It was also a conduit for ideas. Several of the 19th century’s most influential social reform movements started or flourished along New York’s canal system, particularly in the central and western portions of the state.
The general prosperity and the cosmopolitan nature of the Erie Canal corridor-- which was experiencing dramatic growth and witnessing a flow of people from all over the Atlantic world-- created a climate where social innovation and questioning of the established order could flourish.
Many upstate residents pushed for the abolition of slavery. Frederick Douglass lived and published for a time in Rochester as did Harriet Tubman, before she moved to Auburn. The canal towpath served as one of the routes of the “Underground Railroad,” used by escaped slaves attempting to reach sanctuary in Canada.
The women’s rights movement traces its roots to Rochester and Seneca Falls. In 1848 a handful of women convened the First Women’s Rights convention in Seneca Falls, demanding full and equal rights with men. They drafted the Declaration of Sentiments, denouncing inequities in property rights, education, employment, religion, marriage and family, and suffrage. The Declaration was signed by 100 women and men, and the women’s rights movement was born.
Religious revivalism swept the Erie Canal corridor with such intensity during the “Second Great Awakening” of the 1820s and ‘30s that western New York came to be called the “Burned Over District.” Evangelical sects, millenialists, and new religious groups such as the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) and Seventh Day Adventists were started in canal communities and spread their message along the waterway. Perfectionist groups like the Oneida Community flourished near the canal.