Erie Canal
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Erie Canal

ERIE CANAL

ERIE CANAL, a 363-mile artificial waterway connecting Buffalo to Albany, New York, was the biggest public works project in the pre–Civil War United States. Built by the State of New York between 1817 and 1825, and then enlarged between 1836 and 1862, the canal linked the Great Lakes to the Atlantic seaboard. Using locks, aqueducts, and man-made gorges, the canal over-came a combined ascent and descent of 680 feet. Celebrated for its technological achievements, the canal's practical influences were many: the waterway would hasten the displacement of New York's Iroquois Indians, quicken the westward migration of Euro-Americans, stimulate northeastern and midwestern industrialization,


and ease commercial exchange in a growing transatlantic economy.

Early History

Ideas for building the canal dated back at least to the early eighteenth century. In the northern colonies, the only gap in the Appalachian Mountains was the one through which the Mohawk River flowed easterly from central New York to the Hudson River, which in turn ran southward into the Atlantic Ocean. While Dutch and British colonists farmed along the Mohawk and other natural rivers and lakes in central New York, they found their westward migration restrained once they reached Lake Oneida, near the head of the Mohawk. From that point, more than 150 miles east of Lake Erie, no major waterway permitted easy access to the western interior. Early efforts to improve transportation involved turnpikes and roads, and beginning in 1792, the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company and the Northern Inland Lock Navigation Company improved some of the region's natural waterways. Yet such improvements were undependable and costly. Especially with the expansion of the nation's market economy after the American Revolution, many settlers clamored for access to dependable, inexpensive transportation for trade and travel.

Building the Canal

Bringing the Erie Canal to fruition involved the support and labor of people from all strata of society. DeWitt Clinton, a leading New York politician, would become the most persistent advocate for the canal in the years after the War of 1812. Critics derided the proposed canal as "Clinton's Big Ditch." Because the longest canal in the United States was just over 27 miles long, the prospect of a 363-mile canal seemed hopelessly impractical to even some enlightened minds. Only four feet deep and forty feet wide, the original canal could in fact seem like little more than a ditch. Refused funding by the federal government, the State of New York, after much political wrangling, authorized initial funding for the Erie Canal in 1817. Work began on the Fourth of July that year; the digging, most of which was done by hand, involved thousands of workers, including local farmers, New England migrants, and foreign immigrants. (The project to deepen and enlarge the canal—to seven feet by seventy feet—coincided with the Irish potato famine, so foreign workers made up the largest share of the later construction workforce.) Working conditions were at best tedious and at worst deadly, and many workers were weakened by disease and accidents.


The Canal's Influence

The original Erie Canal proved a tremendous success. In the years after its completion in 1825, the cost of transporting goods between the Midwest and New York City fell precipitously, in some cases by 95 percent. Between 1825 and 1857, New York built eight canals that, like the Champlain Canal (completed in 1823), ran north–south from the Erie. Together, these lateral canals connected much of rural New York to the main waterway. Encouraged by New York's example, other states undertook similar projects in the late 1820s and 1830s. Meanwhile, though, railroads entered the American scene and proved more economical and efficient. Most of the country's canals were financial failures, nearly crippling the economy of many northeastern states and playing an important role in the financial depression that struck the nation in 1837.

Yet New York's canal system was so successful that New York became known as the "Empire State." Farmers could now move easily to the West, and—just as important—they could market their goods in the Northeast and Europe at a fraction of the cost of the precanal era. Meanwhile, the northern industrial economy thrived due to the easy availability of inexpensive raw materials and foodstuffs and because of the creation of an enormous market of potential customers in the West. Some historians have argued that the economic connections fostered by the Erie Canal helped keep midwestern states in the Union during the Civil War.

The Canal's Legacy

In the prewar period, the Erie Canal drew mixed reactions. Many white Americans celebrated it as a symbol of "progress," a sign that humankind was fulfilling a divinely sanctioned movement to improve the physical world. It represented a triumph of "civilization" over "savagery." It represented American ingenuity and hard work. It brought settlers, luxury goods, visitors, tourists, and news to the hinterlands. But it also had its downsides: it spread its benefits unevenly; depersonalized commercial transactions; created complex economic relationships that destabilized the economy; depended on an enormous wage labor force, made up of tens of thousands of workers—men, women, and children—by the 1840s, when such labor was generally seen as a temporary evil at best; and seemed to carry disease and moral vice (often associated with coastal urban centers) to the nation's rural, supposedly "purer" interior. On balance, though, the canal's success represented the virtues of "free labor," and thus it contributed to some northerners' sense of cultural superiority over southern slave states.

