Long before railroads, interstate highways, or jets the Erie Canal opened the interior of North America and shaped the future of a young nation. It's legacy remains is an integral part of our nation's heritage.
Opening America The Erie Canal was North America’s most successful and influential public works project. Built between 1817 and 1825, this 363-mile-long canal was the first all-water link between the Atlantic Seaboard and Great Lakes.
New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton relentlessly promoted construction of the canal. Skeptics just as forcefully derided it as “Clinton’s Ditch,” but Clinton would be vindicated.
The canal advanced Euro-American settlement of the Northeast, Midwest, and Great Plains, sometimes at the expense of Native populations. It fostered national unity and economic power. It made New York the EmpireState and New York City the nation’s prime seaport and seat of world trade. An Engineering Marvel Originally four feet deep and 40 feet wide, the Erie Canal cut through fields, forests, rocky cliffs, and swamps; crossed rivers on aqueducts; and overcame hills with 83 lift locks. The project engineers and contractors had little experience building canals, so this massive project served as the nation’s first practical school of civil engineering.
Some laborers were Irish immigrants, but most were U.S.-born.For eight years of wet, heat, and cold, they felled trees and excavated, mostly by hand and animal power, mile after mile. They devised equipment to uproot trees and pull stumps and developed hydraulic cement that hardened under water. With hand drills and black powder they blasted rocks. Their ingenuity and labor made the Erie Canal the engineering and construction triumph of its day. Faster, Cheaper
Canal packet boat passengers traveled in relative comfort from Albany to Buffalo in five days—not two weeks in crowded stagecoaches. Freight rates fell 90 percent compared to shipping by ox-drawn wagon. Freight boats carried Midwestern produce from Buffalo to Albany. Most continued on to New York City’s seaport, towed down the Hudson River in fleets behind steam tugboats. Mid-western farmers, loggers, miners, and manufacturers found new access to lucrative far-flung markets. A Flow of People and Ideas The Erie Canal and a system of connecting waterways fulfilled DeWitt Clinton’s prophecy that New York would be America’s preeminent state, populated from border to border and generating wealth for itself and the nation. Soon New York City was the nation’s busiest port, most populous city, and foremost seat of commerce and finance. Immigrants knew they could find work there and in many new cities sprouting along the canal.
As it opened the American interior to settlement, the canal brought a flow of people and new ideas. Social reform movements like abolitionism and women’s suffrage, utopian communities, and various religious movements thrived in the canal corridor. The Erie Canal carried more westbound immigrants than any other trans-Appalachian canal. These newcomers infused the nation with different languages, customs, practices, and religions.
Continuing the Connection
Success quickly spurred expansion and enlargement of New York’s canal system to handle more and bigger boats. It triggered canal mania—a rash of canal building across the eastern United States and Canada in the mid-1800s, before railroads became the principal means of hauling freight and passengers. From 1905 to 1918 New YorkState built the BargeCanal system, a robust grandchild of the Erie, Champlain, Oswego, and Cayuga-Seneca canals.
The canal system remains in service today as the oldest continuously operating canal in the nation.
The Erie Canal built the Empire State. It secured New York City's position as the nation's busiest port, most populous city, and foremost seat of commerce and finance.