During the early history of the United States, the paucity of transportation canals stifled commercial development because farmers only had poor roads over which to move their produce to cities. During the 1820’s and 1830’s, often called the “Canal Age,” the construction of several major canals significantly improved transportation while simultaneously unifying the young country. The backbreaking work of digging these canals was done mostly by Irish and German immigrants. Their work was grueling, poorly paid, and dangerous, resulting in many deaths from accidents and diseases. These immigrants later settled in towns and cities along the canals, while others traveled on the canals to seek their fortune in the American West.
Although scholars have traditionally associated American canal construction with the third and fourth decades of the nineteenth century, several canals were built earlier.
During the Canal Age, the building of canals became massive enterprises, often involving extensive excavations through hundreds of miles of wilderness, large labor forces, and gigantic investments. Scholars have estimated that about 35,000 men participated in these projects, and many of the workers were drawn from a growing pool of immigrant labor. The U.S. Census of 1820 reported that more than 8,000 immigrants had entered the country that year. By 1830, that figure had nearly tripled, and by 1840 it had more than tripled again, to more than 84,000 immigrants. In 1848, 226,000 foreigners, mainly Irish, German, and English, had traveled to the United States seeking jobs, while fleeing political unrest and famine in Europe. A significant proportion of these found employment in mammoth construction projects, the prime example of which was the
Bernstein, Peter L. Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. Engagingly written history of the Erie Canal that considers it in the broad context of nineteenth century American history and demonstrates its impact on national development. Goodrich, Carter. Government Promotion of Canals and Railroads, 1800-1890. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960. A study of federal, state, and local government aid and encouragement of internal improvements, including an enlightening analysis of state efforts. Hecht, Roger W., ed. The Erie Canal Reader, 1790-1950. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2003. Collection of fiction, poetry, essays, and other works about the Erie Canal written over the course of its history. Meyer, Balthaser H. History of Transportation in the United States Before 1860. Reprint. Washington, D.C.: Peter Smith, 1948. Reference work containing facts and information regarding all the major early road, canal, and railroad developments in the nation. Shaw, Ronald E. Erie Water West: A History of the Erie Canal, 1792-1854. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1966. A complete history of the canal from its conception to completion, and its first twenty-nine years of operation. Way, Peter. Common Labour: Workers and the Digging of North American Canals, 1780-1860. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Comprehensive study of canal construction through the mid-nineteenth century.
History of immigration, 1783-1891
New York State