Built between 1817 to 1825, the Erie Canal was designed to serve as a means to navigate between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes Basin. Located as an east to west route belonging to the New York State Canal System, this upstate span stretches Albany’s Hudson River to Buffalo’s Lake Erie. That is exactly 363 miles of canal that first opened to the public on October 26, 1825. At the time, it became the second-largest canal in the world, falling behind China’s Grand Canal which is measured at 1,104 miles. Since its construction, the history of the Erie Canal has seen impressive community developments in upstate New York, as well as the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, New Brunswick, Ontario, and Quebec. The major cities belonging to the American state and Canadian provinces have boomed, thanks to a new era of commercial and passenger transport opportunities.
In the Beginning
The first proposal for the Erie Canal came about just after the conclusion of the American Revolutionary War, specifically in 1784. This came about after over fifty years’ worth of settlers struggling to trek across the United States from the East Coast to the west. At the time, however, nothing came of it and it wouldn’t be proposed again until 1807. Ten years later, the construction of the canal began after all the conflicting arguments about it finally reached an agreement to proceed with this project. Upon completion of the Erie Canal, the canal featured an elevation difference of 565 feet and had thirty-four locks to control the water flow of this impressive development. The upstream belonging to Black Rock Log ends with a downstream belonging to the Troy Federal Lock. Both of these are currently owned by the federal government of the United States.
Before the canal was opened up for public travel on October 26, 1825, it was used as a source of local transportation of various goods that were carried by pack animals. Upon completion of the canal, it became the most effective method to transport up to 250 pounds worth of bulk goods across the water. It was the first transportation system of its kind that did not require portage as it traveled the East Coast of the United States. The advantages this canal brought to New York City and the state catapulted its level of importance to the American nation to an unsurpassed level compared to the rest of the country. As a result, the city and its surrounding communities experienced explosive population growth, resulting in the expansion of commerce, industry, and trade.
The surge of new American residents also ventured further west since the opening of the Erie Canal, as well as the amount of commercial traffic that ventured across. In 1855, there were over thirty thousand shipments that used the canal to bring various goods across. The original concept behind the Erie Canal was to bridge the otherwise difficult trek between the East Coast and western settlements, namely through the Mohawk Valley. This valley runs from east to west between the Adirondack Mountains to the north and the Catskill Mountains to the south. Both the Hudson Valley and the Mohawk valley formed the only clean cut across the Appalachian Mountains north of Alabama, allowing the opportunity for a navigable canal to trek across from the south of New York City, then west to Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. The complexity behind the Erie Canal and its design were met with the conflict between the governor of New York, DeWitt Clinton, and the president of the United States at the time, Thomas Jefferson.
At the time, then-president Thomas Jefferson felt the proposal made by DeWitt Clinton was too ludicrous to accept. This is where the term “Clinton’s Folly” came about. However, there was enough interest by other parties to see the concept of the Erie Canal become a reality. Finally, Clinton received approval in 1817, as well as a seven million dollar budget, to proceed with the development of the Erie Canal. By 1823, its construction reached the Niagara Escarpment, all of it built by an Irish and German team of laborers and stonemasons.
The construction process began with a team of novice surveyors and engineers as there were no civil engineers at that time in America. The route was laid out by a pair of judges who were experienced in settling boundary disputes. James Geddes was barely familiar with his surveying instrument before he was sent to work on the canal. Also part of this project was a young amateur engineer, Canvass White, whom Clinton agreed to send to the UK to study the design of its canal system. There was also Nathan Robers, who was a land speculator and math teacher. This merry band of men was responsible for the Eerie Canal to reach the Niagara Encampment, then onto an embankment to cross Irondequoit Creek, then across the Genessee River by the aqueduct, and finally, a route carved out of solid rock between Little Falls and Schenectady. Despite the lack of experience among these men, the design layout was carried out exactly as planned.
Starting from Rome, New York, the construction of the Erie Canal was officially underway as of July 4, 1817. At first, it was slow going as the fifteen-mile canal trek from Rome to Utica didn’t open until 1819. The construction crew met with significant delays due to the need to clear out trees and excavate the soil. Realizing this pace was too slow, the builders came up with alternative measures that later became standard equipment as the evolutionary development of the construction trade saw innovative new ideas to overcome nature’s obstacles. Also, there was not enough manpower at first to build the Erie Canal in a timely manner. Irish and German immigrants were brought in to help speed up the process as Irish laborers worked closely with the German stonemasons.
The vast majority of the Irish laborers were raised as Roman Catholics, which clashed against the religious practices of early America. This resulted in a series of misunderstandings that led to violent episodes that hindered the development of the Erie Canal. Over time, as more workers arrived, the pace picked up. After a hyped scare of workers dying from malaria, the construction paused until investigations revealed the rumored death toll of the deceased was greatly exaggerated.
Over time, from section to section, each new leg of the Erie Canal opened up along upstate New York. In 1820, Utica and Syracuse were ready for canal travel. In 1823, watercraft gained access from Brockport to Albany before it was finally completed on October 26, 1825, in Buffalo. A year before it was opened, there was a publication made available for travelers titled Pocket Guide for the Tourist Traveler, Along the Line of the Canals, and the Interior Commerce of the State of New York. The idea was to provide detailed information about the Erie Canal, along with its benefits as a waterway. Upon completion of the Erie Canal, eight years after it broke ground, the final cost to have it built was $7,143,000.00 USD. It was a slight nudge over the budget allowance Governor Clinton received when this project was finally approved.
