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FreightWaves Classics /Infrastructure: Champlain Canal opened the Champlain Valley to settlers and commerce

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As noted in earlier FreightWaves Classics articles about canals, the years between 1800-1850 have been termed the Canal Era in U. S. history. From the earliest days of the nation, America’s leaders understood the need for a network of internal improvements to make transportation of people and goods easier. The success of the Erie Canal marked a period of intensive canal building in the U. S.

As canals were built, settlers were attracted to (or began) communities nearby, because the canals provided access to markets. Residents and merchants were able sell their products to distant markets, and buy products made far away.

The map shows the Champlain Canal and other waterways in the area. 
(Image: familysearch.org/en/wiki/img_auth.php/7/76/Champlain_map.png)
The map shows the Champlain Canal and other waterways in the area.
(Image: familysearch.org/en/wiki/img_auth.php/7/76/Champlain_map.png)

Early history of the canal

An early proposal made in the 1790s for a Hudson River-Lake Champlain canal was not approved by the New York Legislature. A second proposal for the canal was put forward in 1812 and preliminary surveys for the canal were made, leading the legislature to authorize construction in 1817. Twelve miles of the canal were completed by 1818, and in 1819 the first segment of the Champlain Canal was opened to traffic from Fort Edward, New York, to Lake Champlain, which straddles the New York-Vermont border. 

On September 10, 1823, the Champlain Canal was officially opened along its entire length. (Its 199th “birthday” is tomorrow.) The 60-mile-long canal connects the southern end of Lake Champlain with the Hudson River (and thus New York City) and the Erie Canal (and Buffalo) and other towns and cities in upstate New York.

The Champlain Canal was built at the same time as the larger and better-known Erie Canal, and the 250-mile-long eastern portion of the Erie Canal was also opened on September 10, 1823. The Champlain Canal is the second-longest canal section in the New York State Canal System.

Perspective map of Mechanicville from the late 19th century by L.R. Burleigh showing the Champlain Canal and Hudson River. (Image: Library of Congress)
Perspective map of Mechanicville from the late 19th century by L.R. Burleigh showing the Champlain Canal and Hudson River. (Image: Library of Congress)

The canal’s route

The Champlain Canal begins approximately three miles north of the locks at the Troy Federal Dam. At this point the Erie Canal splits from the Hudson River. The Champlain Canal follows the Hudson River northward for approximately 35 miles; six locks provide navigation around dams on the Hudson. When the canal reaches Lock C-7 in Fort Edward, it runs in a channel built for it for approximately 25 miles. Five additional locks are located on that 25-mile channel, bringing the canal to the southern end of Lake Champlain at Whitehall, New York. At Whitehall, vessels leaving Lock C12 enter the extreme southern portion of Lake Champlain.

A map of the canal. (Image: champlaincanal.net)
A map of the canal. (Image: champlaincanal.net)

Along the canal’s Hudson River portion, the elevation rises from 15 feet above sea level at the southern end (on the northern end of the locks at the Troy Federal Dam), to about 130 feet above sea level at Lock C-7, where the canal leaves the Hudson River. The elevation of the constructed section peaks at 140 feet above sea level between locks C-9 and C-11, then declines to the level of Lake Champlain (between 94 and 100 feet above sea level) at Whitehall.

Lake Champlain was also connected by the Chambly Canal in Quebec, Canada, to the St. Lawrence River (and from there to the Atlantic Ocean) in 1843.  

Pulling a canal boat by mule. 
(Photo: champlaincanal.net)
Pulling a canal boat by mule.
(Photo: champlaincanal.net)

The canal’s impact

The Champlain Canal opening significantly affected the Champlain Valley’s economic development. In particular, timber cutting, stone quarrying and iron mining grew as entrepreneurs used the canal to ship products beyond the immediate area. In addition, farmers were able to quickly and inexpensively ship agricultural surpluses of apples, butter, cheese, grain, potatoes and other semi-perishables to the Eastern Seaboard’s urban centers. 

The Champlain Canal also carried raw materials and manufactured goods to residents of northeastern New York and Vermont. Before the canal, these had previously been very expensive to ship overland or import from Canada. Because of the canal, the relative isolation of the Champlain Valley ended, and its inhabitants were able to participate in the national economy.

The Champlain Canal in 1895. (Photo: Howard Pyle/northcountryundergroundrailroad.com)
The Champlain Canal in 1895.
(Photo: Howard Pyle/northcountryundergroundrailroad.com)

Vessels on the canal and Lake Champlain

The opening of the canal created a demand for canal boats. The canal’s shallow channels, low bridges and narrow locks were too restrictive for nearly all existing lake merchant craft. That created a new local industry; craftsmen built long, narrow, shallow-draft boats for canal service. Three types of canal vessels were used during the early years of the canal: standard canal boats; sailing canal boats; and packets. No matter the type, all vessels were towed through the canal by teams of mules or horses. By 1833, there were 232 cargo- and passenger-carrying canal boats registered at towns along the canal and at Lake Champlain.

