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Following the Flow– Stop 4

Enlarged Erie Canal Lock 52

Lock 52 is the sister lock of Lock 51. Where Lock 51 defined the end of the Jordan summit level, this
lock defines the base of the downward elevation change between the high point at Jordan and the lower
Seneca River at Montezuma. Once a westward bound boat left the lock chamber, it would travel 16
miles, crossing the Seneca River and the Montezuma (Cayuga) marshes before it entered Lock 53 at
Clyde and begin again the climb toward Lake Erie.

Lock 52 is very similar to Lock 51, and all the other locks. It had two chambers and one was length-
ened in 1888. You can see the three large openings on the east end, just like at 51. The one difference
between Locks 51 and 52 is that 52 has twice the amount of change in elevation. Lock 52 had the 4th
highest lift on the Erie Canal system. Boats were lifted or lowered 11.298 feet. The lock is notable for
the many issues that the canal managers had to deal with. The first issue was water and since we are
“following the flow”, we need to stop and think about the use of water in the canal. The canal was an
artificial river, a man-made environment. So water had to be diverted from natural sources into the ca-
nal. On this section, a majority of the water came from Skaneateles Lake by way of the Skaneateles
Outlet. The water was let in at the high point and flowed downhill, maintaining the 7 foot depth needed
for navigation. Along the way, water was lost due to seepage through the canal banks or into the soil, by
evaporation, and by cycling the locks. Why is this a problem? Let’s look at a situation where two boats
are passing through Locks 51 and 52 at the exact same time. As the first boat passed through Lock 52,
it would use 162,914 gallons of water, and this water was removed from the level between Locks 51 and
52. As the second boat passed through Lock 51 at the same time, it used and released 84,893 gallons of
water into the 51 / 52 level, and this created a deficit of 78,000 gallons. If traffic was heavy, it is easy to
see that more water was being taken from the level then was being replaced. And boats on that level
would soon be running aground. The deficit was estimated to be 20,000,000 gallons of water a day. To
replace this water, more water was taken from Skaneateles Lake, which could completely drain the wa-
ter from the Skaneateles Outlet. Water from the Owasco Outlet, which passes under the canal at Port
Byron, was not taken until the mid 1860’s because of mill interests along the stream. Even when the
water was taken from both streams, it was not enough to keep the canal filled in dry weather.

Another issue that troubled the canal commissioners was the difficulty in getting boats into the lock.
Hopefully the diagrams on the next two pages help you understand the problems, but it is helpful to
understand that a majority of the freight on the canal traveled from west to east. The farmlands in the
mid-west were shipping grains and other bulk goods to the populated east coast cities. Boats would re-
turn light (empty) or with finished factory goods supplying the farmers and growing cities and towns in
the west. So fully loaded boats entering Locks 51 and 52 were entering with the water level at its low
level, increasing the difficulty of getting the boat into the chamber. In 1880, Lock 52 was the first lock
fitted with the water power capstans to help boats into the chambers. This is explained more on page 3.

This lock was brought into use in September of 1854, as was the enlarged canal between Port Byron
and Montezuma. The first canal was in such bad shape that it could no longer be used. But after leaving
the lock, boats headed east had to reenter the old canal until they reached just east of Lock 51. It was
not until 1858 that boats could make use of the new canal through the County.

Enlarged Lock 51 replaced Locks 60 and 61of the first canal. The original canal closely followed the
hill contour just to the south and sections of it can be seen winding through the flat lands between Port
Byron and Montezuma. The enlarged canal took a much straighter route to the west. The Thruway cut
through the canal and then covered much of the it. Parts of the enlarged canal can be seen by crossing
the Thruway and following Maiden Lane Road and Towpath Road. However this ends in a deadend.

2) Some of the water in the 3) Much of the displaced water can

Drawings originally appeared in the Winter 2010 Bottoming Out, the Journal of the Canal Society of New York State.

chamber can escape by passing escape the chamber by flowing over

under and around the boat. the top of the lock gates.
The post card views show all the wood walkways and buildings that were part of the lock.

1) As the boat enters the lock,, water

is displaced and pushed ahead.
Fully loaded boat headed downstream. (entering a full lock)
2) Water is pushed forward until
it hits sill wall. Water then
pushes back toward boat.
1) As the boat enters the lock, water is
displaced and pushed ahead.
3) All the displaced water has to flow out of the
chamber by passing under and around the boat.
Fully loaded boat headed upstream (entering a empty lock)
The drawing above shows a lengthened lock #52 and a double header entering the chamber. Excess wa-
ter in the upper level of the canal (left side of drawing, A1) has to flow through the openings at the head of the
lock, down into a large pit and through a culvert located in the middle island. The exiting water creates a current
(A2, A3) that makes control of the boat as it lines up for the chamber more difficult. Leakage around the lock
gates (B1) creates a small current (B2) that pushes against the boat as it enters the chamber. As the boat enters
the lock, the water in the chamber is pushed forward until it hits the end of the lock, which in turn pushes back
against the boat. For the boat to completely enter the lock, all the water it will displace has to leave the chamber
by flowing under and around the boats. The mule on the towpath has to try to pull the boats against this resis-
tance as the line lays over the island and stone walls.
A small water powered turbine was located at the head of the lock, using the flow of the excess canal wa-
ter to turn capstans (black dots near gates). A rope was fed back to the boat, replacing the towline. Mechanical
power then pulled the boat into the lock chamber. A newspaper account of 1886 described the process. “With
regard to the double lock, I think it is called No. 50, near Geddes, just west of the city of Syracuse, and which is
considered a model, I had the opportunity of visiting this lock immediately after the canal convention. This lock
has a turbine wheel run by the waste water, and by means of connecting lines boats are drawn in and out of the
lock. While there I saw what is called a “double header” or two boats fastened together, towed by horses, com-
ing west through the canal. They were loaded with about 100 tons of merchandise each, equal to about 200 tons
in all. I commenced to time them when the bow of the first boat entered the lock before the line from the tur-
bine wheel was put on, to the time when the stern of the last boat left the lock. Exactly eight minutes elapsed. In
the meantime the driver had taken his line and fastened it to the first boat and I observed that the boat continued
to move by the momentum she received in going through the lock.” (The Courier, Buffalo, NY Sept. 10, 1886)
The machinery was covered by a wooden shed structure to protect the lock workers and users from all
the turning gears and shafts. The long low white structure can be seen in the photograph of Lock 52, below.
Views taken from the towpath. Kern;s Store can be seen on the opposite side of the lock. The wooden walkway for the lengthened chamber can be seen.