Surveying the Erie

Finding Level Through The Trees

The story of The Erie Canal becomes more interesting the more it's told.  Enjoy each of our Classroom Collection video clips, and don't forget to scroll down this page for more images and information!

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In canals, water always has to remain level
Early surveyor's transits like this one were used to lay out the course of the original Erie Canal across New York State.  Though cutting-edge for their day, these instruments were primitive by modern standards, and were prone to errors due to careless use and to rough handling (e.g. being carried on horseback).

Even without errors, the task of finding a level route for a canal in that day was a daunting one.  Transits were "line of sight" tools and New York State was a wilderness of trees then.  Survey teams consisted of a few men to survey, and a dozen or more axe-men to clear a path through the foliage ahead of them.  Their job was to not only find as level a route as possible, but also to make sure there was an adequate water supply that could flow down to the canal to supply its needs.  Their success is one of the great engineering feats in American History.
In canals, water always has to remain level

The Original Erie Canal had three high-spots.
Can you find them on this 1832 profile?

(larger images of both) The course the Erie took was usually a function of the ground level more than anything else.
Each of those three high-spots needed a source of water that was higher than they were.  There are no pumps in the Erie Canal today, and there were certainly none in 1825.  Finding those sources was one of the most important jobs of the early surveyors of the canal.
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