The amount of freight carried on the Erie Canal peaked in the 1880s, and the waterway was enlarged once again in the early twentieth century to become part of the New York State Barge Canal System, which remained in commercial operation until the 1990s (and which continues today as a recreational resource). But the canal's role in the post–Civil War era was much less dramatic. While antebellum Americans viewed the canal as a symbol of progress and modernity, by the late nineteenth century it had come to seem antiquated and quaint. That image has been memorialized in popular culture—in Tin Pan Alley songs such as "Low Bridge, Everybody Down"—and has made the Erie Canal a cherished part of the nation's folklore.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Carp, Roger Evan. "The Erie Canal and the Liberal Challenge to Classical Republicanism, 1785–1850." Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1986.

Miller, Nathan. The Enterprise of a Free People: Aspects of Economic Development in New York State during the Canal Period, 1792–1838. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1962.

Shaw, Ronald. Erie Water West: A History of the Erie Canal. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1966.

Sheriff, Carol. The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817–1862. New York: Hill and Wang, 1996.

CarolSheriff

See alsoCanals ; Inland Lock Navigation ; New York State ; Transportation and Travel ; Waterways, Inland .

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Erie Canal

Erie Canal, artificial waterway, c.360 mi (580 km) long; connecting New York City with the Great Lakes via the Hudson River. Locks were built to overcome the 571-ft (174-m) difference between the level of the river and that of Lake Erie. With its three branch canals it forms the New York State Canal System.

After the American Revolution, the need for an all-American water route between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic coast was evident. Political unity, easy and inexpensive transportation, and increased trade (free from Canadian competition) were the anticipated benefits of such a route. Several land surveys followed, and by 1810, the issue was paramount in the New York legislature, where De Witt Clinton lent his political support. A canal commission, including Clinton, Gouverneur Morris, Stephen Van Rensselaer, and Thomas Eddy, recommended (1811) a canal to Lake Erie rather than to Lake Ontario. The canal bill, drawn up by Clinton in 1815, was debated in the legislature (1816–17), with New York City and the Lake Ontario interests opposing it vigorously. Although a presidential veto of a national waterway project forced the proposed canal's financial burden on New York alone, the canal bill passed the state legislature in Apr., 1817.

Work on the canal was carried on by gangs made up, in many cases, of European immigrants. The canal's course was entirely enclosed; streams and lakes were not incorporated into the waterway. The middle section (Utica to Salina) was completed in 1820; the eastern section through the Mohawk River valley was finished in 1823. Elaborate celebrations opened the entire canal in 1825; Clinton and other notables sailed from Buffalo to New York City, where Clinton emptied a barrel of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic Ocean. The canal was enlarged beginning in 1835; its most important branches, the Champlain (opened 1819), the Oswego (1828), and the Cayuga-Seneca (1829), were also enlarged. The Erie Canal contributed to New York City's financial development, opened eastern markets to Midwest farm products and encouraged immigration to that region, and helped to create numerous large cities. Its initial success started a wave of canal building in the United States.

Railroad competition, beginning in the 1850s, eventually destroyed the canal's long-haul advantages; however, for many years the Erie Canal was a profitable route. Tolls were abolished in 1882, however, because of its state of disrepair and to lure more traffic. Although some improvements were made (1884–94), inadequate navigability, the competition of Canadian routes, and the disclosure of fraudulent administration (the "Canal Ring" ) brought about plans for complete renovation and subsequent conversion (1905–18) into a large, modern barge canal. Unlike the original canal, the revamped waterway incorporated canalized rivers and lakes in the waterway; parallel sections of the old Erie Canal were abandoned.

Much tonnage was still shipped via the canal in the 1950s, but the opening of the New York State Thruway and the St. Lawrence Seaway sealed the canal's commercial demise. Traffic in the late 20th cent. consisted almost entirely of pleasure boats, and a five-year overhaul in the late 1990s was undertaken to make the canal a major "recreationway." Commercial interest in the highly fuel-efficient waterway was renewed some in 2008 when energy costs soared to record highs.

See R. K. Andrist, The Erie Canal (1964); G. E. Condon, Stars in the Water (1973); R. Shaw Erie Water West (1996); C. Carol, The Artificial River (1996); P. L. Bernstein, Wedding of the Waters (2005).

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Erie Canal

Erie Canal Waterway in New York state, between Buffalo and Albany, USA. It was built in 1817–25, and was originally 584km (363mi) long. A commercial success, it contributed to the rapid growth of the Midwest. Largely superseded by the railroads, it was revitalized by the expansion of the canal system in the early 20th century.

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