by Gerald Boerner
“It really just came down to economics…”
— The New York Times
“America can never forget to acknowledge that they have built the longest canal in the world, in the least time, with the least experiance, for the least money and the greatest public benefit.”
— Jesse Hawley, at the opening ceremony of the Erie Canal
After the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, the Legislature of New York directed a survey of a state road which was to be constructed at public expense through the southern tier of counties from the Hudson River to Lake Erie.”
— John Moody
The opening of the Erie Canal to New York in 1825 stimulated other cities on the Atlantic seaboard to put themselves into closer commercial touch with the West.”
— John Moody
“The site of Lockport! To tell the truth, it has as forbidding an aspect as any spot that has yet been encountered. Ledges of rock, giant forest trees, log and brush heaps, log shanties and rattlesnakes made up a rude landscape that is vividly daguerreotyped in my memory. The contractors were just clearing away an entangled forest that had shaded the deep ravine and excavating the Lock Pit. Drilling and blasting had commenced; there was a clinking of a thousand hand drills; the blasts in the working hours were in almost succession. The atmosphere was murky with the smoke of burning powder. There was a din of battle and yet but the peaceful pursuit of enterprise overcoming the most formidible barrier to the construction of the Erie Canal. Beyond the deep rock cut, through low, wet, heavy-timbered land the track of the canal had been grubbed. There were uprooted trees, slashings, log shanties, a succession of log cabins, boarding houses and groceries…”
— The diary of Lyman Spalding, of the Erie Canal in Lockport
The Opening of the Erie Canal
The Erie Canal is a man-made waterway in New York that runs about 363 miles from Albany on the Hudson River to Buffalo at Lake Erie, completing a navigable water route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. First proposed in 1808, it was under construction from 1817 to 1832 and officially opened on October 26, 1825.
It was the first transportation system between the eastern seaboard (New York City) and the western interior (Great Lakes) of the United States that did not require portage, was faster than carts pulled by draft animals, and cut transport costs by about 95%. The canal fostered a population surge in western New York state, opened regions further west to settlement, and helped New York City become the chief U.S. port. It was expanded between 1834 and 1862. In 1918, the original canal was replaced by the larger New York State Barge Canal. Today, it is part of the New York State Canal System. In 2000, the United States Congress designated the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor to recognize the national significance of the canal system as the most successful and influential human-built waterway and one of the most important works of civil engineering and construction in North America. Mainly used by recreational watercraft in the recent past, the canal saw an upsurge in commercial traffic in 2008.
Proposal and Logistics
The extraordinary success of the Bridgewater Canal in Britain, completed in 1761, led to a frenzy of canal building in England. The idea of a canal or artificially improved waterway to tie the east coast to the new western settlements was in the air: Cadwallader Colden first proposed using the Mohawk Valley in 1724.
George Washington led a serious effort to turn the Potomac River into a navigable link to the west, sinking substantial energy and capital into the Patowmack Canal from 1785 until his death fourteen years later. Christopher Colles, who was familiar with the Bridgewater Canal, surveyed the Mohawk valley and made a presentation to the New York state legislature in 1784 proposing a canal from Lake Ontario. The proposal drew attention and some action, but ultimately came to nothing.
Gouverneur Morris and Elkanah Watson were other early proponents of a canal along the Mohawk. Their efforts led to creation of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, which took the first actual steps to improve navigation on the Mohawk. But the company proved that private financing was inadequate.
In 1798, the Niagara Canal Company was incorporated.
The advocate who finally got the canal built was entrepreneur Jesse Hawley. He envisioned growing huge quantities of grain in the Western New York plains, then largely unsettled, for sale on the Eastern Seaboard. But he went bankrupt trying to ship it to the coast. While in Canandaigua debtors’ prison, he started pressing for the construction of a canal along the Mohawk Valley. He had strong support from Joseph Ellicott, agent for the Holland Land Company in Batavia. Ellicott realized that a canal would add immense value to the land he was selling in the western part of the state. Ellicott later became the first canal commissioner.
