The Erie Canal
The Erie Canal
Potential Problems. In April 1817 the New York legislature authorized funding for the construction of a 364-mile canal to link Albany on the Hudson River with Buffalo on Lake Erie. Skeptics claimed the project would end up as nothing more than an expensive failure, good only to line the pockets of politicians and bankrupt the state. The critics had some telling points, for the biggest canal built to date in the United States was only 27 miles long, and only 100 miles of canals existed in the entire country. In 1817 none of these projects could claim much of a profit, and President James Madison’s recent veto of the Bonus Bill quashed any hope that federal help might be forthcoming for New York’s internal improvement schemes. Moreover, although the proposed Erie Canal would be the longest modern canal in the world by far, its construction supervisors were not formally trained engineers, and apparently none of the consulting engineers had ever actually seen a canal dug previous to their work on the Erie.
“Clinton’s Big Ditch.” Despite these drawbacks, the canal’s most ardent advocate, governor and former New York City mayor DeWitt Clinton, traveled all over western New York drumming up support for the project and claiming that the “whole line of the canal will exhibit boats loaded with … valuable productions of our country… and merchandise from all parts of the world” while encouraging “great manufacturing establishments” to “spring up” along its line and new “villages, towns, and cities” to rise up from “the shores of the Hudson from Erie to New York.” In short, he added, the canal would make the “wilderness … glad, and the desert… rejoice and blossom as the rose.” Small wonder that critics referred to the project as “Clinton’s Big Ditch.” Nevertheless, Clinton’s rosy predictions proved to be quite accurate upon completion of the canal.
Opportunity. American victory in the War of 1812 had restarted the decades-long exodus of farmers from the East into the rich bottomlands of the Ohio River valley and the fertile cotton lands of Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. Seeing a growing market for manufactured goods and a rapidly expanding farm surplus for sale overseas, port cities such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, Charleston, and New York competed vigorously to be the first to forge overland transportation links with the Great Lakes basin and dislodge New Orleans as the terminus for Western goods. In this competition Philadelphia and Baltimore had the advantage of proximity to the Ohio River, but the mountains of western Pennsylvania and Maryland presented a daunting obstacle to the construction of roads, railroads, and canals. Only in New York was the passage through the mountains sufficiently low (only six hundred feet just east of Buffalo) to encourage consideration of a water route.
Construction. Construction started at Rome, New York, near Lake Oneida on 4 July 1817. The New York State canal commissioners selected four amateurs to serve as the principal engineers for the giant project. They did a surprisingly good job, completing the work not only in a timely fashion and almost on budget but also with a certain flair for innovation. Their designs for soaring aqueducts over the Genesee at Rochester and over the Mohawk at Little Falls were studied by visiting European engineers for years to come. Other innovations were more basic. For example, the Erie engineers used “plows, root cutters, and scrapers, drawn either by oxen or by horses” for excavation in place of traditional shovels and wheelbarrows. They also came up with a contraption by which one man could pull down a tree of any height without an ax and a wheeled machine that could pull thirty to forty tree stumps a day using only seven laborers. Those laborers were mainly local farmers and mechanics mixed with a small percentage of Irish immigrants, all of whom signed on with one of the dozens of contractors directly responsible for building the canal sections. Given that most of the Erie’s construction contracts and almost all of its salaried positions were dispensed as political patronage, it is a small wonder that the canal was finished with a minimum of corruption. Even labor relations remained fairly calm during construction, with the occasional exception of fights between the Catholic and Protestant Irish workers. Upon completion in October 1825 the Erie Canal was the longest in the Western world at 363 miles and was already carrying a monumental traffic along its 4-footdeep and 40-foot-wide channel.
Ceremonial Completion. Praise for the completed canal came in from around the world. One writer claimed that New Yorkers had constructed the “longest Canal in the least time—with the least experience—for the least money—and of the greatest public utility of any other in the world.” New Yorkers celebrated the completion of the Erie Canal in October 1825 with a ten-day party. A ceremonial flotilla with Governor Clinton on the Seneca Chief in the lead headed east from Buffalo on 26 October. As the governor’s boat set off, cannons spaced along the entire 500 miles to New York City fired in succession to announce his departure, with the last cannon booming 100 minutes after the first. Then the process was reversed. Clinton carried with him on the boat two kegs of Lake Erie water. On 4 November he dumped one in the New York Harbor in front of adoring crowds lining the Battery and then sailed out to Sandy Hook, where, in front of a flotilla of small craft and a British squadron playing “Yankee Doodle,” he dumped the second barrel signifying “The Marriage of the Waters.”
