Erie Canal Opens Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

By providing an economical transportation route between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic coast, the Erie Canal advanced the economic development of the Old Northwest, solidified New York City’s place as the center of American commerce, and inspired other states to build their own canal systems.

Summary of Event

During the antebellum period, coastal cities in the United States engaged in strenuous competitions for the commercial wealth of the expanding West. Before progress could be made in weaving the sections together into a single economic unit, difficulties had to be overcome concerning the accessibility of markets. For example, in 1815, the Old Northwest was without convenient access to the markets of the East Coast. Farmers and merchants were forced to send their products to market by way of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans and from there to the East Coast. Farmers in the area of Pittsburgh found it cheaper to ship their goods over that long, circuitous route than to send them overland to Philadelphia or New York, even though that was a far shorter distance. Although the federal government had completed the National Road National Road (U.S.) from Cumberland, Maryland, to Wheeling, Virginia, in 1817 it was still uneconomical to ship bulky farm produce over that route. Erie Canal Canals;Erie Canal Great Lakes region;and Erie Canal[Erie Canal] New York State;Erie Canal [kw]Erie Canal Opens (Oct. 26, 1825) [kw]Canal Opens, Erie (Oct. 26, 1825) [kw]Opens, Erie Canal (Oct. 26, 1825) Erie Canal Canals;Erie Canal Great Lakes region;and Erie Canal[Erie Canal] New York State;Erie Canal [g]United States;Oct. 26, 1825: Erie Canal Opens[1340] [c]Transportation;Oct. 26, 1825: Erie Canal Opens[1340] [c]Trade and commerce;Oct. 26, 1825: Erie Canal Opens[1340] [c]Engineering;Oct. 26, 1825: Erie Canal Opens[1340]

Governor DeWitt Clinton and other dignitaries riding the first passenger boat on the Erie Canal.

(Library of Congress)

Construction on the canal begn in 1817, with different sections of the canal assigned to different contractors. The canal took eight years to complete and was considered the construction marvel of its day. Indeed, some people considered it the eighth wonder of the world. However, it was built without the aid of a single professional engineer. Most of the canal was excavated by hand, with the help of horse-, Horses;and canals[Canals] oxen-, and mule-powered scrapers. Malaria Malaria;and Erie Canal[Erie Canal] and dysentery plagued the workers, most of whom were recent immigrants. In 1825, when the canal opened its waterway, it was 4 feet (1.2 meters) deep, had eighteen aqueducts and eighty-three locks, and rose to an elevation of 568 feet (173 meters) between the Hudson River Hudson River;and Erie Canal[Erie Canal] and Lake Erie. Construction costs were more than seven million dollars, but within a few years, the revenue from tolls brought more than one million dollars each year into the state coffers.

On October 26, 1825, the canal officially opened when the canal barge Seneca Chief left Buffalo with New York governor DeWitt Clinton Clinton, DeWitt and other dignitaries for the first trip down the canal. As the barge left Buffalo, cannoneers stationed along the way fired relay shots to notify people in New York that the canal was open. Stopping at most towns along the canal made the first journey a slow one, but on November 4 Clinton stood on the front of his barge and poured a keg of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic, celebrating “the wedding of waters.”

The Erie Canal

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The canal’s opening reduced the cost of shipping freight from northwestern New York to the coast from one hundred dollars per ton to only six dollars per ton. During the first decade of its operation, the Erie Canal played a large part in the development of the south shore of Lake Erie. Areas in the northwestern part of New York, now provided with access to markets in New York City, increased in population and productivity. The canal added an all-water route to the northern portions of the Old Northwest and accelerated the growth of that region, which encompassed the area around the Great Lakes and between the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The resulting growth in population caused an expansion of production to meet the needs of the new immigrants. They, in turn, were able to increase the amount of farm produce available to the East. Their presence also augmented the demand for the importation of eastern manufactured goods.

