Harvey E. Williams opened the first tin and hardware store in the village in 1827. His home, located in close proximity to the canal and the lift bridge (left rear of photo), was given by his descendants to the Fort Plain Library Association in 1909 as a permanent location for the library that had been chartered in 1894. Because of its history, the library has always taken a particular interest in the Old Erie Canal.
Artist’s rendering of Fort Plain with the Erie Canal at the heart of the town
In 1817, legislation was passed by the New York State Legislature authorizing the building of the Erie Canal as proposed by Governor DeWitt Clinton. The canal was completed in October of 1825.
In addition to opening up a way west for many adventurous settlers, the canal brought prosperity to the many settlements that grew up along its banks. Indeed, Fort Plain’s business district moved from its initial location on Sand Hill to its present downtown area in response to the commerce and industry generated by the canal.
The original canal was 363 miles long, 40 feet wide at the surface, 28 feet wide at the bottom, and was 4 feet deep. There were 83 locks on the original canal. By 1835, it was apparent that the canal was too small and, in 1835, work began to enlarge it. When completed in about twenty-five years, the canal was 13 miles shorter, 30 feet wider at the surface, 28 feet wider at the bottom, 3 feet deeper, and had 11 fewer locks. Lock 32, remnants of which remain on private State Street property, was located in Fort Plain.
Present day Route 5S and State Street are now located where this Erie Canal lock and towpath once stood
State Street’s Lock 32. A sizeable remnant of this lock remains and is presently privately owned and covered by a house and garage
Looking east down State Street from the bridge to the lock. The bridge at the background would have been located at what is now the main intersection in Fort Plain at Main and Canal Streets
Towpath along Lock 32. The towpath would have run parallel to what is now Route 5S
At first, boats were pulled by one mule or horse. As the size of the canal, then the boats, increased, teams increased to two or more. Adult drivers of the teams were paid $12.00 per month with children earning $10.00. They worked two six hour shifts per day. The driver and team changed about every 15 or 20 miles as a vessel traveled along the canal.
Canal boats were usually pulled by teams of two or three mules
A variety of boats traveled the canal. In addition to the passenger, cargo, and pleasure boats, ice breakers, dump scows, circus boats, penny museums, gospel boats or floating churches, book or library boats, and classroom dormitories used for scientific studies could also be found. Floating shops offering the services of tinkers, menders, and salesmen of potions and liniments were also in abundance.
Many families lived their entire lives on boats that traveled canal waters.
Canal boats were often homes to entire families
Towpath walkers or path masters patrolled a ten mile section of the towpath and berm each day. They carried a sack full of hay and manure to be used to plug any leaks that were found. In the village, the walls of the canal were made of stone so that leaks were not that much of a problem.
Rear view of stores on Canal Street. The rear of many of these same stores can be seen from the library’s River Street entrance
Canal boats lined up in back of stores on Canal Street
At the rear of the bakery and other stores on Canal Street. This scene would have been a block down from the present day library
Wooden occupation bridge built so that farmers could tend their fields on the other side of the Canal
Industry flourished along the banks of the canal
Canal boats along side the Fritcher Opera House. The Opera House was across from the Williams House which was later donated to the library association
A tremendous number of people provided goods and services to those working and traveling on the canal. At the canal stores, farmers brought hay, oats, and farm produce to be sold to canallers. Canallers purchased these products plus groceries, whiskey, salt mackerel, clothing, sewing supplies, and tools. The stores also supplied fresh water to refill the water barrels on the boats.
Fineour’s canal store. The actual building was disassembled and is at the NY State Museum