Erie Canal

views updated May 17 2018


The Erie Canal was the greatest American engineering project of the first half of the nineteenth century, though it was completed only a quarter of the way through it. It was the single most important factor in the emergence of New York as the "Empire State" and New York City as the economic center of the new nation. The canal sent settlers and manufactured goods through New York to the frontier and funneled grain, salt, lumber, and other raw materials to New York City for sale to the nation and the world. The canal cut the cost of freight transportation through its territory by up to 90 percent and reduced delivery times from uncertain weeks to scheduled days. By channeling overland through western New York, the canal bypassed traditional trade routes centered on Lake Ontario, limiting Canada's share of economic growth. By reaching westward before the American southern states, especially Virginia, which had tried for decades to canalize the Potomac, New York's canal delivered national economic dominance to the North. As the first human-made artery communicating with the continental interior, the canal provided an early bond of national unity, soon strengthened by other canals, railroads, and eventually highways. The Erie Canal began the process of both tying the nation together and dividing it: the canal helped establish a national free-market industrial economy, but its locus in New York sowed division between the slave-based agrarian economy of the South and the rest of the country that eventually helped undermine the Union.

artificial river

For all its impact, the original canal—begun in 1817 and completed in 1825—was a remarkably slender waterway. Stretching 363 miles from the Hudson River north of Albany to Lake Erie at the nascent village of Buffalo, the canal was just forty feet wide on its surface, narrowing to twenty-eight feet at a four-foot depth: it was a small prism of water dug across the breadth of New York. The path of the canal followed the lay of the land as much as possible to maintain levels and minimize expensive, traffic-slowing lockage. Long levels from Utica to what became Syracuse (seventy miles) and from the village of Rochester to what became Lockport (sixty-five miles) comprised over one-third of the canal's length and were the two longest canal levels in the world. Topography and water supply required the construction of eighty-three hand-operated locks, each 90 by 15 feet. Lake Erie is 572 feet above the Hudson but sag between Syracuse and Rochester required seven of the locks to lower the line, making a total of nearly 700 feet in elevation changes. Over four hundred feet of ascent occurred in the first one hundred miles of canal up the Mohawk River valley from the Hudson, requiring fifty-three locks; half of these were needed in the first thirty miles to Schenectady. The most challenging lockwork was located near the western end of the canal, where a double flight of five locks surmounted a forested, sixty-six-foot rock ridge at Lockport. Eighteen major aqueducts and several high embankments carried the canal trough over substantial rivers and valleys. To navigate the new waterway, boats sixty feet long and seven feet wide were designed to carry up to one hundred passengers or thirty tons of cargo. Animals were the motive force, initially horses but soon sturdier mules that towed the boats at four miles per hour.


In popular imagination, DeWitt Clinton (1769–1828) created the Erie Canal. In fact, the plan for a canal linking the Hudson River with Lake Erie originated in 1807 with Jesse Hawley's newspaper essays. The following year, state-appointed surveyor and future Erie engineer James Geddes determined that the canal was feasible. Clinton had little if any interest in the project or canals generally until 1810, when fellow state senator Jonas Platt sought Clinton's influential support for a bill to conduct detailed surveys. To his credit, the once and future New York City mayor and future governor then seized on the canal as a means of ascendancy for the state and himself. Clinton served on the state canal commission from its creation in 1810 until his removal from its leadership in 1824, an unpopular maneuver by political opponents that prompted his reelection later that year as governor, holding the office until his death. During his first six years on the commission, Clinton emerged as the canal's most effective advocate, neutralizing the negative influence of commission head Gouverneur Morris, who until his death in 1816 clung to the impractical notion of a 360-mile inclined plane instead of the traditional locks and levels ultimately employed. After the War of 1812 suspended canal planning, Clinton's leading role at a public meeting in New York City in December 1815 and his authorship of a widely distributed memorandum to the legislature set the state on its course toward building the canal and placed Clinton in his role as its greatest champion. After construction began in 1817, Clinton—as commission head (and governor)—guided the project toward completion in a timely and economical manner unique to engineering projects in the new nation. Not standing for reelection as governor in 1823 and turned out of the canal commission the following year, Clinton presided as governor once again for spectacular celebrations of the canal's completion in 1825. Contemptuous of enemies and indifferent to allies, Clinton was rarely secure in his political life. As the greatest advocate of the Erie Canal, Clinton's name endures.

