“Low bridge, everybody down”

by Dave Weller

In April 2006, Bruce Springsteen released We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, a collection of songs popularized by the folk artist Pete Seeger. My favorite song on the album is Erie Canal. Erie Canal is one of those songs that I, and a lot of kids, grew up singing. But, I never really listened to the words or appreciated what the song was about until it connected with my family history.

The Erie Canal is in the state of New York, and runs from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. It effectively connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Great Lakes. While proposals for a canal date way back to 1699, the first portion did not open until 1819. On October 26, 1825, the entire canal was completed.

In all, it was 363 miles long, 40 feet wide and 4 feet deep. There were 83 locks along the canal. Each was 90 feet by 15 feet. A ten foot wide towpath was built along the bank of the canal for horses, mules, and oxen led by a boy boat driver or “hoggee“. In the Canal’s heyday, vessels were pulled by these animals, plodding along this parallel path.

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The canal was enlarged between 1836 and 1862 to widen and deepen it. Passenger traffic on the canal waned with the advent of the railroad, and in 1918, The Erie Canal was replace by the larger New York State Barge Canal.

The impact the Erie Canal had on the settlement of this country cannot be overestimated. It made boom towns out of Buffalo, Rochester and other New York cities. It proved to be the key that unlocked an enormous series of social and economic changes in this young nation. The Canal spurred the first great westward movement of American settlers, giving access to the rich land and resources west of the Appalachians.

Thousands of immigrants arriving in New York City steamed up the Hudson River and took the Canal west. My own ancestors used the Canal to move westward, eventually settling in Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.

“Low bridge, everybody down
Low bridge, yeah we’re coming to a town
And you’ll always know your neighbor
And you’ll always know your pal
If ya ever navigated on the Erie Canal”

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