Lock 19: Historical Erie Canal

Lock 19: Historical Erie Canal

Town of Clifton Park, NY
At the Vischer Ferry Nature and Historic Preserve‘s main entrance, by the Whipple Truss Bridge, there’s a map of the park. It shows trails along the Old Erie Canal and the Mohawk River to historical sites including Clute’s Dry Dock, Fort’s Ferry, Vischer Ferry Crossing, the Whipple Truss Bridge, and Old Lock 19.

November 2014: Nathan and I hiked west on the Towpath Trail beginning at the Whipple Truss Bridge. Lock 19 wasn’t really the goal, although I did want to make it there if it wasn’t too far. I was trying to become more physically active and had a set amount of miles I was willing to walk that day. We were about a mile in when we turned around. Since neither of us had been there before, we didn’t know how much farther the lock actually was…

March 2015: I finally made it to Lock 19! I visited the canal lock twice in the same week to fully explore. As usual, after seeing it once, I had questions. While absorbing information about New York State and United States History I learned about a different entrance to get to Lock 19. Naturally, I had to go back. I came upon the old canal lock from a different angle and was able to notice things about the structure that I didn’t see the first time. My second visit only intensified my need to know more about the Erie Canal.

April 2015: The snow is gone! I had to go out and see the lock without snow. I also thought I could get better pictures of anything I didn’t notice the first couple times I’d been out there. Especially since I had been exhaustively researching Lock 19 and the Old Erie Canal. I will admit I was looking for remains of old metal work that wouldn’t have been visible with the snow cover. bolts. nails. something left behind that would have held the wooden parts to the masonry.

Lock 19, looking east.
Here you can see the lengthened north chamber as well as the south chamber.

“The original Erie Canal locks were 90 feet long and 15 feet wide, and were designed for a canal boat 61 feet long and 7 feet wide, with a 3 1/2 foot draft.

In order to keep pace with the increasing traffic on the canal, it was enlarged between 1836 and 1862, and the size of the locks was increased to 110 feet long and 18 feet wide. The enlargement included the doubling of the locks — two parallel chambers — enabling traffic to proceed in both directions at the same time.

In 1884, it was decided to begin lengthening locks, extending one chamber to double length, allowing passage for “double-headers” — two boats hooked together — without the time-consuming necessity for uncoupling.” The Erie Canal

After learning the basics of how canal locks work, I became obsessed with learning exactly how they worked, all the moving parts… and non-moving parts.

What exactly is a lock?
A lock is a device used for raising and lowering boats, ships and other watercraft between stretches of water of different levels on river and canal waterways. The distinguishing feature of a lock is a fixed chamber in which the water level can be varied.

Locks are used to make a river more easily navigable, or to allow a canal to take a reasonably direct line across land that is not level.

Chamber – a watertight enclosure which can be sealed at both ends by means of gates.

Looking east, the lengthened north chamber. Here you can see an indentation in the masonry where gates would have been. March 26, 2015

The lengthened northern chamber. A closer look at where a gate once was, I noticed three large metal bolts. April 10, 2015

Gates – the watertight doors which seal off the chamber. Miter gates are the most common and were once made out of oak or elm. When closed, a pair of miter gates meet at an angle like a chevron pointing upstream and only a very small difference in water-level is necessary to squeeze the closed gates securely together. This reduces any leaks from between them and prevents their being opened until water levels have equalized.

Sill – a narrow horizontal ledge protruding a short way into the chamber from below the upper gates.

Here you can see the sill of the south chamber. Photo taken from the foot bridge looking west. You can see the indentations in the masonry where the upper gates once were. March 26, 2015


A different angle of the south chamber’s sill. April 10, 2015

Wicket – the simple valve by which the lock chamber is filled or emptied. The wicket itself is a sliding wooden panel which when lifted out of the way allows water to either enter the chamber from the upper level or flow out to the lower level.

