Discover the Secrets of the Erie Canal at the Erie Canal Museum

Located in Syracuse, NY, the Erie Canal Museum is housed in the Syracuse Weighlock Building. It’s hard to imagine it now, but the street in front of the museum — Erie Boulevard — used to be the canal. Instead of cars and trucks, imagine barges and canal boats.

The Syracuse Weighlock Building served the canal from 1850 to 1883 as a big scale to weigh the boats traveling on the canal to determine how much each boat would pay for a toll. The cool thing is that the building itself is the most significant artifact in the museum’s collection — in fact, the museum was founded in 1962 specifically to save the Syracuse Weighlock Building. And it’s good they did, because the Erie Canal Museum building is the only surviving weighlock from the Erie Canal.

When the weighlock was in operation, boats could pass from the canal right into the lock chamber in the Syracuse Weighlock Building. The lock would then drain let the water after a boat entered, allowing the full weight of the boat to rest on the scales. Based on the weight of the loaded boat (minus the weight of the empty boat listed in the “Empty Weight Certificate” that would be posted on the boat itself), the toll would be calculated.

During the canal’s operating season, the weighing of canal boats was a 24-7 operation, and was managed and supervised from the Weighmaster’s office, which is located adjacent the weigh chamber and remains set up as it would have been up until 1883. Probably one of the coolest parts of the museum, a full-size replica of a canal boat, the Frank Buchanan Thomson, rests within the weigh chamber; you can board it to learn more about life on a canal boat, what it was like to ride one as a passenger or work on one as part of the crew. It’s a good way to get a sense of the actual space on board a working canal boat.

As you enter the museum, you notice arrows directing your progress through the exhibits — although this was probably a pandemic-era construct, I liked having the arrows direct my path through the museum. The permanent, first-floor exhibit details the history and construction of the Canal, from earliest conception to the modern Barge Canal System. As you follow it through, the often-interactive exhibits explain some of the engineering behind the canal, how the route was chosen, major industries that rose from the canal and other history. The exhibit features many remarkable images and artifacts from the museum’s permanent collection and leaves you with a good understanding of the impact the canal on the state.

The Erie Canal stretches east–west through upstate New York, creating at the time of its building a navigable water route from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. Completed in 1825, it was the second-longest canal in the world and spurred the development and economy of many major cities of New York, including New York City, Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo and numerous smaller villages and towns as well as the United States as a whole.

 The canal also spurred a population surge in western New York and opened regions to settlement farther west. It was enlarged between 1834 and 1862. In 1918, the western part of the canal was enlarged to become part of the New York State Barge Canal.

The Erie Canal Museum has several murals, both inside and outside. They depict life on the Canal, Canal businesses, elevation changes along the Canal, and the operation of a lock.

The interactive exhibits appeal to older children or can be guided by accompanying adults for younger ones. There’re also exhibits geared toward younger children. This is a great little museum that helps explain the importance of the Erie Canal to the entire country, as well as to New York itself.

Know before you go: There are eight parking spots for Museum visitors located in the New York State parking lot under the highway overpass with entrances on North State Street and on James Street. The spots are labeled “Visitor Center Parking.” Parking is also available on-street surrounding the Museum and in nearby parking lots.

Getting there: 318 Erie Blvd E, Syracuse, NY
Hours: Open daily from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.; closed at 2 p.m. on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve; closed on New Year’s Day, Easter Sunday, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
Website: Erie Canal Museum