The Erie Canal opens, connecting the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean via the Hudson River. Governor DeWitt Clinton of New York, the driving force behind the project, led the opening ceremonies and rode the canal boat Seneca Chief from Buffalo to New York City.
New York legislators became interested in the possibility of building a canal across New York in the first decade of the 19th century. Shipping goods west from Albany was a costly and tedious affair; there was no railroad yet, and to cover the distance from Buffalo to New York City by stagecoach took two weeks. Governor Clinton enthusiastically took up the proposal to build a canal from Buffalo, on the eastern point of Lake Erie, to Albany, on the upper Hudson, passing through the gap in the mountains in the Mohawk Valley region. By 1817, he had convinced the legislature to authorize the expenditure of $7 million for the construction of a canal that he proposed would be 363 miles long, 40 feet wide, and four feet deep.
Work began on “Clinton’s Ditch” in August 1823. Teams of oxen plowed the ground, but for the most part the work was done by Irish diggers who had to rely on primitive tools. They were paid $10 a month, and barrels of whisky were placed along the canal route as encouragement. West of Troy, 83 canal locks were built to accommodate the 500-foot rise in elevation. After more than two years of digging, the 425-mile Erie Canal was opened on October 26, 1825, by Governor Clinton.
As Clinton left Buffalo in the Seneca Chief, an ingenious method of communication was used to inform New York City of the historic occasion. Cannons were arranged along the length of the canal and the river, each within hearing distance of the next cannon. As the governor began his trip, the first cannon was fired, signaling the next to fire. Within 81 minutes, the word was relayed to New York—it was the fastest communication the world had ever known. After arriving in New York on November 4, Clinton ceremoniously emptied a barrel of Lake Erie water in the Atlantic Ocean, consummating the “Marriage of the Waters” of the Great Lakes and the Atlantic.
The effect of the canal was immediate and dramatic. Settlers poured into western New York, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Goods were transported at one-tenth the previous fee in less than half the previous time. Barge loads of farm produce and raw materials traveled east as manufactured goods and supplies flowed west. In nine years, tolls had paid back the cost of construction. Later enlarged and deepened, the canal survived competition from the railroads in the latter part of the 19th century. Today, the Erie Canal is used mostly by pleasure boaters, but it is still capable of accommodating heavy barges.