Erie Canal Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Erie Canal allowed goods to be shipped between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean faster and cheaper than by mule-drawn carts. It resulted in the settling of western New York and helped establish New York City as the main port on the East Coast.

Until the construction of the Erie Canal, travel westward for both people and goods was by stagecoach or cart and was slow and expensive. General Philip Schuyler’s Western Inland Lock Navigation Company became the first to seek easier, smoother, and cheaper travel by waterway when it started improving some of the natural waterways in upstate New York. Although the company’s improvements by no means constituted a statewide waterway, they encouraged merchant Jesse Hawley in 1807 to publish a series of essays envisioning how a waterway connecting Lake Erie with the Hudson River would yield tremendous economic growth for the nation.Erie Canal

A year later, New York assemblyman Joshua Forman successfully proposed an expenditure of $600 for a survey of possible canal routes across the state. This was followed in 1810 by an act appointing commissioners to study the possibility of limited inland waterway improvements, and in 1811, the commissioners were given a mandate to study a waterway from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. As a result of their work and the vision of Governor DeWitt Clinton, DeWittClinton, the legislature authorized construction of the Erie and Champlain Canals in 1817. The first 94 miles from Utica to Salina opened in 1820, and local business owners experienced an immediate and substantial reduction in shipping costs. In 1823, a 250-mile section from Brockport to Albany was opened, and the Champlain Canal, from Lake Champlain to the Hudson, also opened. The remaining sections of the Erie Canal were completed in October, 1825.

The Original Canal

The Erie Canal was 363 miles long, 4 feet deep, and 40 feet wide, and built at a cost of $7.1 million. It had 83 locks, 17 toll booths, 18 aqueducts to carry the canal over ravines and rivers, a rise of 568 feet from Hudson River to Lake Erie, and a 10-foot-wide towpath for horses, mules, and oxen. In October, 1825, Governor Clinton, who had suffered ridicule for what was termed “Clinton’s Big Ditch,” rode the packet boat Seneca Chief on the eight-day trip from Buffalo to New York City and emptied two casks of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic Ocean, celebrating the ceremonial “marriage of the waters” from west to east.

The governor was immediately vindicated by an explosion of trade. Freight rates from Buffalo to New York were $10 per ton, compared with $100 per ton by road, and time was cut from twenty to ten days. In 1829, a total of 3,640 bushels of wheat were transported; by 1837, the volume of wheat had increased to 500,000 bushels and by 1841 to one million bushels. In nine years the canal tolls more than recouped the entire cost of construction. Within fifteen years of the opening of the Erie Canal, New York City had become the busiest port in the United States, moving more tons of freight than Boston, Baltimore, and New Orleans combined. In addition, the New York towns of Albany, Schenectady, Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo morphed from small outposts to major industrial cities.

Later Versions

The canal’s success spawned the construction of a number of feeder canals during the 1830’s, creating a system of canals. However, it soon became clear that the Erie Canal was too small, and so in 1835, major enlargement was authorized. When the enlargement was finished in 1862, the canal was 70 feet wide and 7 feet deep and could handle 240-freight-ton boats. However, the new transcontinental railroad system provided a faster alternative for shipment of goods westward, and canal use never reached its new capacity. The canal was used primarily by those who sought lower rates and were not as concerned about the speed of delivery. By the time sharply higher railroad freight rates caused shippers to regain interest in the canal, large sections had fallen into disrepair, and it was being used only for local trade.

However, the state of New York, far from abandoning the canal system, decided to restructure it in 1903. For the next fifteen years and at a cost of $101 million, much of the old Erie Canal route was redirected and engineered to include not only the original Champlain Canal, but also the state’s Oswego, Cayuga, and Seneca canals. The restructuring also “canalized” sections of the Mohawk, Oswego, Seneca, Genesee, Clyde, and other rivers that had been avoided by the original canal, dredging a uniform channel, 12 to 14 feet deep and 120 to 200 feet wide, adding dams with new locks of from 6 to 40 feet. The completed project was renamed the New York State Barge Canal. In the process, the canal bypassed the centers of the major cities through which it had once passed.

The canal can accommodate barges carrying up to 3,000 tons of cargo, but commercial traffic on the canal declined dramatically after the completion of the New York State Thruway in 1956 and the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959. By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the canal was used primarily by recreational boats, and the state had begun developing parks around the canals to create a major recreational area and tourist attraction. The majority of the canal system, known as the New York State Canal System, became part of the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor in 2000.

Further Reading
  • Bernstein, Peter L. Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. Examines the social ramifications, political squabbles, and economic risks and returns of the canal.
  • Bourne, Russell. Floating West: The Erie and Other American Canals. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992. This series of histories of canals covers the Erie.
  • Hecht, Roger W., ed. The Erie Canal Reader, 1790-1950. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2003. Essays, travelogues, poems, and fiction by major American and British writers; part celebration of the men and women who worked the canal and part social observation.
  • Shaw, Ronald E. Erie Water West: A History of the Erie Canal, 1792-1854. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990. Examines the canal from its development to its use during the mid-nineteenth century.
  • Sheriff, Carol. The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862. New York: Hill & Wang, 1996. Innovative use of archival research to document the varied responses of ordinary people who lived along the waterway.

Canals

Dams and aqueducts

Highways

Mississippi and Missouri Rivers

Panama Canal

Railroads

Shipping industry

First stagecoach line

Transcontinental railroad

Water resources

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