The Erie Canal, near Utica, New York.  (Credit: Robert F. Sisson/National Geographic/Getty Images)
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Introduction

The Erie Canal is a 363-mile waterway that connects the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean via the Hudson River in upstate New York. The channel, which traverses New York state from Albany to Buffalo on Lake Erie, was considered an engineering marvel when it first opened in 1825. The Erie Canal provided a direct water route from New York City to the Midwest, triggering large-scale commercial and agricultural development—as well as immigration—to the sparsely populated frontiers of western New York, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and points farther west. The canal transformed New York City into the young nation’s economic powerhouse, and in 2000 the U.S. Congress designated the Erie Canal a National Heritage Corridor.

Early explorers in America had long searched for a water route from East Coast population centers to the resource-rich lands of the Midwest and Great Lakes.

The Northwest Territory—which later would become the states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin—had timber, minerals, furs and fertile land for farming, but the Appalachian Mountains stood in the way.

Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, it took weeks to reach these resources overland. Bulk transportation of goods was limited by what teams of oxen could pull by wagon. The lack of an efficient transportation network confined populations and trade to coastal areas.

Beginning in 1807, Jesse Hawley—a flour merchant from western New York who went broke trying to get his product to market in the Atlantic coastal cities—published a series of essays from debtor’s prison. In them, Hawley advocated for a canal system that would span nearly 400 miles from Buffalo, New York, on the eastern shore of Lake Erie, to Albany, New York, on the Hudson River.

Hawley’s eloquent essays caught the attention of New York politicians, including New York City mayor DeWitt Clinton. Clinton believed that the canal was crucial to the economic advancement of his city.

Clinton saw his plan come to fruition in 1817 after he became the governor of New York. Workers first broke ground on the Erie Canal on July 4, 1817, near Utica, New York.

The construction of the Erie Canal, through mountainous terrain and dense rock proved as challenging as the political environment.

Throughout construction, Dewitt Clinton’s political opponents ridiculed the project as “Clinton’s Folly” or “Clinton’s ditch.”

It took canal laborers—some Irish immigrants, but most U.S.-born men—eight years to finish the project. They cleared the land by hand and animal power and blasted through rock with gunpowder. (Dynamite wasn’t invented until the 1860s by Swedish scientist Alfred Nobel.)

The original Erie Canal was just four feet deep and 40 feet wide, though it was considered a major engineering feat at the time of its completion in 1825. It traversed nearly 400 miles of fields, forests, and rocky cliffs, and contained 83 locks—structures used for raising and lowering boats between canal stretches with different water levels.

Project engineers had little experience building canals. The military academy at West Point in New York offered the only formal engineering program in North America at the time the Erie Canal was built.

The project provided practical schooling for a new generation of American engineers and builders, and led to the founding of the nation’s first civil engineering school, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York, in 1824.

Erie Canal engineers devised new equipment to uproot trees and stumps and invented the first cement that could set and harden underwater.

The Erie Canal opened on October 26, 1825. A fleet of boats, led by Governor Dewitt Clinton aboard the Seneca Chief sailed from Buffalo to New York City in record time—just ten days.

The canal transformed New York City into the commercial capital it remains today. Prior to the canal’s construction, the ports of Boston, Philadelphia and New Orleans outranked New York in size.

But the construction of the Erie Canal gave New York City (via the Hudson River) direct water access to the Great Lakes and regions of the Midwest. As the gateway to these resource-rich lands, New York soon became the nation’s economic epicenter and the primary port of entry to the United States for European immigrants.

New York City’s population quadrupled between 1820 and 1850. Financing of the Erie Canal’s construction allowed the city to eclipse Philadelphia as the country’s most important banking center.

The Erie Canal also provided an economic boost to the entire United States by allowing the transport of goods at one-tenth the previous cost in less than half the previous time. By 1853, the Erie Canal carried 62 percent of all U.S. trade.

For the first time, manufactured goods such as furniture and clothing could be shipped in bulk to the frontier.

Farmers in western New York and the Midwest now had cash to purchase consumer goods, because they could more cheaply ship wheat, corn and other crops to lucrative East Coast markets.

The Erie Canal also helped to stimulate America’s nascent tourism industry. It attracted vacationers, including Europeans such as Charles Dickens. Thousands of tourists floated down the canal on excursions from New York City to Niagara Falls.

The building of the Erie Canal and subsequent population explosion along its route accelerated the dispossession—or removal—of Native Americans in western New York and the Upper Midwest.

The Erie Canal traversed the ancestral homelands of several groups, including the Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca.

From the early years of the canal era to the peak of New York’s canal boom in the 1840s and 1850s, state and federal policies promoted the removal of indigenous populations from developing portions of New York.

Native Americans were sent to reservations in isolated portions of New York and other eastern States. Others were sent to unfamiliar outlying territories in the American Midwest.

The Erie Canal was enlarged twice to fit wider and deeper boats. Some parts were rerouted to make way for more ship traffic in 1918. Portions of the original canal are still operable, though tourism is now the main source of boat traffic along the Erie Canal.

Commercial and shipping traffic declined abruptly after the completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959. The new waterway along the United States-Canadian border allowed large ships to enter the Great Lakes directly from the Atlantic Ocean, bypassing the Erie Canal.

In 2000, Congress designated the Erie Canal a National Heritage Corridor to help preserve New York State’s historic waterway and the communities along its banks.