Explore eight ways that the Erie Canal, which married the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes, altered the course of American history.
The Erie Canal opened the Midwest to settlement.
Prior to the construction of the Erie Canal, most of the United States population remained pinned between the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Appalachian Mountains to the west. By providing a direct water route to the Midwest, the canal triggered large-scale emigration to the sparsely populated frontiers of western New York, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois.
It sharpened the divide between the North and South over slavery.
Before the opening of the Erie Canal, New Orleans had been the only port city with an all-water route to the interior of the United States, and the few settlers in the Midwest had arrived mostly from the South. “Southerners had been moving up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers into southern Ohio and southern Indiana, which did become sympathetic to slavery,” according to Jack Kelly, author of the new book “Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold and Murder on the Erie Canal.” The Erie Canal checked that trend as the new settlers from New England, New York and Europe brought their abolitionist views with them to the newly established Midwest states. “The New Englanders and Europeans beginning to stream across the canal were opposed to slavery, and it set up this confrontation,” Kelly says. “Southerners became more hardened and Northerners more adamant.” Kelly adds that the transformation of the Midwest into America’s breadbasket by the new settlers also “reduced the dependence of the industrial North on the agriculturally dominant South.”
The Erie Canal transformed New York City into America’s commercial capital.
Believing the Erie Canal to be a pork-barrel project that would only benefit upstate towns, many of New York City’s political leaders tried to block its construction. Good thing for them that they failed. “The Erie Canal really made New York City,” Kelly says. Prior to the canal’s construction, ports such as New Orleans, Philadelphia and even Baltimore outranked New York. “The success of a port depends on how big a region it can draw from inland,” Kelly says. “It gave New York City access to this huge area of the Midwest, and that was an enormous factor in establishing New York City as a premier port in the country.” As the gateway to the Midwest, New York City became America’s commercial capital and the primary port of entry for European immigrants. The city’s population quadrupled between 1820 and 1850, and the financing of the canal’s construction also allowed New York to surpass Philadelphia as the country’s preeminent banking center.
It gave birth to the Mormon Church.
The Erie Canal brought not only rapid change, but anxiety, to towns along its path. Kelly says that apprehension sparked an evangelical religious revival in the 1820s and 1830s along the canal route as well as the birth of religions such as Adventism and Mormonism. “Many people don’t realize Mormonism started right on the Erie Canal since it’s so associated with Utah,” Kelly says. It was along the canal route in 1823 that Joseph Smith claimed to have been visited by a Christian angel named Moroni and where in 1830 he published the Book of Mormon and founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Like Smith himself, many of the religion’s early followers were drawn from the underclass who missed out on the prosperity brought to some by the canal. The new waterway, though, proved to be a 19th-century “information superhighway” that aided the spread of the new religion.
The Erie Canal helped to launch the consumer economy.
In addition to providing an economic boost by allowing the transport of goods at one-tenth the previous cost in less than half the previous time, the Erie Canal led to a transformation of the American economy as a whole. “Manufactured goods had been pretty much unknown on the frontier until transportation costs became cheaper. Farmers could grow wheat in western New York, sell it and have cash to buy furniture and clothing shipped up the canal that they otherwise would have made at home,” Kelly says. “That was the first inklings of the consumer economy.”
It led to the advent of the presidential nominating convention.
In 1826, Freemasons in Batavia, New York, were suspected in the kidnapping and likely murder of William Morgan, who had vowed to expose the order’s secrets in a new book. The failure of any Freemasons to be brought to justice ignited such outrage along the canal route that it led to the creation of America’s first “third party”—the Anti-Masonic Party. As the 1832 presidential election approached, the grassroots movement lacked the elected representatives in Congress and state legislatures that traditionally selected candidates, so it staged a nominating convention instead. The Whigs and Democrats quickly followed suit. “The other parties saw this as a great morale booster and publicity, so they staged their own conventions beginning in that same year,” Kelly says. Although the Anti-Masonic Party quickly disappeared, it left behind a considerable political legacy.
The Erie Canal boosted the nascent tourism industry.
The Erie Canal is purely a tourist attraction today, but it also attracted vacationers when it opened as well. Thousands of tourists, including Europeans such as Charles Dickens, flowed down the canal on excursions from New York City to Niagara Falls. Instead of staying at inns along the way, sightseers slept on packets boats pulled by mules through the night. “It was considered a real novelty to sleep while traveling,” Kelly says.
It sparked a boom in canal construction.
Within a decade of the opening of the Erie Canal, tolls paid by barges had paid back the construction debt. The Erie Canal’s commercial success, coupled with the engineering knowledge gained in its building, led to the construction of other canals across the United States. None, however, could replicate the success of the New York waterway. “They became filled with political pork,” Kelly says. “Plus, they were expensive to build and maintain and had to be closed in the winter, so the railroad eventually took on a lot of the transportation function of the canals.”