Gerard T. Koeppel

historical background

For nearly its entire length, the Atlantic coast is separated from the continental interior by the Appalachian Mountains and the Adirondack Mountains. The gap between these ranges lies in central New York State, where the Mohawk River runs in a westerly direction 125 miles from its mouth at the Hudson River above Albany to Rome. The traditional route of water travel into New York's interior—first by fur traders in native canoes and later by diversified merchants in increasingly larger paddled and poled shallow-draft boats—was up the length of the rapids-strewn and flood-prone Mohawk to a portage of several miles at what became Rome, then down shallow and meandering Wood Creek, across windswept Oneida Lake, and down the Oneida and treacherous Oswego Rivers to Lake Ontario at Oswego. Interior travel further west was up the Seneca River from the Oswego River to Seneca Lake, a hundred miles east of Lake Erie. There was no river route to Lake Erie; the only water route to Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes was from Lake Ontario via a steep portage around Niagara Falls, a route barely explored and rarely taken before the late 1700s. From Lake Ontario there were two major, competing routes to market: on the tangle of New York waterways to the Hudson and, often preferably, down the St. Lawrence River to Montreal, and eventually the Atlantic.


Jesse Hawley (1773–1842) was a pioneering western New York grain merchant who went bankrupt trying to get produce east along crude roads and unimproved waterways. While confined to debtor's prison in Canandaigua in 1807, Hawley wrote a series of newspaper essays under the pseudonym "Hercules" outlining how and why an Erie-Hudson canal should be built. Over the next several years, the Hercules essays circulated among the influential New Yorkers who would plan and build the Erie Canal. Hawley himself subsequently became a prominent citizen of Rochester and Lockport, two among the numerous cities created by the canal.

There were several other early proponents. Gouverneur Morris (1752–1816) may have informally suggested a cross-state canal as early as 1777; he subsequently led the first state canal commission (1810–1816) but induced ridicule for the project by insisting it be built on an inclined plane spilling Lake Erie into the Hudson, instead of with locks and levels using local water sources. State assemblyman Joshua Forman (1777–1848) sponsored an 1808 resolution for the first survey that proved the canal possible; in 1819 he founded what became Syracuse, the canal-made city that shipped salt to the nation. State senator Jonas Platt (1769–1834) drafted the 1810 legislation that created the canal commission; Platt sought and won influential support for the bill from fellow senator DeWitt Clinton, who had given no prior thought to canals. Upon Morris's death in 1816, fellow commissioner and future governor Clinton emerged as the canal's greatest and most effective proponent, hitching his own destiny to that of the canal.


The seven-member commission established in 1810 oversaw several rounds of surveys. It was stifled, however, by popular, economic, and technological uncertainty and ultimately by the War of 1812, during which the British burned future canal terminus Buffalo.


In popular imagination, gangs of immigrant Irish laborers built the Erie Canal. In fact, during the first half of the construction period (1817–1821), the overwhelming majority of laborers were the families and hands who worked the small farms through which the canal line passed. The entire middle section of relatively level, dry land was contracted for and built (1817–1820) largely by these homesteaders, who had emigrated from no further away than New England. The state canal commissioners overseeing the construction reported proudly in 1819 that three in four canal laborers were American born. Gradually, contracts for multiple of the canal's hundreds of short sections were taken up by local and regional merchants and associations of contractors, suppliers, and speculators who needed larger labor crews. In the remote western sections, where work began in 1819, the scattered resident population could not supply adequate labor. Nor were area farmers willing to muck out or risk sickness in the extensive Montezuma swamps. This work increasingly fell to Irish immigrants hired right off the boat in New York City who sang their way into American folklore: "We are digging a ditch through the mire, Through the mud and the slime and the mire, dammit! And the mud is our principal hire; In our pants, down our boots, down our necks, dammit!" When the deadly work of blasting the canal trough through a long rock ridge in western New York was done, Irish laborers remained to become prominent settlers of the canal-made city of Lockport.

The Irish became the most notable and, for their considerable brawling, notorious immigrant group on the canal, but preceding them were substantial numbers of skilled and semiskilled Welsh, who often worked on the canal's masonry structures. Regardless of national origin, the tens of thousands of unskilled laborers who worked on the canal over nine construction seasons earned the same low wages: as little as fifty cents for day work, or from eight to ten dollars a month including room, board, laundry, and whiskey.

