Erie Canal Locks & the ‘Birth of Engineering’ in the US

All photos courtesy of the Erie Canal Museum (Syracuse, NY)

The Erie Canal was a feat of engineering – especially considering that when the project began in 1817, the field of “engineering” didn’t really exist in the US! In fact, it was a group of self-trained civil engineers trying to solve the problem of how to transport people and goods inland that began the construction of the Erie Canal, and as a result, historians refer to the project as the “training ground” or “laboratory” for the nation’s first civil engineers. What had begun as a way to solve a problem out of the necessity for westward expansion and economic growth became an enormous canalway system that contributed to westward expansion and regional economic growth. But it also gave rise to engineering programs throughout the 19th century, including the the first civilian engineering school in the country – the Rensselaer School, later Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) – founded by the President of the Second Erie Canal Commission, Stephen Van Rensselaer.

Fun fact: Other insights gained during canal construction also benefited the fields of geology, hydrology, and paleontology!

While there were waterway systems in Europe to use as models, New York canals would need to be much larger, and would have to cross more complicated terrain. One of the biggest challenges to Erie Canal planners was that the elevation at the start of the canal on the Hudson River was 566 feet lower than where it ended at Lake Erie, and it wavered up and down throughout the journey. The solution? What engineers call a “lock”!


Locks work by having two gates, one on the upstream side and one on the downstream side. The gate on the boat’s side is opened up to let the boat into the lock. Then, it closes and a sluice, a small door that helps control the water level, is open to raise or lower the water level to the height of the water in the direction the boat is heading. Once the water is level, then the gate on the opposite side will open up to let the boat continue. 


In our video, the gate opens by lifting it up and down for demonstration purposes. But most locks, like the one on the Erie Canal, look like the photo of Lock E19 (Frankfort) above. In the photo below, you can see the scale of the lock compared to a person standing on top of the Black River lock. To adjust for the changes in elevation, the original Erie Canal had to build 83 of these locks. The later Enlarged Canal had 72, while it currently operates with only 35! 

One of the most difficult geographical challenges to construction was what is called the Niagara Escarpment, a 75-foot-tall rocky ridge. Engineers solved this problem by constructing the Lockport Flight of Five. A “flight” is a series of locks, one right after another in close proximity like a staircase (or “flight of stairs.”)  The Lockport Flight worked similarly to single locks, but it used valves in the stonework of the canal instead of gates, so that each lock could be filled independently. This allowed more than one boat to go through the flight at a time!

Above is Lock 2 on the Enlarged Champlain Canal 

If you live in the Syracuse area, there are engineering marvels from the Canal all around you! 

  • The Canalway Trail connects the cities of Rochester, Syracuse and Utica along the path of the Erie Canal. 
  • Lock E24 in Baldwinsville was the first lock on the current Erie Canal and was opened on May 9th, 1910.  
  • A monument on Erie Boulevard near the intersection with Teall Ave. boasts a plaque commemorating the iconic route.  
  • To determine tolls, boats passed through the Syracuse WeighLock Building, which is now home to the Erie Canal Museum in downtown Syracuse. 


 The Erie Canal (Encyclopedia Britannica)

The History of RPI

On Stephen Van Rensselaer

The Erie Canal and the Birth of Civil Engineering in the US 

How a Lock Works

Locks of the Erie Canal

Erie Canal Locks Photo Gallery

NY Lock Map