Erie Canal, Building of

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The Erie Canal was one of the largest and most controversial construction projects undertaken in the United States during the nineteenth century. It linked the navigable part of the Hudson River in eastern New York State with the Great Lakes. Western farmers were able to ship their produce directly to American markets without having to go through Canadian waters. The Erie Canal also symbolized the unification of the nation, binding the western frontier to the eastern markets by ties that were stronger than the East's historic links to Canada or its former economic links to markets on the Mississippi River. But, the canal also raised important political questions about public versus private funding of infrastructure. Within New York itself, the canal became a heated point of debate between the major political parties, the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans. Later canal issues, such as the act to enlarge the waterway in 1835, divided the New York government against itself.

The concept of a canal linking the Hudson River valley with the Great Lakes was proposed during the first decades of independence following the American Revolution (177583). Before the war the area had been the home of the Iroquois Federation or Six Nations. During the war the future canal route through the Mohawk River valley had been the scene of many battles between British troops, Canadian irregulars, and Native Americans on one side and the American rebels on the other. In 1783, after resigning his commission as general of the Continental Army, George Washington (17321799) made a tour of western New York and recommended linking eastern New York with the Ohio River and Lake Erie. In 1792 the New York legislature authorized the incorporation of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company for the purpose of linking Albany on the Hudson River with Lake Ontario. By 1798 the company's progress on the canal made it possible for large boats carrying up to 16 tons of cargo to move alongside the Mohawk River to Rome, New York, a town about 75 miles west of Albany. It cut the cost of moving cargo between Albany and Seneca Lake (at least 80 miles west of Rome) by two-thirds and reduced the cost of moving cargo between Albany and the Niagara River on the Canadian border by half. Canal operations, however, were inefficient due to poor engineering, unreliable management, and scarce, expensive labor. One company supervisor was accused of embezzling funds and some locks were so poorly constructed that they had to be rebuilt four times. Nonetheless, the canal formed the nucleus of the future Erie Canal.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Lake Ontario was still believed to be the logical endpoint of an internal New York canal. In 1800, however, Gouverneur Morris, the former Minister to France, foresaw the creation of a canal linking the Hudson River with Lake Erie. Such a canal was formally proposed in 180708 by Jesse Hawley, a merchant from western New York who was in prison at the time because he was unable to pay his debts. At the same time, President Thomas Jefferson's (18011809) Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin and surveyor James Geddes independently proposed canals that would link New York seaports to western markets, although they both preferred the Lake Ontario route. New York land speculators and politicians, such as future Governor De Witt Clinton, supported the prospect of federal dollars to pay for these internal projects. By 1810 they had revitalized the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company and launched plans to explore western New York for the best canal tracks.

The high hopes among New Yorkers for federal assistance in canal construction were soon dashed. Before the funding could pass through Congress, the United States declared war on England, launching the War of 1812 (181214). The war tied up funds for the canal and for other internal improvements. By 1815 it appeared that the canal idea had failed. This perception continued through 1816 when President James Madison vetoed the "Bonus Bill" that would have provided federal money for the Erie Canal. Fortunately, state money was substituted instead, thanks in large part to the support of DeWitt Clinton, who campaigned successfully for governor the following year on a canal platform. New York politicians quickly made the canal an issue in their campaigns and Democratic Republicans split between those in favor of the Lake Erie route (led by Clinton) and those opposed (led by future president Martin Van Buren, 18371841). Some landowners in southern New York objected to the canal project, seeing it as an excuse to tax them for the benefit of the rest of the state. Clinton's opponents, who drew some of their support from these people, formed the nucleus of the organization that later became known as Tammany Hall, a political force which controlled New York politics for most of the nineteenth century.

Paradoxically, the War of 1812 created strong nationalistic feelings among New Yorkers that boosted regional support for canal construction. The failed invasion of Canada in 1812 made Midwestern Americans aware of the dangers of shipping their produce through Canadian waters. It also made plain, to even the most hawkish Americans, that although much produce traveled to market via the St. Lawrence River, it would never be United States territory. The theater of war in the west centered on the Great Lakesparticularly Lake Erieand brought public attention to the area. By the spring of 1816 construction on the canal was back on schedule.

Construction of the Erie Canal officially began on July 4, 1817 at Rome, New York. For almost nine years, teams of up to 3,000 workers cut a 40-foot wide, four-foot deep trench through 364 miles of wilderness. The Erie Canal crossed rivers and valleys; it included 18 aqueducts, 84 locks (each 15 feet wide and 90 feet long), and more than 300 bridges. Much of the work was done by immigrant Irish and Welsh laborers, who were poorly paid and often sick. Wages averaged fifty cents a day. A report from 1819 stated that about a thousand men were unable to report for work because of sickness. Nonetheless, the project was an unqualified success. The canal cut the cost and time of shipping freight from Buffalo to New York City from $100 per ton and twenty days to $5 per ton and 6 days. The canal cost $7,143,789 to build, but by the time it opened on October 25, 1825, it had already earned $1 million in tolls. The Canal was enlarged between 1835 and 1862 to meet the demands of increased traffic, even though by that time the railroads were beginning to crowd out canal freight. Even so, the peak year for use of the New York canal system was 1872.

The Erie Canal opened the New York interior to commerce and immigration. Before 1820 the population of the westernmost portion of the state was just over 23,000. By 1850 the state's population had ballooned to over three million. Equally important, the canal forged strong economic and political links between the west and the east. Before the Erie Canal opened, the western states tended to side politically with the South; their freight went down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans and other southern ports. The Erie Canal changed the direction of western commerce from the slave-holding South to the industrial North. It helped equate western interests with northern interests and insured western support of the North in the American Civil War (186165).

See also: American Revolution, Civil War, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Mississippi River, New Orleans, War of 1812, George Washington


Cornog, Evan. The Birth of Empire: DeWitt Clinton and the American Experience, 17691828. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Goodrich, Carter, editor. Canals and American Economic Development. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.

Shaw, Ronald E. Erie Water West: A History of the Erie Canal, 17921854. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1966.

Shaw, Ronald E. Canals for a Nation: The Canal Era in the United States, 17901860. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1990.

Sheriff, Carol. The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 18171862. New York: Hill & Wang, 1996.

i should like to know whether my little farm in the county of jefferson has got to be taxed from year to year, for the purpose of enabling the farmers on the shores of lakes erie, huron and michigan to bring their produce to market for nothing.

"peter ploughshare" [pseudonym of samuel beach], considerations against continuing the great canal west of the seneca, 1819

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Erie Canal, Building of

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