Impact. It is hard to exaggerate the national enthusiasm that greeted the completion of the Erie Canal. The Buffalo Emporium compared the event to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, saying that “well may New York rejoice in an achievement that would add glory to the most powerful nation on earth.” But for once the political rhetoric did not entirely outrun reality. The canal had a tremendous impact on the economy of New York and the nation as a whole. Among other things it made New York City the preeminent port in the country. As one commentator noted, if “the canal is to be a shower of gold, it will fall upon New York; if a river of gold, it will flow into her lap.” And flow it did. The canal opened an inexpensive route for Western goods (especially lumber, grain, and flour) to flow into the Hudson and then out into world markets from the wharves of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Coming the other way, imported and domestically produced manufactured goods swept west along the new channel, quickly making the port of New York the busiest in the country. Between 1830 and 1847 well over half of all American imports flowed through New York’s harbor. This enormous volume resulted from the simple fact that the Erie Canal cut the cost of sending goods from Buffalo to New York City to less than $8 a ton from a precanal cost of $100 a ton, a twelve-fold reduction even before factoring in the savings in time. In fact, the Erie Canal so reduced waterborne shipping costs that by 1827 residents of Savannah, Georgia, could buy wheat from central New York for less than they paid for wheat grown in the interior of their own state. In the words of historian John Lauritz Larson, “with the opening of the Erie Canal, New York had redrawn the economic map of the United States forever in its own favor.”
Boom Towns. Not just in New York City but all along the line of the canal itself the completion of the Erie created a boom economy. In the western part of the state, where before there was mainly sparsely settled wilderness and a few villages, new farms now stretched to the north and south of the canal route, causing a 22-percent increase in the acreage under cultivation between 1821 and 1835. More impressive still was the growth of canal towns such as Buffalo, Lockport, and Rochester. Rochester multiplied its population more than twenty times over (from 1, 502 to 36, 403) between 1820 and 1850, making it the fastest-growing city in the country in the 1820s. Armed with several of Oliver Evans’s automatic flour mills, and with abundant supplies of water power from the Genesee River, which dropped 100 feet in its passage through the city, Rochester became a major grain processor, shipping out 369, 000 barrels of flour in 1836 alone. Such growth also fed a speculative frenzy in land purchases. Adamson Palmer bought a building in Rochester in August 1835, held it for only five months, and realized a 50-percent profit. Taverns and hotels in the city sold for the then-extravagant sums, for example, of $46, 000 or $80, 000.
Criticisms. Despite its enormous positive impact on the economy of New York, the completion of the Erie Canal had several unintended negative consequences, and many critics grew to loathe the whole canal culture. First, the Erie became a conduit for not only freight and passengers but also disease. Smallpox and cholera frequently “rode the canal,” affecting not only New York but also the Great Lakes states as well. More commonly, critics of the canal were bothered by the style of life and type of individual the canal supposedly supported. Most prominent among these critics were the religious reformers of the Second Great Awakening. Revivalism spread like wildfire along the canal route in the 1830s, to the point where commentators began calling the western part of the state the “Burned Over District.” To these inspired moralists the common practice of running canal boats (which served liquor) on Sundays meant breaking the Sabbath. Worse yet, canal workers seemed to be drunken, foul-mouthed, violent rowdies who constantly disrupted the communities along the waterway. The reformers feared that the canal would simply bring more and more migrants bent on living lives of lawless abandon in taverns, theaters, and houses of prostitution. The reformers had limited success in curbing such behavior along the canal, but for the more-settled members of society their message of Christian morality, sobriety, and self-control carried great weight.
John Lauritz Larson, “‘Bind the Republic Together’: The National Union and the Struggle for a System of Internal Improvements, ” Journal of American History, 74 (September 1987): 363–387;
Ronald E. Shaw, Erie Water West: A History of the Erie Canal, 1792–1854 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1966);
George Rogers Taylor, The Transportation Revolution: 1815–1860, Economic History of the United States, volume 4 (New York: Holt, 1951).