How the Erie Canal Shaped American History

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
In an effort to decrease the cost and labor of transporting goods, the concept of creating a canal through the state of New York was proposed in the 1780s. At the time, no railways existed in the country, and water was the most efficient means of travel. However, the idea for the canal was met with pushback. It was a monumental accomplishment for the American marketplace and one that reaped great benefits. Here, we’re delving into the history of the Erie Canal and examining how it shaped America.

 The Birth of an Idea

At the time it was built, the Erie Canal was the second largest canal in the world, surpassed only by the Grand Canal in China. Until this moment, the transport of goods in and out of the bustling New York City was difficult, to the point that it sometimes stifled for the economy. Reaching bodies of water that rested inland was only available by land travel which was neither cost effective not time efficient. After witnessing the success of the Canal du Midi in France, Bridgewater Canal in Britain, and the Eider Canal in Denmark, the possibility of slicing through land to allow a water flow for improved transportation was entirely feasible.

DeWitt Clinton, the governor of New York.In an initial effort to prove their case, advocates of the canal Governor Morris and Elkanah Watson tried to build a canal connecting Lake Ontario to the Mohawk River. However, their private funds soon ran out, and the two were forced to abandon the project. Next up, Christopher Colles presented the idea to the New York state legislature. He garnered interest from state leaders, but no action was taken. Jesse Hawley and Joseph Ellicott were the first advocates to witness any success. Realizing he could stand to profit from the land surrounding the canal, Ellicott helped Hawley in funding the construction project, and soon became the first canal commissioner.

Challenges to the Project

At first glance, the construction of a major waterway connecting the Hudson River to Lake Erie seemed doable. However, after further evaluation of the landscape, those in charge of the project realized this was not the case. From Hudson Valley to Lake Erie, the land rises 600 feet, and the technology of locks at the time only allowed for up to 12 feet. The canal would also have to cut through thick limestone and mountains. In total, the 360-mile canal would need 50 locks, and even with the most advanced technology of the time, the expense of such a project was hefty.
After being presented with this information, President Thomas Jefferson rejected the idea. However, determined as he was, Hawley went to New York Governor DeWitt Clinton, who received legislative approval for $7 million for construction, and Hawley went to work using the funds allotted.
The first 15 miles were constructed by year two of the project. The rate at which it was taking to make progress was not encouraging to those involved. If work progress continued at that pace, it would take almost 30 years to complete the canal. Trees collapsing into the line of work, and soil proving harder to remove then expected were the main delays. Knowing they couldn’t risk the continued delays, builders created innovative solutions to speed their progress. To remove fallen trees with ease, they used a newly-invented stump puller which used the torque of the machine to yank stumps from the ground. And by using oxen, horses, and mules to help remove the stubborn soil, workers made up for a mile of work per year.

An aerial view of Lockport, the city created by the Erie Canal.The land wasn’t the only challenge faced by workers. Most of those working on the canal were immigrants. Because of lingering xenophobia, these workers received harsh treatment from other canal workers. It wasn’t uncommon to hear of brawls between immigrant and American workers. When the project reached Montezuma Marsh, it was rumored that 1,000 workers died of malaria. Today, historians believe this number to be much lower, but the stories at the time were enough to halt work on the canal temporarily. Subsequently, when the workers tried to cross another section of swampland, it froze, thereby suspending the project yet again.
The workers met their final match just before reaching Lake Erie: the Niagara Escarpment, an 80-foot wall of thick limestone. The route proposed for the Erie Canal to follow a creek that cut through a ravine in the escarpment and opened to Buffalo Creek. The 10 locks needed to complete this section created a small town known today as Lockport.
On October 26, 1825, after years of challenges and hard work, the Erie Canal was complete. Celebratory cannons were fired along the Hudson, and on the canal’s banks from Buffalo to New York. To honor the achievement, Governor DeWitt Clinton sailed the stretch between Buffalo and New York on a 10-day trip. In the end, the Erie Canal was cut 40 feet wide and 4 feet deep, at cost a total of $7,143,000. 

The Canal’s Economic Impact

With the Erie Canal now up and running, costs of shipping goods from New York City inland decreased substantially. It made the city, as well as the state of New York, a hub for business and profit. Within the first year, the canal had paid for itself through tolls positioned along the route, and by 1837, the state’s initial loan for the construction was paid off. While the canal was originally purposed for commercial use, passenger boats soon began taking the route, offering their passengers ease of travel and the stunning views along the river.

The harbor where the Erie Canal joins to Lake Erie in Buffalo, NY.The canal was also used as the last section of the Underground Railroad, delivering runaway slaves to the U.S.-Canada border. With a newfound ease of travel to Buffalo, Niagara Falls became a popular tourist and honeymoon destination. Trade between Canada and the United States increased, as well as between the U.S. and Britain, when Britain’s Corn Law invited enormous exports of wheat from the American Midwest to the United Kingdom.

Today’s Erie Canal

 By the 1990s, commercial use of the canal was virtually extinct. Its primary use today is for recreational traffic. May through November the canal is open for this traffic, but it closes during the winter months, and is drained for routine fixes and maintenance. Today, the Erie Canal is 524 miles long and stretches from Lake Champlain to Buffalo. 75 percent of the population in Central and Western New York live within 25 miles of the canal.
For the parts of the canal that are no longer used, they are either owned by New York State or private parties. Some parts were covered to build roads while other sections, like just outside Rome, New York, have been preserved as the Old Erie Canal State Park, and is recognized as a National Historic Landmark.
Today, the Erie Canal is regarded as an impressive accomplishment for 19th century America. Its impact on the commerce of America’s internal and global trade established the region surrounding New York City as a leader in business. While the canal may see little commercial use today, visitors are still able to experience a trip along its waters to garner a sense of what working on the canal and transporting goods might have been like. Through all this, the Erie Canal made its mark as a transformative landmark in American history.
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