Gerard T. Koeppel

Interest in the canal revived quickly after the war. A public meeting in New York City in late December

1815 produced a persuasive memorandum by state Republican Party leader Clinton, which was circulated throughout the state and brought the question of construction before the legislature for the first time in 1816. Intense opposition came from Lake Ontario interests and regions distant from the canal line, especially New York City, whose merchants feared heavy taxes to support an expensive upstate project. Political interests, centered on Clinton's emerging Republican rival Martin Van Buren, feared that Clinton, narrowly defeated for the presidency in 1812 while running as a Federalist, was using the canal for personal political gain. Others questioned whether country surveyors with no engineering education or experience could build a canal more than ten times longer than the nation's only other significant canal. The twenty-seven-mile Middlesex Canal in Massachusetts was notorious for staggering construction costs and delays and financial strain on its prominent private investors.

Clinton settled for another round of surveys but claimed leadership of a new five-man canal commission stacked with supporters. They included Joseph Ellicott (1760–1826), influential agent for the Holland Land Company, which owned 3.3 million mostly vacant acres of westernmost New York that the canal would profitably settle.

By 1817 popular imagination had overwhelmed political opposition sufficiently so that the legislature approved construction of the middle section of what the commissioners estimated to be a $5 million project, by far the most expensive engineering project in the nation's history. Heeding its merchants' fears, none of the thirty New York City–area legislators voted in favor.

New York State moved ahead without any federal support. In 1809 President Thomas Jefferson called New York's project "madness," clinging to false hope that his own Virginia would be the first to reach the interior by canalizing the Potomac. On the final day of his presidency in 1817, Jefferson's successor and fellow Virginian, James Madison, vetoed a bill that would have provided federal money to canal projects like New York's. Madison's veto, on the grounds that Congress had no express constitutional authority to fund canals, came as New York's legislature was debating its canal bill; contrary to what Madison might have wished, his veto helped unify opinion in New York behind the project.

A sophisticated canal fund, administered by a financial board separate from the canal commission that oversaw construction, featured state bonds, duties on auction and salt sales, taxes on steamboat passengers, and tolls. By 1833 total tolls surpassed the eventual construction cost of $7 million; when tolls were abolished fifty years later, the canal had earned a profit of over $40 million.


The canal was constructed in three sections for engineering, financial, and political reasons. The commissioners initially sought approval in 1817 only to build the ninety-six-mile middle section, from Utica on the Mohawk River to Montezuma on the Seneca River, calculating that the legislature would be more willing to approve a limited objective and that quick progress on one section would win popular support and legislative approval for completion of the entire project. The middle section featured the fewest elevation changes (only nine locks) and no significant engineering challenges, and ran through country that was settled enough to provide local labor. The ceremonial first shovelful of dirt was turned near Rome on Independence Day 1817, and the section was completed and open for travel by October 1820.

The middle section established the pattern for future construction. The work was bid out in segments of generally less than one mile. The winning bidder, especially in the early years, was often the farmer whose land would be bisected by the canal; the laborers were his sons and farmhands. In later years, especially in the unsettled western region of the state, bidders took up multiple contracts and hired immigrant labor gangs to do the hardest and most dangerous work: mucking out malarial swamps that disabled many hundreds of workers and blasting through rock that killed or maimed dozens.

Most of the work was basic manual labor with axes and shovels, digging a ditch along a line laid out by country surveyors and assistants training themselves as practical engineers. Benjamin Wright (1770–1842) was a county judge and surveyor in Rome when he conducted some of the early canal surveys; named Erie chief engineer in 1817, Wright subsequently was involved in canal and railroad projects from Canada to Cuba and is regarded at the turn of the twenty-first century as the "Father of American Civil Engineering." Erie principal engineer James Geddes (1763–1838) was a pioneer salt manufacturer in the area that became Syracuse when he conducted the initial Erie survey in 1808, using a leveling instrument for only his second time; he later engineered canals for Ohio, Pennsylvania, and the federal government. Nathan Roberts (1776–1852), an itinerant math teacher when Wright hired him, designed the Lockport locks and later served as Erie chief during the canal enlargement begun in the 1830s. Among the notable young graduates of the so-called Erie School of Engineering were John Jervis (1795–1885) and Canvass White (1790–1834). Rome farm boy Jervis rose from Erie axeman chopping down trees for a survey crew to become Wright's successor as chief engineer and to be counted among the country's most innovative canal and railroad engineers. A grandson of the first white settler on the Upper Mohawk, White started as a Wright assistant and later developed and patented the hydraulic cement that made the Erie and subsequent canals watertight; his engineering career rivaled Jervis's but was cut short by ill health.