My best guess is these holes were once covered by wickets to control the level of water within the lock’s chambers. The holes could possibly be referred to as an internal sluiceway or culvert? I honestly don’t know. March 31, 2015


Looking north across the upper level of the south chamber. There are many things in this picture that I’m still curious about. April 10, 2015

Windlass –  is a detachable crank used for opening lock wickets. The simplest windlass is made from an iron rod of circular section, about half an inch in diameter and two feet long, bent to make an L-shape with legs of slightly different length. The shorter leg is called the handle, and the longer leg is called the arm. Welded to the end of the arm is a square, sometimes tapered, socket of the correct size to fit onto the spindle protruding from lock winding gear.

Looking across the south chamber I noticed a piece of metal which appears to be a windlass. At least that’s my best guess. April 10, 2015


I noticed at the end of the lengthened chamber another long piece of metal rising up out of the masonry. Perhaps a second windlass? April 10, 2015

To be perfectly honest, I find definitions without pictures to be vague. I may be wrong in my assumptions, but I think I’ve got to be close.

Getting there…
Lock 19 on the Historical Erie Canal can be reached easily from two different parking areas. The most direct trails to the old canal lock are:
– Begin at the Whipple Truss Bridge and follow the Towpath Trail west. It’s approximately 3 miles to the lock and back.
– Begin at the end of Ferry Drive and follow the Towpath Trail east. It’s approximately 1.75 miles to the lock and back.
… and of course, if you start at the Whipple Truss Bridge you can easily mix up different trails around the Vischer Ferry Preserve to lengthen your hike.

The first time I hiked to Lock 19, I started at the Whipple Truss Bridge. I did a loop hike that was approximately 3.75 miles, with Lock 19 being my reward for the mud, the ice, and the rain I hiked through. The rain was the type where it was warmer than the air, promising spring would be arriving soon. I didn’t really know where I was heading, only that there is a trail there when snow and ice aren’t covering the land in the never-ending cold of March. Some thawing had happened, but only enough to make everything slippery. ice. mud. difficult.

I started like I usually do, straight over the bridge and towards Fort’s Ferry. Normally I turn east at the Fort’s Ferry historical marker, but this time I went west. I got a little lost. Since I had never been that way before I wasn’t sure which path I should go down. My first choice was wrong because it just kind of ended by the Mohawk River. I followed a path that went northwest through the Preserve until I entered a strange copse of spruce trees. out of place. I walked through the circle of trees, ended up on the Towpath Trail, and headed west towards Lock 19. After running all around the lock I traveled east on the Towpath Trail until I was back at the Bridge. I saw a red tailed hawk, three white tailed deer, and a bald eagle. I feel honored to see such beauty. I try to breathe it in as long as I can.

there’s always the hope…
when you glimpse something so…
and wild,
you’ll see their beauty once more
if you just wait…
a little while

An odd copse of spruce trees. March 26, 2015


Coming upon the lower level of Lock 19, downstream looking west. March 26, 2015


The southern wall of the lengthened chamber, downstream looking east. March 26, 2015
After my first visit, I learned that Lock 19 was all but forgotten until a few years ago. In 2012, the Town of Clifton Park’s community got together and cleaned it up. Some local businesses contributed to supplies. Engineers mentored local high school students in designing and constructing a footbridge. The new bridge has made the center of the double lock accessible for the first time in many years.
New Footbridge. Built in 2012. March 26, 2015

The second time I hiked to Lock 19, I started at Vischer Ferry Crossing at the end of Ferry Drive in Rexford, NY. I just headed east on the Towpath Trail until I came upon Lock 19. This hike was not nearly as exciting as my first exploration of the lock. In fact, it was almost boring. I knew it was going to be a relatively short hike and checking out the lock again was reason enough for me to endure. the lack of birds chirping. the dampness in the air of a spring thaw. The day was on the warmer side making it a bit muggy, magnifying the lack of water once I had left the shores of the Mohawk River. This particular part of the old canal is dry… and since winter outlasted its welcome, all the barren trees still slept. At just under 2 miles, this hike was on the easy side. Even with the path being either ice or mud.

