The Barge Canal’s Influence

Researched by Zac Greenfield (class of 2021), narrated by Sadé Gabier (class of 2023), Cooperstown Museum Studies Graduate Program, SUNY Oneonta, Research year: 2021.

Did you know that in addition to bringing jobs and money to Little Falls, the Barge Canal also brought two Viking longships to the town?

In 1982, the Hjemkomst sailed from the Great Lakes to Norway and stopped in Little Falls. The Hjemkomst was built by Robert Asp of Moorehead, Minnesota and sailed by his family. And in 2016, the draken Harald Harfagre sailed from Norway to the Great Lakes. The Harald Harfagre also travelled along the East Coast, so you may have encountered it in other places, such as Washington D.C.

 Little Falls has always been a location for crossing the Mohawk River. The first canal built at Little Falls was the Western Inland Navigation Canal and was completed in 1795. This was done using black powder explosives because dynamite had not been invented yet. This canal was used until the Erie Canal was extended to Little Falls after 1825. As ships grew more complex and started to be self-powered, the Barge Canal was constructed to replace the old Erie. The Barge Canal had the advantage of being a part of the Mohawk River as well as wider walls than the Erie Canal, allowing greater traffic to travel through.

You are standing at Lock 17 of the Barge Canal now. Look around you, at the cliffs behind you, at the river and the lock. Take a moment and listen, you might hear some birds or the river flowing. Imagine yourself being transported back to 1920. You’d hear the shouts of sailors and lock operators, the grinding of the gates, and the hustle and bustle of a canal town.

 Little Falls is located at a section of rapids and small waterfalls along the Mohawk river. Lock 17 was the highest lock in the world when it was built. Carefully look down, the river is 40.5ft away from you. Lock 17 is a special lock; it is a gate type instead of the usual miter lock. Canal locks function like stairs, allowing ships and barges to step up and down changes in height. Instead of having to take months to go around the city on land, the canal allowed goods to travel a much shorter distance to get to their destination.

Canal jobs brought people from all over to Little Falls, including many Italian immigrants. With prosperous trade flowing into the city, many new jobs were created and a lot of money came in. Many different kinds of goods were transported on the canal, from grain and flour to sand, gravel, or stone in the first half of the 1900s, to petroleum, liquid sugar, and other specialty liquids after 1950. But, as time went on, commercial traffic on the canal decreased, especially with the increased usage of long-haul trucking and railroads to transport goods.

The use of the canal changed as new ways to transport trade goods became available. Tourists started to use the canal as well. Vacationers would take yachts or canoes or even cruises along the entire canal. Moss Island, where you are standing now, is also popular with rock climbers. Even today, many people still vacation along the canal, look around and you might see someone boating on the canal!

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