Innovations multiplied along the Erie line, often created by the contractors themselves to maximize efficiency and improve what were often slender profit margins. Large trees were toppled by a cable attached high on the trunk and winched by a hand-cranked endless screw. Stumps were pulled by a cable on a huge overhead wheel turned by a harnessed team of oxen. Rome contractor Jeremiah Brainard developed a rounded-basin wheelbarrow that was lighter, sturdier, and easier to unload than the centuries-old box-shaped barrow.

When the middle section appeared headed to successful completion in 1819, the legislature approved construction of the eastern and western sections. The 109-mile eastern section, with its dozens of locks, was completed in 1823, ending nearly two centuries of frustrating navigation on the Mohawk River, which was consigned to supplying water for the canal built along its banks. The 158-mile western section featured a spectacular embankment spanning the Irondequoit Valley east of Rochester, a landmark bridge across the Genesee River, and the Lockport locks. The western section was completed in 1825 after a bitter struggle between Buffalo and neighboring Black Rock to be the canal's western terminus. Black Rock lost and within thirty years was annexed into Buffalo, which the canal rapidly made into the state's second-largest city. Beginning in late October 1825 DeWitt Clinton, once again governor, presided over grandiose, canal-length celebrations, culminating in New York City, which already was gaining fortune and fame from the canal it had opposed.


The Erie Canal launched the nation's canal era, which peaked in 1860, when over 4,200 miles of mainline and lateral canals linked the nation's natural waterways as far west as Illinois. The Erie's success also induced a canal mania that spawned numerous ill-conceived canal projects; the Panic of 1837 and the subsequent national depression was caused in part by a bust in canal stock, the country's first technology bubble.

The original canal was enlarged to seventy feet wide and seven feet deep between 1836 and 1862, but by the late 1800s railroads had dramatically reduced mule-pulled boat traffic. The enlarged canal was replaced entirely by a twelve-foot-deep canal, built from 1905 to 1918 and designed for motorized barges; in the early twenty-first century, traffic was primarily recreational boaters.

See alsoNew York City; New York State; Transportation: Canals and Waterways .


Cornog, Evan. The Birth of Empire: DeWitt Clinton and the American Experience, 1769–1828. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Hosack, David. Memoir of DeWitt Clinton: With an Appendix, Containing Numerous Documents, Illustrative of the Principal Events of His Life. New York: Seymour, 1829.

Reisem, Richard O. Erie Canal Legacy: Architectural Treasures of the Empire State. Rochester: Landmark Society of Western New York, 2000.

Shaw, Ronald E. Erie Water West: A History of the Erie Canal, 1792–1854. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1966.

——. Canals for a Nation: The Canal Era in the United States, 1790–1860. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990.

Way, Peter. Common Labour: Workers and the Digging of North American Canals, 1780–1860. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Whitford, Noble E. History of the Canal System of the State of New York, Together with Brief Histories of the Canals of the United States and Canada. Albany, N.Y.: Brandow, 1906.

Gerard T. Koeppel

Erie Canal

views updated Jun 08 2018

Erie Canal

In the early nineteenth century, available farmland along the East Coast of the United States decreased as the population grew. Many farmers moved from the Atlantic seaboard east of the Appalachian Mountains into the rich and available farmlands of the Old Northwest, a region where Ohio , Indiana , Illinois , Michigan , and Wisconsin are today. Though the land in the Old Northeast was productive, farmers initially faced a major obstacle in selling their crops. There were few overland roads between the East and the Old Northwest, and it was difficult to ship farm produce of the Old Northwest back to the East for sale. Eastern port cities, such as Baltimore, Maryland ; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania ; and New York City, competed vigorously to be the first to forge transportation links with the Old Northwest, but the mountains of western Pennsylvania and Maryland presented a daunting obstacle to the construction of roads, railroads, and canals, especially for Philadelphia and Baltimore. Only in New York was the passage through the mountains sufficiently low enough to encourage consideration of a water route.

In April 1817, New York State authorized funding for the construction of a 364-mile (586-kilometer) canal to link Albany, New York, on the Hudson River with Buffalo, New York, on Lake Erie. Nothing like

the Erie Canal had ever been tried before. At the time, the biggest canal in the United States was only 27 miles (43 kilometers) long, and only 100 miles (161 kilometers) of canals existed in the entire country. Skeptics claimed the project would end as an expensive failure, good only to line the pockets of politicians and bankrupt the state.