The Mohawk River, a tributary of the Hudson, runs in a glacial meltwater channel across the Appalachians in New York state, separating them into the Catskills and Adirondacks. The Mohawk Valley was the only cut across the Appalachians north of Alabama, and led almost directly from the Hudson River on the east to Lake Ontario and Lake Erie on the west. From there, much of the interior and many settlements would be accessible on the lakes.
The problem was that the land rises about 600 feet (180 m) from the Hudson to Lake Erie. Locks at the time could handle up to 12 feet (3.7 m), so at least 50 locks would be required along the 360 miles (580 km) canal. Such a canal would cost a fortune even today; in 1800 the expense was barely imaginable. President Jefferson called it "a little short of madness" and rejected it. Nevertheless, Hawley managed to interest New York Governor DeWitt Clinton. There was much opposition, and the project was scorned as "Clinton’s Folly," or "Clinton’s Ditch." But in 1817 Clinton got the legislature to appropriate $7 million for construction.
The original canal was 363 miles (584 km) long, from Albany on the Hudson to Buffalo on Lake Erie. The channel was a cut 40 feet (12 m) wide and 4 feet (1.2 m) deep, with removed soil piled on the downhill side to form a walkway called the towpath. Canal boats, up to 3.5 feet (1.1 m) in draft, were pulled by horses and mules on the towpath. There was only one towpath, generally on the north side of the ditch. When canal boats met, the boat with right-of-way steered to the towpath side of the canal. The other boat steered toward the berm or heelpath side of the canal. The driver or "hoggee" (pronounced HO-gee) of the privileged boat brought his team to the canalside edge of the towpath while the hoggee of the other boat moved to the outside of the towpath and stopped his team. His towline would go slack, fall into the water and sink to the bottom while his boat continued on by momentum. The privileged boat’s team would step over the other boat’s towline, and then their boat would pass over the sunken towline without stopping. Once clear, the other boat’s team would continue on its way.
The sides of the cut were lined with stone set in clay, and the bottom was also lined with clay. The stonework required hundreds of German masons, who later built many of New York’s famous buildings.
A three-man team with mules could now build a mile in a year, meaning that the problem now was finding enough labor.
The middle section from Utica to Salina (Syracuse) was completed in 1820 and traffic on that section started up immediately. The eastern section, 250 miles (400 km) from Brockport to Albany, opened on September 10, 1823 to great fanfare.
The Champlain Canal, a 64 miles (103 km) north-south route from Watervliet on the Hudson to Lake Champlain, opened on the same date.
Original five step lock structure
crossing the Niagara Escarpment
at Lockport, now without gates
and used as a cascade for excess
water. A modern 40 feet (12 m)
wide single-step lock is to the
left, replacing another identical
and original five-step lock.
In 1824, before the canal was completed, a detailed Pocket Guide for the Tourist and Traveler, Along the Line of the Canals, and the Interior Commerce of the State of New York, was published for the benefit of travelers and land speculators — possibly America’s first tour guide.
After Montezuma Marsh, the next obstacle was crossing the Niagara Escarpment, an 80 feet (24 m) wall of hard dolomitic limestone, to rise to the level of Lake Erie. The route followed the channel of a creek that had cut a ravine steeply down the escarpment, with two sets of five locks in a series, giving rise to the community of Lockport. These 12-foot (3.7 m) lift-locks had a total lift of 60 feet (18 m), exiting into a deeply cut channel. The final leg had to be cut 30 feet (9.1 m) through another limestone layer, the Onondaga ridge. Much of that section was blasted with black powder. The inexperience of the crews often led to accidents, and sometimes rocks falling on nearby homes.
