The Sixteens

One of the most impressive feats of engineering on the Erie Canal was the overcoming of elevation change from the Mohawk to the Hudson River and in particular around Cohoes Falls.  In order to achieve this, a series of locks were required.  Within decades of the canal opening, the canal Enlargement reduced the number of locks to accomplish this, to sixteen.  These locks were notoriously known as THE Sixteen, and they were the last long push to the Hudson for many boatmen at the end of a trick from the west.

   By the 1880’s, the reputation of The Sixteens was akin to the swashbuckling “Barbary Coast,” and had provided layers of scandal for boatmen, politicians, and public works officials for decades.  In the fall of 1883, Public Works Superintendent James Shanahan – namesake of today’s E12 Lock at Tribes Hill – bluntly refuted overall charges that the section of canal was wholly corrupt from the top down.   Being familiar with The Sixteens as former Eastern Section Superintendent, he was aware of procedural corruption by lock tenders, who – for a fee – would illegitimately draw down water from the higher levels to promote a flood push to move boats quicker from lock to lock.

   This was done “when a boat is lowered in a lock it…[could]…be sent ahead by a rush of water from the upper level, so that the towing team is enabled to walk off as briskly as if no stop had been made.  But in order to get this start the upper gates of the lock must be opened…the boat is given a ‘flood send-off’ as it passes out…[of the lock].”

   The Evening Post newspaper, printed in New York City, reported on October 16, 1883 that Shanahan “took measures when navigation opened to stop this practice…” He implanted “special agent[s]” so that within a few weeks the result was the firing of twenty-two locktenders for wasting water, favoring particular boats and/or pilfering cargo.

   The day before that article ran, a delegation of boatmen convened at Shanahan’s office to herald the condition and management of the canals.  One man, who had spent thirty years on New York’s canals, stated he had not known a better season on the Erie Canal than the one just drawing to an end.  “He had just arrived from Buffalo with a ‘double-header’ – two boats in concert,” and all season noted no lack of water or incidental interruption to travel and perceived no favoritism at locks by tenders.

   The Sixteens still carried a notoriety, if not for the dubious nature of tenders, boatmen and other canal workers on the waterway, but for the ill society it kept along its wake.  Efforts to design a new method of transiting the elevation would continue to be made by state engineers, and just over a decade after the Evening Post article, the Plattsburgh Daily Press printed a piece on the concept of a steel aqueduct to replace The Sixteens.  None of the sixteen locks had undergone lengthening improvements like forty other locks on the Erie had due to cost and inconvenience.  A trip from Buffalo to Albany averaged seven and a half days, with at least four hours of this total being consumed with passage through The Sixteens between west Troy and Cohoes. 

Plattsburgh Daily Press
November 21, 1894
   The State Engineer and his assistant proposed a scheme to construct a steel aqueduct that would allow several barges to be raised or lowered 140 feet in a single locking.  Further, the idea contemplated putting two of these massive turbine driven devices side by side; however,  as the 20th Century drew closer it became more obvious that the canal would be re-aligned and primarily placed within the Mohawk River in the eastern section.  A new plan and direction emerged and the flight of locks at Waterford that exist today were created in the second decade of the 1900’s.

   The massive locks that make up the Waterford Flight is the greatest change in elevation in the shortest distance of any canal in the world.  The notorious nature of The Sixteens was a direct result of the topography that had to be overcome by engineers for the Erie Canal to be a success.  Many of the locks that made up The Sixteens still exist in the Cohoes area, however most are not accessible to the public.  A few you can be seen while passing by, if you know what to look for.

***Update (March 6th, 2017)***

Hear more about The Sixteens on Bob Cudmore's The Historians Podcast with guest Michael Barrett


#MuseumMonday - let's take a look back on this program in collaboration with the Arkell Museum at Canajoharie from...

Posted by Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site on Monday, December 7, 2020