The 363-mile (585-kilometer) Erie Canal between Lake Erie and the Hudson River, New York, was opened in 1825. Compared with earlier U.S. canal projects, common since about 1785 (none was over 30 miles long), it was a colossal enterprise, incontrovertibly the greatest public works project in the young republic. Despite criticism at its inception, when complete it was acclaimed as the world’s greatest engineering marvel. But great engineering achievement that it was, the social significance of the Erie Canal outstripped that feat by far.
Before its creation the Allegheny Mountains were the Western frontier. Beyond them, virtually inaccessible to the European settlers, lay the resource-rich Northwest Territories—later to become Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio. The canal made westward migration possible, and within fifteen years of its opening it turned New York, formerly the fifth-largest harbor in the nation, into the busiest seaport and greatest commercial center in the United States. In that same period the value of the city’s real estate quadrupled, and mercantile activities multiplied five times.
As early as 1724, a surveyor named Cadwallader Colden speculated on the potential value of a direct water link between the Hudson River and Lake Erie. Sixty years (and the War of Independence) later, a bill proposing improvements to the navigability of the Mohawk and Onondaga Rivers, with an eventual link, to Lake Erie, was put before the New York State legislature. It was defeated, but the idea was revived in 1791. Legislation was passed, feasibility studies undertaken, and two companies established to “open a navigable waterway from Albany to Lakes Seneca and Ontario” and “improve navigation between the Hudson and Lake Champlain,” respectively. Little came of it.
Between October 1807 and April 1808 a miller named Jesse Hawley published several essays in the Genesee Messenger that advocated the construction of a 100-foot-wide (30-meter), 10-foot-deep (3-meter) canal from Buffalo, at the southern end of Lake Erie, to Utica, where it would join the Mohawk River to Schenectady, allowing cargoes to be taken over portage to Albany. His idea was widely derided, even labeled “the effusions of a maniac,” but New York City’s mayor De Witt Clinton publicly agreed with him. The proposed canal was promptly dubbed “Clinton’s Folly.”
Others sided with Clinton. State legislator Joshua Forman successfully moved in 1808 that the best route be surveyed. The report was made in 1810 and the issue was kept alive until a law supporting the project was passed the following year. Public pressure to start the canal continued until Clinton became state governor in 1817. When President Thomas Jefferson, believing a national waterway to be “little short of madness,” vetoed the proposal, the estimated construction cost of $7 million became New York State’s responsibility. Clinton persuaded the legislature to authorize the expenditure, to be funded with bond issues. Much of it was raised from the savings of new immigrants; wealthy, more conservative investors took no risks until the first section of the canal was completed.
The builders of the “Great Western Canal” struck out westward from Rome, New York, on 4 July 1817. Untrained gangs of “canawlers,” many of them Irish immigrants from New York City, were paid fifty cents a day and worked under the general superintendence of the chief engineer, Benjamin Wright. Existing streams and lakes were not joined by the canal, which followed an independent course. The 80-mile (128-kilometer) middle section was cut in light soil across level terrain—where locks or aqueducts were not needed—between Rome and Utica, built by Wright’s assistant engineer, David Stanhope Bates. It opened in October 1819. Separate contracts were let for various parts of the huge undertaking. A month later the 63-mile (100-kilometer) Champlain branch canal was opened, joining Troy with Whitehall, at the southern end of Lake Champlain. In July 1822 the section from the Genesee River to Pittsford was navigable, although several miles of overland connection were necessary until the Irondequoit Valley embankment was completed in October, also under Bates’s direction. In the same month a 180-mile (290-kilometer) stretch was opened between Rochester and Little Falls. The eastern section through the Mohawk River valley was finished a year later, allowing uninterrupted navigation from the Genesee River to Albany and Lake Champlain. The last leg, between Brockport and Albany, was completed in April 1824.
On 26 October 1825 Clinton set out down the Erie Canal from Buffalo in the Seneca Chief with his wife and a party of “distinguished citizens”; two other canal boats accompanied them, carrying products from the Midwest, and even a bear and two eagles. Traveling at an average of 3 mph (5 kph), they arrived in New York Harbor nine days later to a boisterous welcome. Clinton poured two barrels of Lake Erie water into the sea, ceremonially marking the “marriage of the waters.”
The great waterway, disrespectfully rechristened “Clinton’s Big Ditch,” was 40 feet (12 meters) wide and only 4 feet (1.2 meters) deep and carried vessels of 90 tons (76.2 tonnes) displacement. It had cost $700,000 over budget, but the outlay of almost $8 million was recouped from tolls within ten years. Only the human cost was not recoverable. Neither was it recorded: many died from malaria, others from smallpox; others were maimed by accidents.
Inland shipping now found its way across eighteen aqueducts and through eighty-three locks, falling 570 feet (174 meters) between Tonawanda and Buffalo, on the eastern shore of Lake Erie, and Troy, on the Hudson. There were ninety-three continuance bridges, where draft animals crossed the water. Travel time between the Great Lakes and the East Coast was halved, and freight costs fell from $100 to $10 a ton. Wheat tonnage carried on the canal increased a staggering 140-fold between 1829 and 1837, and by 1841 the figure had doubled again.
Two more important branch canals were later built: the 24-mile (38-kilometer) Oswego (1828), connecting the Erie with Lake Ontario; and the 27-mile (43-kilometer) Cayuga and Seneca (1829), linking the Erie, west of Syracuse, with Cayuga and Seneca Lakes. The entire system was enlarged in 1835 and again in 1862 and 1895 to cater for heavier traffic. Another modification was undertaken in 1904, “canalizing” the Mohawk, Oswego, Seneca, Oneida, and Clyde Rivers and Oneida Lake and abandoning large sections of the original canal. When the 525-mile-long (845-kilometer), 12-foot-deep (3.7-meter) new system, renamed the New York State Barge Canal, was opened in 1918, it comprised the Erie and all the former branch canals. The Barge Canal can carry 2,400-ton (2,032-tonne) vessels.
After about 1850, burgeoning railroads competed with canal transportation, but the Barge Canal was not made redundant until the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway a century later. Within a decade or so, mercantile traffic had dwindled to the point of insignificance. However, recreational traffic was growing, and in November 1991 the people of New York rallied to save the canals. In 1996 the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development announced grants totaling $131 million for the Canal Corridor Initiative, a program to rehabilitate the Erie Canal and its branches as a “recreationway.”