The canal also generated the need for vessels to transport cargoes between Whitehall and other ports on Lake Champlain. Existing lake sloops and schooners initially filled this demand, and cargoes were transferred from standard canal boats to conventional sailing craft at each end of the Champlain Canal. However, the size and number of sloops and schooners increased significantly after the canal opened, leading to the establishment of small-scale shipbuilding operations in smaller lakeside towns.

Champlain’s biggest boat yard is shown with a houseboat and canal boat under construction. A barge is moored next to the canal boat. (Photo: champlainhistory.org)
Champlain’s biggest boat yard is shown with a houseboat and canal boat under construction. A barge is moored next to the canal boat. (Photo: champlainhistory.org)

Transferring cargoes from lake craft to standard canal boats was inefficient due to delay, expense and damage to freight. That led Timothy Follett and John Bradley of Burlington, Vermont, to found the Merchants Lake Boat Line in 1841. Using vessels that were sloop-rigged with centerboards, their boats eliminated unnecessary handling of cargo. Their share of market and profitability caused other shippers to switch to similar boats.

In addition, the sailing canal boats caused a rapid decline in the construction of sloops and schooners after 1842. The remaining sloops and schooners took on secondary roles such as carrying stone, lumber, and other bulky cargoes between lake ports. Also, to compete with the new sailing canal boats, standard canal boat lines also stopped unnecessary freight handling by building steam tugboats for canal service and a different type of tugboat for service on the lake. Two positive notes were that the elimination of trans-shipment at each end of the Champlain Canal lowered freight rates as well as increasing the profitability of bulk cargoes.

When the Chambly Canal (which went around the rapids of the Richelieu River) opened in 1843 it also boosted the Champlain Valley’s economy. It opened a direct passage to interior trade markets and merchants were then able to ship goods between the Great Lakes, the Eastern Seaboard and the St. Lawrence Valley without trans-shipment.

The Gleaner of St. Albans, a sailing canal boat, was the first vessel to pass through the Champlain Canal. Built as a prototype for the much longer Erie Canal, the Champlain Canal, which connects Lake Champlain with the Hudson River, changed the Champlain Valley forever. (Photo: Kevin Crisman/Lake Champlain Basin Program)
The Gleaner of St. Albans, a sailing canal boat, was the first vessel to pass through the Champlain Canal. Built as a prototype for the much longer Erie Canal, the Champlain Canal, which connects Lake Champlain with the Hudson River, changed the Champlain Valley forever. (Photo: Kevin Crisman/Lake Champlain Basin Program)

Railroad development 

Connecting Lake Champlain with the Atlantic Ocean by rail was first promoted in the 1830s, soon after the first railroads in the U.S. appeared. However, it took until 1848 for a railroad to be completed that connected the Hudson and Champlain valleys. With the completion of a rail line from Boston to Burlington, Vermont, the Champlain Valley was connected to the Atlantic Ocean in 1849.

Railroads continued to be built in the Northeast. The earliest ones crossed upstate New York and Vermont from Canadian and Great Lakes cities to ports on the Eastern Seaboard. The Champlain Valley was connected by rail to Montreal, Boston, Albany and New York City by 1853. Once spur rail lines were built in the Champlain Valley and railroads’ reliability increased, the cost to ship via rail dropped significantly, seriously impacting lake commerce, particularly because railroads also offered year-round transportation.

Once a railroad connected Burlington to Boston (linking the Champlain Valley with the eastern seaboard), it began the the end of commercial water travel in the region. When a railroad was constructed along the shores of Lake Champlain in 1875, iron ore and other bulky cargos no longer ship by boat. (Photo: UVM Special Collections, Bailey Howe Library/Lake Champlain Basin Program)

The spread of railroads decreased the options of vessels to haul freight on the Champlain Canal and Lake Champlain. They were left to move cheap and heavy freight – as well as tourists. Hauling cheap Canadian timber to be used in fast-growing American cities became a staple for lake shipping for the remainder of the 19th century. For tourists, ferries still provided the fastest and easiest service around the Champlain Valley. 

Decline of lake commerce 

Construction of a rail line on the western shore of Lake Champlain had a negative impact on Lake Champlain commerce. Many of the vessels operating on the lake had transported cargoes of iron ore mined in the Adirondack Mountains. Once the railroad began service along the western shoreline, almost all of the iron ore traffic was carried by rail. 

