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Barge Canal

New York State’s famous Barge Canal played an interesting role in the barging of oil and in military history. According to McFee (1998), petroleum barges on the canal became more common than grain barges in the 1940’s. In the early part of WW II German submarines were active along the Atlantic coast and caused the Gulf Coast oil (bound for the East Coast) to be rerouted to protected routes. This brought in the Hudson River and the Barge Canal whose oil traffic climbed to a peak of 168,000 barrels daily during the periods of intense submarine activity (McFee, 1998). The Barge and the Champlain Canals also served the U.S. Air Force Base at Plattsburgh and the Griffiss Air Force Base.

By 1948, much of New York State depended on barge traffic to deliver heating oil and kerosene.

The principal cargos in the Barge (and this more or less resembled that of some other U.S. canals) were oil (refined), grains, molasses, scrap iron, fertilizer, etc. Oil accounted for the greatest traffic. Some oil companies had their own barges (Mobil, Sunoco, Socony, other Standard companies) and some transportation companies had their own fleets leased to various oil companies.

Two giant oil barges, the “Albany Sears” and the “Syracuse Sears” appeared on the canal in 1961. They were 230 feet long and 42 feet wide and had 12 compartments (McFee, 1998). Each could carry 19,500 barrels, and they made 35 to 40 round trips per shipping season. They nearly filled the canal. What a sight!

The Barge Canal started with the shallow Erie Canal which was completed in 1825 and then evolved via a series of enormous projects into the Erie Barge Canal or just Barge for short. The era of the oil barges and most other commercial hauls is gone and traffic now consists of pleasure craft. In 1994 the author, on a geological field trip, “cruised” a portion of the Erie-Barge canal southeast of Rochester in a tour boat.

Reminding one of the artifacts in the abandoned Appalachian shallow oil fields, remains of some of the pipes to unload barge oil to tanks (and some of the tanks themselves) still are to be seen here and there along the Barge Canal banks (McFee, 1998). These tanks provided storage to handle local fuel needs during the winter when the canal couldn’t operate.

In 1956 the Canal Society of New York State was founded in Buffalo by a number of individuals strongly interested in the barge canal and its monumental construction. The interest broadened to include canal sites elsewhere in the U.S., Canada and Europe. The web address of the Society is www.canalsnys.org.

© 2004, Samuel T. Pees
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