Building “Clinton's Big Ditch”

Despite the drawbacks, the canal's most ardent advocate, New York governor DeWitt Clinton (1769–1828), managed to gather support for the project. Clinton claimed that as soon as it was built, the canal would be crowded with boats heavily laden with produce and wares from remote regions of the United States and that it would create thriving new cities and towns along its path. Critics began to refer to the project as “Clinton's Big Ditch.”

Construction started in Rome, New York, near Lake Oneida on July 4, 1817. Because there were no civil engineers and few professional surveyors in the United States at that time, the New York State canal commissioners selected four amateurs (nonprofessionals, or inexperienced people) to serve as the principal engineers. They did a surprisingly good job, completing the work in a timely fashion and almost on budget. They also showed a flair for innovation. Their designs for soaring aqueducts (channels or pipes that carry water) over the Genesee and Mohawk Rivers were studied by visiting European engineers for years after construction was completed. Other innovations were more basic. For example, the Erie engineers used plows and scrapers drawn by livestock for digging instead of traditional shovels and wheelbarrows. They also produced a device that allowed one man to pull down a tree of any height without an ax as well as a wheeled machine that could pull thirty to forty tree stumps a day using only seven laborers.

The canal laborers were mainly local farmers and mechanics along with a small percentage of Irish immigrants. They signed on with one of the dozens of contractors directly responsible for building the canal sections. The canal was finished with a minimum of corruption. Even labor relations remained fairly calm during construction.

Celebrating the canal

Upon completion in October 1825, the Erie Canal drew praise from around the world. It was the longest canal in the Western world. By the time it was finished, it was already carrying heavy traffic along its 4-foot-deep (1-meter) and 40-foot-wide (12-meter) channel.

New Yorkers celebrated the completion of the Erie Canal with a ten-day party. A ceremonial flotilla, or formation of boats, led by Governor Clinton headed east from Buffalo on October 26. As the governor's boat set off, cannons spaced along the entire 500 miles (805 kilometers) along the Erie Canal and the Hudson River to New York City fired in succession to announce his departure, with the last cannon booming one hundred minutes after the first. As a symbol of the new water link, Clinton carried with him on the boat two kegs of Lake Erie water. On November 4, he emptied one keg in the New York Harbor in front of adoring crowds. Then he sailed out to Sandy Hook, New Jersey , where, in front of a flotilla of small craft and a British squadron playing “Yankee Doodle,” he emptied the second barrel in celebration of “the wedding of the waters” of Lake Erie and the Atlantic Ocean.


The canal had a tremendous impact on the economy of New York. It 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 was because the Erie Canal had cut the cost of sending goods from Buffalo to New York City to less than $8 a ton from a pre-canal cost of $100 a ton. And, it was faster than shipping goods over land.

All along its path, the Erie Canal created a thriving economy. In western New York State, where there had previously been only sparsely settled wilderness and a few villages, prosperous new farms stretched to the north and south of the canal route. 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. With its new automatic flour mills and abundant supplies of water power from the Genesee River, Rochester became a major grain processor, shipping out 369,000 barrels of flour in 1836 alone.

The canal had its critics, and they pointed to some of its unintended results. One side effect of the canal was the increased transmission of deadly diseases. Smallpox and cholera frequently “rode the canal,” affecting people in New York and in the Great Lakes states. Some of the religious reformers of the day were bothered by the style of life on the canal. They disapproved of the common practice of running canal boats (which served liquor) on Sundays and viewed the canal workers as drunken, foul-mouthed, violent rowdies.

The rise and fall of canals

The success of the Erie Canal led to a canal-building mania. New York constructed many more canal branches in the years that followed. But during the 1850s, railroads began to transport much of the freight that had previously been carried on the canals. Canals could not compete. They were expensive to build and repair. Floods were a constant threat. Winter freezes stopped traffic altogether. Railroads were almost as expensive as canals to construct, but they were cheaper to repair and much more reliable in winter.

The Erie Canal still exists today as the most important link in the New York State Barge Canal system, which was built between 1909 and 1918. With other, more efficient, means of transportation available, in the twenty-first century the canal is used primarily for recreational traffic and has been preserved as a place of historic interest.

Erie Canal

views updated May 21 2018


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.


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.


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

Erie Canal

views updated Jun 27 2018

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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