In addition, the new rail line also significantly reduced the need for passenger steamers on Lake Champlain. Although passenger steamers operated on the lake until the middle of the 20th century, they were no longer an essential part of the Champlain Valley’s transportation network. During the 1870s there was a rapid decline in every type of commercial sailing craft on Lake Champlain. In that same decade, the production of commercial sailing craft virtually ceased. Many of the existing canal sloops and schooners had their masts removed and were converted into standard towed canal boats. 

Nonetheless, viable commerce on Lake Champlain survived into the middle of the 20th century; bulky cargoes were moved around the Champlain Valley and fuel oil, kerosene, and gasoline were transported by boat to the largest lake towns and cities. 

In an effort to stimulate lake commerce and activity on the Champlain Canal, New York State decided to enlarge the lock size to accommodate larger vessels in 1903. The expansion of the Champlain Canal – as well as the Erie, Oswego and Cayuga-Seneca canals – was termed the “New York State Barge Canal.” The projects broke ground in 1905 and were completed in 1918. 

This photo was taken during the enlargement of the Champlain Canal during the 1910s. It shows Lock #2 area near the power house. The chamber walls have been completed with concrete. The false wall on the right is the proposed lock gate.
(Photo: Frank J. Kowalcyzk/https://nyheritage.contentdm.oclc.org)
This photo was taken during the enlargement of the Champlain Canal during the 1910s. It shows Lock #2 area near the power house. The chamber walls have been completed with concrete. The false wall on the right is the proposed lock gate.
(Photo: Frank J. Kowalcyzk/https://nyheritage.contentdm.oclc.org)

The state assumed (incorrectly) that enlarging the canals (followed by the use of larger vessels) would reduce the cost of shipment, which would create an incentive to use water transportation rather than railroads. However, the dimensions of the new locks exceeded the practical size for a shallow-draft wooden vessel. Moreover, commercial ships made of wood had largely become obsolete by the 1920s, yielding to vessels made from iron or steel.

This is Champlain Canal Lock C5 (the same lock in the color photo at the top of the article). The lock was built between 1908-1911 and lifts boats 18 feet. (Photo: hudsoncrossingpark.org)
This is Champlain Canal Lock C5 (the same lock in the color photo at the top of the article). The lock was built between 1908-1911 and lifts boats 18 feet. (Photo: hudsoncrossingpark.org)

The use of ferries also declined, caused primarily by the construction of numerous bridges. The Champlain Bridge was the first permanent highway bridge to span Lake Champlain. Opened in 1929, it was built between Crown Point, New York, and Chimney Point, Vermont. A second set of bridges/highway crossings on the lake (from Rouses Point, New York, to Swanton, Vermont), was opened to traffic in 1938. The causeway required two bridges to be built – the Rouses Point Bridge and the Missisquoi Bay Bridge. 

By the end of World War II, other bridges connected almost all of the Champlain Islands, and roads around Lake Champlain had been significantly improved. Even tourists abandoned the lake’s excursion vessels and used cars to explore and move about the area. 

Second-generation water supply locks (the five combines), built to supply water from the Hudson River to the Champlain Canal at Fort Edward, New York. They are also utilized as secondary locks to navigate from Glen's Falls to the Champlain Canal, but are currently not in use. (Photo: Planmeister/wikipedia.org)
Second-generation water supply locks (the five combines), built to supply water from the Hudson River to the Champlain Canal at Fort Edward, New York. They are also utilized as secondary locks to navigate from Glen’s Falls to the Champlain Canal, but are currently not in use. (Photo: Planmeister/wikipedia.org)

The Champlain Canal today

A proposal for what was called the Lake Champlain Seaway would have upgraded the Champlain Canal into a ship canal, easing maritime transport between New York City and Montreal. However, the proposal was shelved.

Part of the New York State Canal System, the Champlain Canal is now used primarily by recreational boaters. It is also a major component of both the Lakes to Locks Passage (a nationally designated scenic byway), and the Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor.

The New York State Canal System from: New York State Canals recreational map and guide.   (Image: New York State Canal Corporation, 1987)
The New York State Canal System from: New York State Canals recreational map and guide.
(Image: New York State Canal Corporation, 1987)

FreightWaves Classics thanks champlaincanal.net, champlainhistory.org, eriecanal.org, familysearch.org, hudsoncrossingpark.org, Lake Champlain Basin Program, Lake Champlain History Museum and northcountryundergroundrailroad.com for information and photographs used in this article.

The Old Champlain Canal is still navigable by canoe. This is near Towpath Road in Kingsbury, New York. 
(Photo: champlaincanal.net)
The Old Champlain Canal is still navigable by canoe. This is near Towpath Road in Kingsbury, New York.
(Photo: champlaincanal.net)

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Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.