The majority of the Towpath Trail looked like this. On the left is the old Erie Canal. 
overgrown. empty. March 31, 2015


Approaching Lock 19, you can see the masonry of the north wall of the old canal. Upstream looking north from the Towpath Trail. March 31, 2015
This is where the canal met the north chamber of Lock 19. This is where the upper level gates would have been. In this photo you can see the sill and the gate indentation. March 31, 2015

The third time I hiked to Lock 19, I started at the Whipple Truss Bridge. As soon as I crossed the bridge, I turned west and followed the Towpath Trail straight to Lock 19. I recommended this way if you want to see the old canal lock. It’s fairly easy since there isn’t a noticeable elevation gain. 3 miles round trip. Lots of chances to see birds like geese, ducks, herons, hawks, chickadees, red-winged blackbirds, blue jays, and many others that I can’t identify. You can see beaver lodges and muskrat push-ups. You may even see a beaver and there’s a high chance of a muskrat or two. It rained, but it was a refreshing April rain. Lively birds, so noisy in the rain. I love to just stand in the rain and listen when I am at the lock. It really does seem like the world forgets it’s there. I enjoy its solitude.

Same vantage point as one of the only two photos I could find of Lock 19. April 10, 2015


After the snow melted I was able to find this strip of land to get a different view point. Downstream of the south chamber. April 10, 2015
The wall of the lengthened north chamber. April 10, 2015


My fourth trip to Lock 19, was to see the actual distance I traveled and the amount of time it took me to go from the Whipple Truss Bridge to Lock 19 and back. I often get distracted by nature. Sometimes I lose an hour just observing, feeling, listening. This day was no different. Instead of geese, herons, and muskrats (although I saw them too), I saw a snake and turtles. So many turtles! I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many turtles in my entire life. Big ones, little ones, angry ones. A little one was on the trail so I had to get a closer look. I’m not sure what the turtle was up to, but when I took its picture it sounded like it was hissing… or panting… it was strange.

Turtle on the trail. April 14, 2015

I continued on my way. Another strange thing that I heard I’m giving credit to all those turtles. I had never heard it before.

a drumming
a million drummers
with chaotic rhythm
stretching across the wetland grasses

At first I thought the strange sound was coming from the geese. They are loud-mouthed and seem to be particular about their space.
Then I thought it could very well be frogs. I’ve noticed since the weather has warmed up, frogs are singing in their mucky waters. But frogs sing or chirp, they don’t knock or grunt. It had to be the turtles.

Downstream from Lock 19. Looking north from the Towpath Trail. April 14, 2015


South wall of the lengthened chamber. Looking north from the Towpath Trail. April 14, 2015


Looking east, lower level gate indentations in the south chamber. View from the footbridge.
April 14, 2015


I love to see winter melt into spring throughout my lock comparison photos. Even the sky looks different in April. If you made it this far and have the time, feel free to check out the following links for more photos I have taken. And be sure to scroll just a little farther and take a look at the old photos of Lock 19.
The following photos are the only photos I could find of Lock 19 while it was in use. I am happy they exist. They help answer some of my questions and back up some conclusions I had drawn. I had really hoped I’d find something great. The building of the Erie Canal is well documented so I thought I’d find heaps of old pictures. I neglected to realize that when the canal was being built photos didn’t exist. Well documented yes, but they were sketches of plans on how to build and enlarge. The earliest photo I could find of the Erie Canal in the New York State Archives was 1895.
This vantage point is looking west, lower level, with a boat exiting the south chamber. I love this photo because it shows so much. The right side of the picture shows what the metal bolts were holding up along the south wall of the lengthened north chamber.
This photo is on a information kiosk at the Whipple Truss Bridge. This vantage point is from the upper level, looking east. The south chamber is full with its gates open.
Written next to this photo, “Lock 19, Erie Canal, Vischer Ferry, c. 1900, looking east.
The gates are open and ready for a boat to enter. Once a boat entered the lock, the gates were closed and water was pumped out of the lock until the lower level was reached, then the lower gates were opened. In 1853, 175 boats per day passed through this lock.”