Work was completed on October 26, 1825. The event was marked by a statewide "Grand Celebration," culminating in successive cannon shots along the length of the canal and the Hudson, a 90-minute cannonade from Buffalo to New York City. A flotilla of boats, led by Governor Dewitt Clinton aboard the Seneca Chief, sailed from Buffalo to New York City in ten days. Clinton then ceremonially poured Lake Erie water into New York Harbor to mark the "Wedding of the Waters." On its return trip, the Seneca Chief brought a keg of Atlantic Ocean water back to Buffalo to be poured into Lake Erie by Buffalo’s Judge Samuel Wilkeson, who would later become mayor.
As the canal brought travelers to New York City, it took business away from other ports such as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Baltimore, Maryland. Those cities and their states chartered projects to compete with the Erie Canal. In Pennsylvania, the Main Line of Public Works was a combined canal and railroad running west from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh on the Ohio River, opened in 1834. In Maryland, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad ran west to Wheeling, West Virginia, also on the Ohio River, and was completed in 1853.
Competition also came from inside New York state. The Mohawk and Hudson Railroad opened in 1831, providing a bypass to the slowest part of the canal between Albany and Schenectady. Other railroads were soon chartered and built to continue the line west to Buffalo, and in 1842 a continuous line (which later became the New York Central Railroad and its Auburn Road in 1853) was open the whole way to Buffalo. As the railroad served the same general route as the canal, but provided for faster travel, passengers soon switched to it. However as late as 1852, the canal carried thirteen times more freight tonnage than all the railroads in New York state, combined; it continued to compete well with the railroads through 1882, when tolls were abolished.
The New York, West Shore and Buffalo Railway was completed in 1884, as a route running closely parallel to both the canal and the New York Central Railroad. However, it went bankrupt and was acquired the next year by the New York Central.
The Erie Canal made an immense contribution to the wealth and importance of New York City, Buffalo, and New York State. Its impact went much further, increasing trade throughout the nation by opening eastern and overseas markets to Midwestern farm products and by enabling migration to the West. New ethnic Irish communities formed in some towns along its route after completion, as Irish immigrants were a large portion of labor force involved in its construction. Earth extracted from the canal was transported to the New York city area and used as landfill in New York and New Jersey. A plaque honoring the canal’s construction is located in Battery Park in southern Manhattan
Stonework of Erie Canal lock
(abandoned due to route
change), Durhamville, New York
Because so many immigrants traveled on the canal, many genealogists would like to find copies of canal passenger lists. Unfortunately, apart from the years 1827-1829, canal boat operators were not required to record or report passenger names to the government, which, in this case, was the State of New York. Those 1827-1829 passenger lists survive today in the New York State Archives. However, there may be many untapped sources of traveler information. For example, after the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon), Joseph Smith, Jr. left Palmyra, New York for Ohio in 1831, his mother Lucy Mack Smith shortly thereafter led hundreds of followers westward on the Erie Canal, passing through Buffalo, and eventually settling in Salt Lake City and many towns along the way. Mormon records may list many such travelers.
The Canal also helped bind the still-new nation closer to Britain and Europe. British repeal of the Corn Law resulted in a huge increase in exports of Midwestern wheat to Britain. Trade between the US and Canada also increased as a result of the Corn Law and a reciprocity (free-trade) agreement signed in 1854; much of this trade flowed along the Erie.
Its success also prompted imitation: a rash of canal-building followed. Also, the many technical hurdles that had to be overcome made heroes of those whose innovations made the canal possible. This led to an increased public esteem for practical education.
Other Events on this Day
The Erie Canal opens its entire 363 miles from Buffalo to Albany, New York.
Hamilton Smith of Philadelphia patents a hand-cranked, rotary washing machine.
The Pony Express officially ceases operation two days after the Transcontinental Telegraph is completed.
The Earp brothers and “Doc” Holliday confront the Clanton gang in the famous shootout at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona.
In the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands, U.S. ships stop the Japanese from reinforcing Guadalcanal but lose the aircraft carrier Hornet.
Dates and events based on:
William J. Bennett and John Cribb, (2008) The American Patriot’s Almanac Daily Readings on America. (Kindle Edition)
Background information is from Wikipedia articles on:
The Erie Canal that can be found at…