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Connecting with the War

Exhibit shows how canals influenced conflict between the Union and Confederacy

May 15, 2011
By RODNEY MINOR , The Leader Herald

FORT HUNTER - Some stones in the Schoharie Creek are all that remain of a dam built to help the Union win the Civil War.

Tricia Shaw, education coordinator at Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site, pointed out the stones in the creek Wednesday. Normally at this time of year, the stones are not visible because the creek's water level of the creek is higher.

However, with the New York State Canal Corp. not having opened the Erie Canal for the season yet, the stones are still visible, she said.

Article Photos

The Schoharie Creek is shown from the Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site in Fort Hunter on?Wednesday. The stones in the water are all that remain of a dam built in 1862 to help fortify the Erie Canal during the Civil?War. On the opposite shoreline, the logs near the creek are the remains of the dam that succeeded it, built in 1864.
The Leader-Herald/Rodney Minor

"It always makes me worry when I see Jet Skis out [on the creek] because they don't know about [the remains of] the structure in the water," Shaw said.

The dam is one of the topics mentioned in an exhibit at the center titled "Canals during the Civil War," which coincides with the commemoration this year of the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.

Shaw said the stone dam, built in 1862, was part of a series of improvements along the Erie Canal designed to aid the war effort against the Confederacy.

At the start of the war in 1861, Great Britain had a strong connection to the confederacy, she said. The British textile industry needed southern cotton to produce its wares.

Shaw said that concerned people in the Union, who understood there was a chance Great Britain could invade the North through Canada, which could include a strike at the Erie Canal.

To help protect the war effort from such a strike, Shaw said, a series of improvements were designed and made along the Erie Canal.

One of those was the 455-foot long, 8-foot high stone dam built on Schoharie Creek in 1862. The dam's purpose was to provide a sturdy means to raise the water level to keep the main section of the canal filled with water and working.

However, Shaw said, the dam was built rather hastily and fell apart after a couple years. A new, sturdier dam made of timber and stone was built in 1864. The logs that remain from that dam could actually be seen Wednesday on the shoreline opposite the visitor center.

Shaw noted Thursday with the Canal?Corp doing work locally to get the Erie Canal open for the season, much of the former dam will not be visible again until around November.

According to the state canal system website - - in 1825, Gov. Dewitt Clinton officially opened the Erie Canal. The effect of the canal was immediate.

"In 1829, there were 3,640 bushels of wheat transported down the Canal from Buffalo. By 1837, this figure had increased to 500,000 bushels; four years later it reached one million," the website said.

By 1840, New York City was home to the busiest port in the world. The port moved more than those in Boston, New Orleans and Baltimore combined.

Shaw said for many of towns and cities near or on the canal - including Amsterdam and Little Falls - the war had a tremendous effect in part because supplies were needed for the Union armies to campaign.

She noted in Fort Hunter, for example, there were businesses including a broom factory and a silk mill. While she does not know if any of the businesses had contracts with the Union government, they would have undoubtedly been affected by so many other businesses having money to spend courtesy of the Union.

New York state contributed 448,000 troops and $150 million to the Union's cause during the Civil War, not to mention untold tons of supplies, food, guns and munitions. More than 200 New York infantry, cavalry and artillery units served in nearly every campaign of the war, from Gettysburg to Vicksburg.

According to the exhibit, businesses near the local area that made supplies for the Union during the Civil War included Remington Arms in Illion. The business made thousands of muskets, revolvers, pistols and rifles.

Parts for the U.S.S. Monitor, which famously fought the C.S.S. Virginia in 1862 in the first battle between two ironclad ships, were built in the Capital Region. Troy-area industries produced cannons, wagons and mortar shells, the exhibit said.

Little Falls was the cheese capital of the United States at the time, the exhibit notes, and Utica supplied a great deal of woolen products - such as uniforms - for the war.

As the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor Commission website - - notes, " many historians believe that the Erie Canal had a major impact on the outcome of the American Civil War"

While the canal's transporting food and war supplies was important, it also had forged a connection between those in the Northeast with people in the Midwest. Residents of Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin generally supported the Union cause.

"If the Erie Canal had not been constructed, most of the commerce of the Midwest would have followed the Mississippi to and from New Orleans, and social, economic, and political sympathies might have taken a different form," the website said.

The other canals discussed in the exhibit are the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and Grant's Canal near Vicksburg, Miss.

The exhibit will be at the Schoharie Crossing Visitor Center through Oct. 29.

A traveling outreach program coinciding with the exhibit is available. The fee for the program is $30 for any adult group or $1 per student.

To make arrangements to schedule an outreach program, call?Shaw at 829-7516.

For more information, visit Schoharie Crossing's website at



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