Lock 17 Audio Tour by Kaitlin Miller

Narrated by Robert Katz, Cooperstown Museum Studies Graduate Program, SUNY Oneonta, Class of 2019.

Little Falls was first settled by Europeans in 1723, but the Erie Canal boosted its population and economy.

The dairy farms helped the town become a major center for the manufacturing of cheese. Its products were shipped to market in New York City and other major cities. In the 20th century it attracted immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, who worked in factories for textiles, gloves and other products.

Canal locks are devices used to help boats, ships and other watercraft transfer between two waterways with different water levels. Lock 17 has three major elements: a watertight chamber, two gates and a set of lock gear, and replaced the 4 locks of the original 1825 Erie Canal

The process is simple! 

Let’s imagine you are driving your family’s boat, delivering a crate of goods for the local town. You are traveling downstream. You find the lock already filled with water. the entrance gates open, and your boat moves inside. The entrance gates close, triggering a valve to open and draining most of the water inside the chamber. Your boat slowly lowers with it. When finished, the exit gates will open and your boat leaves. Easy!

Now, let’s say you are traveling upsteam instead. You will reverse the process, entering through what had been the exit and leaving through the former entrance gates. The big difference here is that a different valve will open, releasing water into the lock and raising your boat to a higher level. The whole process takes about 10 to 20 minutes.

Lock 17 represents a much deeper history of the Erie Canal. Many immigrants spent years building more than just the canal system we have today – they built intricate connections with one another. Their long days led to the creation of folklore, songs and speech lingo. Throughout the years, people began depending on the Erie Canal for their livelihood. Prosperous towns and cities were built along the canal, bringing more and more people. At one point in history, there were more than 50,000 people depending on it.

Its creation also generated conflict between the Americans and the indigenous people already living there. It cuts through several ancestral homelands such as the Mohawk, Onondaga and Seneca.

Ironically, the first boat to transit the full length of the Erie Canal was called the Seneca Chief. It carried  Governor DeWitt Clinton and a party of dignitaries from Buffalo to New York Harbor for the “Wedding of the Waters” ceremony in the fall 1825, . The name of the vessel was only one of the ironies in the procession. In an 1811 speech before the New York Historical Society, when Clinton was mayor of New York City and a newly appointed canal commissioner, he had predicted that “before the passing away of the present generation, not a single Iroquois will be seen in this state.” Fortunately, in this case, Clinton was not prophetic. While Native Americans were removed and relocated to isolated areas of New York and the Midwest, New York officials never fully succeeded in completely removing them.

The canal became a cheap route for shipping lumber, wheat and flour. It is also one of the many New York State canals that were utilized for the Underground Railroad and many African Americans escaping slavery. While some continued onto Canada, others settled in canal towns where other Americans kept safe houses nearby. 

The Erie Canal continued to grow and in 1903, New York State legislature authorized the construction of the “New York State Barge Canal” to improve the Erie. It began in 1905 and was completed in 1918. 

Whether you call it the Erie or the Barge, this canal proved to be America’s greatest canal. It paved the way for settlers to travel westward, throughout the state and the Great Lakes region. 

Explore related content

  • Little Falls WaterwaysVirtual exhibit that examines how over the past two centuries the waterways of Little Falls have undergone major alterations.
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