In 1918, the Erie Canal became part of the New York State Barge Canal as these extended their reach to each other via the Hudson River. This process resulted in more than merely adding the new to the old. This new version of the Erie Canal saw more than half of its original design either abandoned or destroyed during the construction process of the New York State Barge Canal that took place shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. What was still remaining became widened, mainly to better accommodate the canal’s traffic west of Syracuse, New York. Over time, the amount of commercial watercraft trekking across the Erie Canal decreased but the amount of recreational watercraft increased.
After the construction of the Erie Canal was completed, each time there was a new problem surfaced it would be resolved as quickly as possible. When leaks developed along the length of the canal, they were sealed by hydraulic cement.
Starting in 1834, improvements to the Erie Canal began that saw it widened from its forty feet width at the First Enlargement to seventy feet, as well as deepened from four to seven feet. The locks were also either widened at current locations or rebuilt in new ones. There were also navigable aqueducts that were constructed as the canal was straightened out and rerouted along some stretches. This resulted in the abandonment of shorter segments of the canal’s original construction. When 1862 rolled around, the First Enlargement project was completed but has since been followed up with additional enhancements to improve upon its overall development.
As the population along the Erie Canal grew, so became the need to add feeder canals, as well as other enhancements to capitalize on its ability to keep up with transportation demands. Also, as new methods of transportation began to compete against the efficiency of the canal, additional adjustments were made in order to accommodate. From 1833 until 1877, a series of canal connections such as the Crooked Lake Canal, Chemung Canal, and the Chenango Canal each served their purpose to allow transport by waterway between various lakes and communities in these regions. The Black River Canal that served as a connection between Black River to Erie Canal’s Rome remained in operation until the 1920s.
Before becoming the Genesee Valley Canal Railroad, the Genesee Valley Canal ran along the Genesee River from the Erie Canal to connect with Olean’s Allegheny River. There was the intention to connect Allegheny’s section to the Ohio River and Mississippi River, but that’s as far as it went.
In 1903, the New York State Barge Canal received the green light from the legislature of New York State to begin construction as a means to improve upon the existing canals, including Erie Canal. In 1918, thirteen years after the construction of this new canal broke ground, this became a major route for freight traffic until 1951. Once commercial trucks and freight trains became more commonplace, this began the decline of using waterways such as the Erie Canal and the New York State Barge Canal.
As mentioned, the Erie Canal gave New York City and its state a huge advantage as America’s port city. This resulted in cities further inland looking for a new means of transportation as a means to compete. Cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia developed canal systems of their own, as well as made good use of the expanding railroad system that made its solid foothold upon America’s landscape. They also weren’t the only ones seeking to compete against the efficiency of the Erie Canal. In 1837, the canal between Albany and Schenectady met its match when the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad opened up a much faster bypass. It didn’t take long before additional railroads were built and most of them were built along the same routes as the Erie Canal, as well as even the New York State Barge Canal.
When the New York State Barge Canal replaced the Erie Canal in 1918, this caused a number of sections belonging to Erie became abandoned. As new technology came about to either improve or replace the old, sections the Erie Canal avoided were now being accessed. Over time, commercial trucks and freight trains mostly rendered the Erie Canal and New York State Barge Canal obsolete by the mid-twentieth century as they replaced this method of transportation as the more practical means to carry goods across. In 1992, New York State Barge Canal was renamed the New York State Canal System and was placed under the management team of the New York State Thruway Authority’s New York State Canal Corporation.
Modern Erie Canal History
The second half of the twentieth century saw the Erie Canal shift from a major transportation method for commercial traffic to recreational. Since the 1990s, it has featured mostly recreational watercraft. In 1994, after the retirement of the final commercial freighter in service, Day Peckinpaugh officially turned the Erie Canal into mostly a recreational-only watercraft facility until commercial travel began again in 2008. Reported at over forty commercial shipments that came through the canal, this was nearly triple the amount that did so in 2007. However, these numbers still pale compared to more than thirty thousand shipments that passed through in 1855. It is believed due to the rising fuel costs brought on by the American and Canadian federal governments, the appeal to return to using Erie Canal and the New York State Canal System has spiked. In 2012, the New York State Canal System, which includes Erie Canal, saw over forty thousand tons of cargo transported between destinations.
The Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor earned its recognition by United States Congress in 2000 for its national significance in civil engineering. Currently, the Erie Canal has a navigational water coverage of 524 miles between Lake Champlain to Buffalo. The populous of this area has nearly three million people within a twenty-five-mile radius of the canal, As a means to attract more visitors to enjoy the canal, the boating fees for recreational purposes were eliminated in 2006.
Various sections of the original Erie Canal that became obsolete as of 1918 have since either been set up as roads or as historical sites. Near Rome, New York, is Old Erie Canal State Historic Park. In Montgomery County, the Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site of the Erie Canal was recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1960. In addition to a series of historical sites, some parts of the old canal have also been converted into parks. As tourists, people come from all over the world just to see a piece of early American history and how Clinton’s so-called impossible dream became a monumental reality.