Canal’s unique dams put into place (with photo gallery)

The catwalk on the Lock 10 dam vibrated Wednesday with the sound of chain links running through an e

The catwalk on the Lock 10 dam vibrated Wednesday with the sound of chain links running through an electronic winch as crew members from the state Canal Corp. gradually lowered the massive steel arms that help form a dam on the Mohawk River.

It takes more than a dozen crew members about a half day to complete the process called “watering up” at each of the rare movable dams, eight in all.

Once the steel uprights are lowered into the concrete shoes embedded in the river’s bottom, the same winch, called the “mule,” is used to lower steel sheets, called “pans.”

The pans, in sets of two, one above the other, are affixed to the uprights. Once the uprights are fitted into the shoes, the pans are lowered.

The lowest of the pans stay in place throughout the season; the upper pans can be raised and lowered — a process that takes place throughout the season depending on rainfall.

Built in the early 1900s, the movable dams make use of principles gleaned by engineers who visited Europe looking for ideas on how to turn the Mohawk River into a canal, Canal Corp. Albany Division Engineer Steve Sweeney said.

“These dams are unique,” Sweeney said.

Engineers looking for a dam they could raise completely out of the water in the winter got the idea for the “Mohawk Dams” from a dam system in Czechoslovakia, and there aren’t any others like them in the U.S., he said.

“I don’t think you’re going to find them anywhere else in the world, let alone in the country,” Sweeney said.

Other canal dams, such as on the Hudson River and Champlain Canal, are fixed.

Aside from having to fabricate a part once in a while, the Mohawk Dams are the same as they were when completed in about 1910, Sweeney said.

“That’s what’s incredible; this is a 1910-era design. It’s pretty phenomenal,” he said.

The electric-powered winch still sits on a trolley-like track on the dam, powered the way old trolley cars were in the early 20th century.

The Mohawk River was calm Wednesday, unlike two weeks ago when the Canal Corp. would typically start the watering-up process.

During high-water events, with 18 feet of river water pressing up against the dam and several feet of water crashing over it, the catwalks aren’t a pleasant place to be, Sweeney said.

“It’s a little intimidating,” he said.

The Canal Corp.’s new director, Brian Stratton, who was touring locks 10 and 11 Wednesday and watching the process, marveled at the various ways the canal system affects the state.

“What you see here is not just for navigation,” he said, noting that the water’s flow is used for hydroelectric power and as a drinking water supply.

The canal also affords residents with a view of a river system at near-constant levels throughout the summer, Stratton said.

High water due to snowmelt and rainfall stalled the system’s opening, but the Capital Region portion of the Erie Canal may be open as early as this Saturday, the Canal Corp. said.

The sections from Waterford west to Oneida Lake near Syracuse and between Lyons and the Genessee River in Rochester are expected to open this weekend.

Continued high water will likely stall the opening of the Champlain Canal, Oswego Canal, Cayuga-Seneca Canal and Erie Canal between Brewerton and Lyons until at least the week of May 23.

More information about the system, including the Notice to Mariners that updates boaters on opening dates, times and other details, can be found on the Internet at

Categories: Schenectady County

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