Following the Flow– Stop 1 Enlarged Erie Canal Lock 51

Locks are used in canals to allow boats to overcome changes in elevation in the landscape. Standing here near the parking lot and looking (north) toward the stonework, the land to the right (east) is higher than the land to the left (west). Lock 51 had a lift of 5.732 feet, which means that the canal to the east was 5.732 feet higher than the canal to the west. Each lock had its own amount of lift, depending upon the lay of the land. The highest lift on any Erie Canal lock was slightly over 11 feet. If the canal had to overcome more than 12 feet, locks would be paired together. There were 72 locks on the enlarged Erie Canal, which was 11 less the 83 on the first canal. This lock is the 51st lock from Albany. All the locks look very similar since they all had to do the same job of lifting the same boats. It would not make sense to have a lock larger or smaller then the other locks, since all the boats were built to a maximum size. Each lock chamber was 110 feet long and 18 feet wide. Each enlarged lock had two chambers, which was one of the improvements made over the first canal, which had only one chamber. So instead of having boats alternate passing through the lock, two boats could pass through at once. You will notice that the chamber closest to you is twice as long as the far chamber. This is called a lengthened chamber, and it was another improvement made later in the 1880-1890’s. Two boats could pass through at one time, and this was done during a time when steam-powered boats were pulling other non-powered boats, or horses were pulling two non-powered boats tied together. The sections of canal between locks are called levels. Lock 51 defines the western end of the Jordan level, which was also a summit level since it was a high point in the canal. (Syracuse to the east is lower than Jordan, as is Weedsport to the west. Jordan and Camillus sit on this small hill in the landscape, which the canal must climb over on its way to the west.) This lock was completed in 1853, but not put into use until 1858 because of the route change issues in Port Byron. (Note the dash-line route of Clinton’s Ditch on the map. East is top of page.) This meant

that boats heading west would be using the new canal up to this point and then they would use the old 1820’s canal until they reached lock 52 in Port Byron. This detour was necessary because of a route dispute in Port Byron. As was mentioned before, this boats passing through this lock stepped down as they headed west. This was not normal on the canal, where most locks stepped boats up as they headed west. This is because Lake Erie at Buffalo is 550 feet higher than the Hudson River at Albany. But because of the little high spot at Jordan, this lock and Lock 52 stepped boats down to the Seneca River level. Out of the 72 locks, only 5 (47,48,49,51 and 52) stepped down to the west. All the others overcame the 550 foot difference between Albany and Buffalo. Since the canal stepped down to the west, so did water from Skaneateles Lake fed into the canal at Jordan. As the canal was filled to its 7 foot capacity, excess water would flow west until it reached the lowest point at Montezuma. There the water mixed with water from the west and spilled out into the Seneca River. As water was removed from the canal, either by seepage, lockage or evaporation, replacement water from the lake would maintain the needed depth. The three large openings at the east end of the lock are part of the water regulating system. If the lock was used, water from the upper level was released into the lower level. But when the lock wasn’t being used, water in the canal could by-pass the lock by flowing into the openings and out to the lower end by way of a large tunnel. This tunnel can still be seen today.
In 1887, the lengthened chamber was added to the original 1853 stonework. You can notice the difference in the stonework between the two eras of lock construction. To save money, only one chamber was lengthened. A wooden platform and railing was built alongside the stonework to allow room for boaters and locktenders to walk and move around. All the wood has since rotted and disappeared, leaving the stone to tell the tale of the canal era.