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Building the Erie Canal

A Grand Idea and Years of Labor Transformed Early America

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The idea of building a canal from the east coast into the interior of North America had been proposed by George Washington, who actually attempted such a thing in the 1790s. And while Washington's canal was a failure, citizens of New York thought they might be able to construct a canal that would reach hundreds of miles westward.

It was a dream, and many people scoffed. But when one man, DeWitt Clinton, became involved, the crazy dream started to become a reality.

When the Erie Canal opened in 1825, it was the marvel of its age. And it was soon a huge economic success.

The Need for a Great Canal

In the late 1700s, the new American nation was faced with a problem. The original 13 states were arranged along the Atlantic coast, and there was a fear that other nations, such as Britain or France, would be able to claim much of the interior of North America. George Washington proposed a canal that would provide reliable transportation into the continent, thereby helping to unite frontier America with the settled states.

In the 1780s, Washington organized a company, the Patowmack Canal Company, that sought to build a canal following the Potomac River. The canal was built, yet it was limited in its function and never lived up to Washington's dream.

New Yorkers Took Up the Idea of a Canal

DeWitt Clinton
New York Public Library

During the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, prominent citizens of New York State pushed to have the federal government finance a canal that would proceed westward from the Hudson River. Jefferson turned down the idea, but determined New Yorkers decided they would proceed on their own.

This grand idea might never have come to fruition but for the efforts of a remarkable characters, DeWitt Clinton. Clinton, who had been involved in national politics — he had nearly beaten James Madison in the 1812 presidential election — was an energetic mayor of New York City.

Clinton promoted the idea of a great canal in New York State, and became the driving force in having it constructed.

1817: Work Began on "Clinton's Folly"

Excavation at Lockport
New York Public Library

The plans for building the canal were delayed by the War of 1812. But construction finally began on July 4, 1817. DeWitt Clinton had just been elected governor of New York, and his determination to build the canal became legendary.

There were many people who thought the canal was a foolish idea, and it was derided as "Clinton's Big Ditch" or "Clinton's Folly."

Most of the engineers involved in the elaborate project had no experience at all in building canals. The laborers were mostly newly arrived immigrants from Ireland, and most of the work would be done with picks and shovels. Steam machinery was not yet available, so workers used techniques which had been used for hundreds of years.

1825: The Dream Became Reality

Marriage of the Waters
New York Public Library

The canal was built in sections, so portions of it were opened for traffic before the entire length was declared finished on October 26, 1825.

To mark the occasion, DeWitt Clinton, who was still governor of New York, rode a canal boat from Buffalo, New York, in western New York, to Albany. Clinton's boat then proceeded down the Hudson to New York City.

A massive fleet of boats assembled in New York harbor, and as the city celebrated, Clinton took a cask of water from Lake Erie and poured it into the Atlantic Ocean. The event was lauded as "The Marriage of the Waters."

The Erie Canal soon began to change everything in America. It was the superhighway of its day, and made vast amounts of commerce possible.

The Empire State

Lockport Locks
New York Public Library

The canal's success was responsible for New York's new nickname: "The Empire State."

The statistics of the Erie Canal were impressive:

  • 363 miles in length, from Albany on the Hudson River to Buffalo on Lake Erie
  • 40 feet wide, and four feet deep
  • Lake Erie is 571 feet higher than the level of the Hudson River; locks were built to overcome that difference.
  • The canal cost about $7 million, but collecting tolls meant it paid for itself within a decade.

Boats on the canal were pulled by horses on a towpath, though steam-powered boats eventually became standard. The canal did not incorporate any natural lakes or rivers into its design, so it is entirely contained.

The Erie Canal Changed America

View on the Erie Canal
New York Public Library

The Erie Canal was a huge and immediate success as a transportation artery. Goods from the west could be taken across the Great Lakes to Buffalo, then on the canal to Albany and New York City, and conceivably even to Europe.

Travel also proceeded westward for goods and products as well as passengers. Many Americans who wanted to settle on the frontier used the canal as a highway westward.

And many towns and cities sprang up along the canal, including Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo. According to the State of New York, 80 percent of the population of upstate New York still lives within 25 miles of the route of the Erie Canal.

The Legend of the Erie Canal

Travelling on the Erie Canal
New York Public Library

The Erie Canal was the marvel of the age, and it was celebrated in songs, illustrations, paintings, and popular folklore.

The canal was enlarged in the mid-1800s, and it continued to be used for freight transportation for decades. Eventually railroads and highways superseded the canal.

Today the canal is generally used as a recreational waterway, and the State of New York is actively engaged in promoting the Erie Canal as a tourist destination.

Acknowledgments: Gratitude is extended to the Digital Collections of the New York Public Library for use of the historic images on this page.

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