billing itself as “America’s longest underground boat ride,” your flat-bottomed vessel floats in two feet of water as you proceed through the latter half of the tunnel on what’s been described as a “peaceful and eerie” tour.12
Once you emerge from the tunnel, your journey continues as the boat passes under the widest bridge (399’) in the United States and then – my favorite – the legendary “upside-down” railroad bridge.13 It’s not really upside down, it just looks that way. It’s really a deck truss bridge – itself a less well used but still very viable form of the more popular truss bridge. The reason why you don’t see deck truss bridges too often is because they require an awful lot of space beneath the bridge – space not usually available.
Thanks to the Niagara Escarpment, that space comes in plentiful supply. Unless, perhaps, if you’re traveling by boat.
“Low Bridge, Everybody Down…”
And just as the “upside-down” bridge symbolized the railroad’s eventual dominance over the canal, so do we move into this past future in the next chapter.
If you like this story, you’ll love Chris Carosa’s new book 50 Hidden Gems of Greater Western New York. Be sure to check out the book trailer on 50HiddenGems.com and sign up for the GreaterWesternNewYork.com newsletter so you can be the first on your street to find out when the book is published this fall.
- 1 The Erie Canal Song website, http://www.eriecanalsong.com/
- 2 Ibid.
- 3 Ibid.
- 4 Ibid.
- 5 Niagara Escarpment page, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper website, http://www.waterkeeper.ca/2010/12/03/niagara-escarpment/
- 6 “Escarpment Geology,” Hamilton Naturalists Club, http://www.hamiltonnature.org/habitats/escarpment/escarpment_geology.htm
- 7 Ibid.
- 8 History 1816-1840 page,” eLockport.com, http://elockport.com/history-lockport-ny.php
- 9 Erie Canal Discovery page, Niagara County Historical Society website, http://niagarahistory.org/discovery-center/
- 10 Dunn, Edward T., A History of Railroads in Western New York, Second Edition, Canisius College Press, 2000, p.11-12
- 11 History 1816-1840 page
- 12 Home page, Lockport Cave and Underground Boat Ride website, http://lockportcave.com/
- 13 Ibid.
- 14 Glaser, Susan,“In Lockport, M.Y., cruise the Erie Canal and take a cave tour,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 13, 2010, http://www.cleveland.com/travel/index.ssf/2010/06/in_lockport_ny_cruise_the_erie.html