When he learned that the canal was to cross Western New York far to the north, Joseph Ellicott sent his best surveyor to find a route that was more to the advantage of his employer, the Holland Land Company. He knew that land values would rise on both sides of the canal, and a more southern route would affect the pricing of a greater area than the route originally proposed.
Ellicott’s proposed route was rejected, and the reason can be seen on this map showing the levels of the terrain in Western New York. Lake Erie is 570 feet above sea level. Because Ellicott’s canal would have been higher than that, Lake Erie’s water could never flow into it. There are no pumps in the modern Barge Canal today, and there were certainly none in the Original “Clinton’s Ditch” in 1825. The challenges of digging the canal northward to Lockport were great, but in the end it proved to be the only possible choice (see also “Lockport’s Deep Cut“).
Here’s what we mean when we say “challenges”. The sides of that trench are solid rock. That rock had to be cut without dynamite or hard carbon steel tools like those we have today. This route still made sense because once they made it to Lockport, the flow from Lake Erie was enough to satisfy the needs of the entire western section all the way to the Genesee River at Rochester. Ellicott’s southern route depended on those tiny creeks that you see northeast of Buffalo in that map – many of which go nearly dry during dry summers.