Perhaps the most important consequence of Clinton’s Wonder, as the canal soon came to be known, was the stimulus it gave to other regions, in both the East and the West, to emulate the success of New York by building canals of their own. During the 1830’s, Ohio Ohio;canals started building canals, Canals;midwestern and Indiana and Illinois followed later. All three states used canals to link their interior regions to the Great Lakes-Erie Canal system. Ohio’s canals connected Cincinnati with Toledo and Cleveland. In Indiana, Indiana;canals the Wabash and Erie Canal connected Toledo and Terre Haute, while in Illinois, Illinois;canals the Illinois and Michigan Canal connected Chicago with the lush lands along the Illinois River. As a consequence of the opening of these waterways, interior arms were opened up and production rose, for farmers now had new routes on which to send their produce to markets. Construction of the canals also caused many American Indian tribes to be removed to reservations west of the Mississippi River.

The effects of the Erie Canal in the East were equally momentous. The canal solidified the position of New York City as the greatest emporium in the nation. Other eastern cities, such as Philadelphia Philadelphia;trade and Baltimore, Baltimore;trade could not afford to sit still while New York monopolized the western trade. If they were to survive as commercial centers, they had to develop their own connections with the West. Pennsylvania began building a system of canals and waterways between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and followed it with the Pennsylvania Railroad. Baltimore undertook two major improvements: construction of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Chesapeake and Ohio Canal . Farther north, Boston Boston;canal constructed a canal across to Albany, hoping to intercept some of the western trade.

This vigorous and deadly competition in the East was not without effects on the established Mississippi River Mississippi River;and canals[Canals] system. Cities functioning as parts of the lake system competed not only with one another but also with cities that formed part of the river system. For example, Toledo and Cleveland engaged in commercial warfare with Cincinnati and Louisville; St. Louis St. Louis, Missouri[Saint Louis, Missouri];trade of , especially in the 1850’s, felt the impact of the Illinois and Michigan Canal in its struggle with Chicago. Downstream, New Orleans was sensitive to any events that impinged on the trade of St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Louisville.

Expanding railroads added a new dimension to the struggle, and their development overlapped and went beyond the era of the great canals. By the 1850’s, the competition initiated by the construction of the Erie Canal had entered a new phase. A struggle involving three transportation systems and a host of cities and towns had evolved. Cities that had pinned their hopes on the canals were bypassed by the railroad. Cities bid against one another, mortgaging their futures for the privilege of becoming rail hubs. Smaller towns with exalted visions of their economic potential rose and then fell, succumbing to the economic power of more dynamic and luckier competitors.

Significance

The first major effort to open an economic commercial connection between the West and East occurred with the construction of New York’s Erie Canal. The 363-mile-long canal connected Albany on the Hudson River Hudson River;and Erie Canal[Erie Canal] with Buffalo on Lake Erie. Skeptics at first called the canal “Clinton’s Ditch” after its most consistent advocate, New York governor DeWitt Clinton Clinton, DeWitt . However, after the canal opened, skepticism quickly evaporated, as the canal had a direct and cumulative effect on the nation in general and the Northwest in particular.

To keep up with competition from other transportation sources, the Erie Canal was enlarged to a depth of 7 feet (2.1 meters) in 1862. In time, the Champlain, Oswego, and Cayuga-Seneca canals branched off from the Erie, adding canal access to other cities and lakes. This new system of canals was renamed the New York State Canal System. Dredging continued to deepen the canals, and minimum depths of 12 feet (3.66 meters) were the norm by the mid-twentieth century. Early in the twenty-first century, plans were under way to deepen New York’s canals to 16 feet throughout the entire canal system.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Albion, Robert G. The Rise of New York Port, 1815-1860. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1939. Evaluates the factors, including the Erie Canal, that led to the commercial leadership of New York City.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baida, Peter. “The Admirable Three Millions.” American Heritage 39, no. 5 (July/August, 1988): 16-20. Tells how William James turned sixty thousand dollars into three million dollars through land investments prior to the completion of the Erie Canal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">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.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cornog, Evan. The Birth of Empire: DeWitt Clinton and the American Experience, 1769-1828. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Comprehensive and well-regarded biography that emphasizes Clinton’s political accomplishments and how they affected New York City and the state as a whole.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">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.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hecht, Roger W. 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.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meyer, Balthaser H. History of Transportation in the United States Before 1860. Reprint. Washington, D.C.: Peter Smith, 1948. A reference work containing facts and information regarding all the major early road, canal, and railroad developments in the nation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">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.

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