- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 1, 2003

COHOES, N.Y. — In its 19th-century heyday, pioneers, immigrants and cargo swarmed the Erie Canal, a bustling gateway that opened up the country’s heartland and the West. When the canal faded from prominence at the turn of the past century, a myth arose that it had been destroyed.

Armed with old maps and shovels, a group of scientists has set out to prove otherwise. Since 1999, their careful detective work has yielded promise: They have recovered two original canal locks and other remnants from when the man-made waterway expanded.

However, they face their greatest challenge when they try to unearth the canal’s holy grail: the eastern terminus of the original 363-mile Erie, stretching from Albany to Buffalo.

“The beauty of the Erie Canal is that it’s there,” said F. Andrew Wolfe, an engineer at SUNY Institute of Technology in Utica. “It’s a matter of finding it.”

Mr. Wolfe and his colleague, Denis Foley, an anthropologist at Union College, Schenectady, hope that recovered artifacts will be a reference point to other buried structures from the canal that established New York City as the nation’s leading port.

“They have put a flashlight on these sites that have long been neglected and forgotten, but that do tell about the heritage of the state,” said Craig Williams, a senior historian at the New York State Museum in Albany.

During the summer this year, the duo dug down 13 feet in this former textile city just north of Albany and uncovered an intact foundation of Lock 37 and fragments of Lock 38 of the old canal. The original locks were numbered west to east starting in Rome, in central New York.

The discovery of a quoin post — a wedgelike piece of stone where oak lock gates swung back and forth — proved it was a canal lock, Mr. Foley said. The locks ushered mule-drawn boats through changes in water levels in the canal by opening the gates and flooding the chambers with water or letting the water out.

The limestone-topped locks were discovered in a cavernous tunnel that was later used for hydropower. Mr. Wolfe and Mr. Foley spent three months studying the locks, trying to answer why they were built on shale instead of clay and why there were feeder culverts to raise boats in the locks — fixtures thought to exist only in Lockport, north of Buffalo.

Trying to relocate all the old locks is hard, they say. Archaeology is an inexact science full of discoveries and dead ends. One afternoon in late September, Mr. Wolfe and Mr. Foley tried to find the original Lock 42, figuring if they climbed down a manhole opposite a knitting factory near Locks 37 and 38, they would hit it.

Wearing in rubber boots, Mr. Wolfe descended into the darkness of the manhole while Foley waited in the sunlight. Shining his flashlight ahead, Mr. Wolfe stepped on the slippery rocks, careful not to slip into a gushing waterfall, and perched on a ledge. Up ahead, he could see an arch, an entrance to the old canal. The arch had been bricked up.

“I think we got a dead end,” Mr. Wolfe said, snapping a digital picture before climbing out.

The construction of the Erie Canal, begun in 1817 under New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton, was an engineering marvel, built by the muscle of farmers and horses without the convenience of modern technology. Critics dubbed the $7 million canal “Clinton’s Ditch.”

The original 83-lock canal was 40 feet wide and 4 feet deep and opened up the interior of the nation by connecting the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean.

After Clinton’s inaugural trip on Oct. 26, 1825, the waterway carried a million settlers to America’s heartland, created a cheap route for shipping lumber, wheat and flour, and spurred a canal-building boom in the state.

By the mid-1800s, the canal was widened to 70 feet and deepened to 7 feet to keep up with increased traffic and larger boats. After 1918, the 524-mile Barge Canal replaced the Albany leg of the Erie, and motorized vessels replaced mule-tugged boats.

Commercial traffic gradually disappeared on the canal with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959 and competition from railroads, airplanes and highways. The canal slowly fell into disuse. Today, mostly pleasure boats pass through the 57-lock canal.

When the original canal was capped and buried in the 1950s, scholars assumed the locks and other structures were destroyed, based on research done in the 1970s.

Then, digging in north Albany in 2000, Mr. Wolfe and Mr. Foley chanced upon their first canal artifact, a weigh lock used by canal operators to decide how much to charge boats. Last year, they uncovered the smooth granite blocks topping a wall of Lock 1 at the eastern terminus of the enlarged canal.

The goal is to recover Lock 53, the eastern terminus of the original Erie, located somewhere in north Albany in a faded industrial spot a few hundred feet from Lock 1.

They have spent their weekends in October searching for the lock as well as foundations of buildings around the locks that would provide a glimpse into the lives of the people who worked on the canal.

“It’s a great historical treasure,” Mr. Wolfe said.

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