Two hundred years ago, the country witnessed the birth of a profound mark on the national landscape—on that oh-so-American date of July the Fourth. That was when Chief Engineer James Geddes began construction on the Erie Canal. As a piece of American history, the Erie Canal is probably as well known as the Liberty Bell or The War of 1812. The name, that is. How many of us living outside of the northeastern US really know where it is located, or even how important it was to the development of of the nation? Somewhere along the way you might have sung the words, “I’ve got a mule, her name is Sal—fifteen miles on the Erie Canal.” Here’s a refresher to your 5th grade history/geography lesson.
In 1817, the US was a much smaller, but a growing and modernizing place. That year saw Mississippi become the 20th state of the Union, and it was the same year that steamboat service on the Big Muddy first began. Also in 1817, Baltimore became the first city in the nation to have its streets lit by coal gas. The Louisiana Purchase had been made several years earlier, in 1803, promising new frontiers for growth. But westward expansion was arduous and dangerous, so the process of realizing the development of American lands needed help.
A better way to move goods and passengers to places in the interior was required, and it was the mission of former New York City mayor, and then New York state governor DeWitt Clinton, to build a canal across New York. To connect Buffalo, at the eastern end of Lake Erie, with Albany, on the Hudson River, meant that a route of water transit could connect Ohio, the whole Great Lakes region, and parts west, to New York City. Clinton’s vision for such a route might have been easier if the canal had only made its way to Oswego on Lake Ontario. Boats could have sailed west from there, to Buffalo, cutting the length of the required canal in half. But crops and materials in boats on Lake Ontario could go north to markets on the Canadian shoreline, or to other ports along parts of the St. Lawrence River. By building a canal along an inland route, boats were kept on the track toward New York City.
After a lengthy political fight for funding, the work got under way at Rome, NY, on the Fourth of July, 1817. Construction capabilities were far less robust two hundred years ago, and the young country had far fewer qualified engineers and laborers skilled in mega-public works projects. A 363-mile-long canal is no simple irrigation ditch. It was originally designed to be four feet deep and forty feet wide, which was a lot of digging. In addition, there is a 571-foot elevation difference between Buffalo and Albany, which required the building of 83 locks, each 90 feet long. The design, coordination, logistics, and general problem-solving involved in this task was the greatest the country had yet taken on. Canal builders from Europe had been enlisted to lend their expertise to smaller canals built before the Erie Canal, and under their tutelage the first top-level American engineers had developed. When those engineers took on the task of creating the Erie Canal, the crucible of that construction tested their skills, and they later followed through on large public works projects around the nation. The era of American can-do building had begun.
The men who did the actual digging and other grueling labor numbered in the thousands. There were not enough local hands to do such work, and those who were around were generally busy with farm labor. This led to the growth of immigrant labor, much of which came from Ireland. Pay was low, work was hard, and conditions were often cold and always wet. As if putting up with all that wasn’t enough, there was the constant threat of diseases such as malaria, cholera, and typhus. In addition, all the usual vices and violence of hard-working crews in isolated regions flourished, but the job got done.
When the Erie Canal was completed eight years later, in 1825, it opened the gates to what had been a remote part of the country. Suddenly, mule-towed barges laden with 30 tons of materials could pass relatively quickly west to supply growing towns in the Great Lakes region and beyond. Travellers who had previously been forced to spend two weeks bouncing in uncomfortable stagecoaches to travel from Albany to Buffalo now transited in just five days, over smooth water. Raw materials such as lumber could move quickly from interior forests to the ever-growing port of New York, and the products of Midwestern farms also went east for one-tenth of the former cost, in half the time. The Erie Canal was the main east-west line, but lateral canals began to be built running north and south of it, feeding the traffic. Towns along its route grew with the rising commerce, and with new residents came new ideas like women’s rights, alternative religions, and political ideas like the abolition of slavery. The Erie Canal infused its course with a pulse of economic and social energy like nothing else could have.
In nine short years, canal tolls paid off the cost of the entire endeavor, and as time went by, the canal’s success would periodically overwhelm its capabilities. Sal the mule, as reliable as she was, could only tow a few tens of tons for fifteen-mile segments of the canal before needing to be relieved by another animal. The massive growth of shipping volume meant the canal had to be upgraded. In 1862, and again in 1918, it was enlarged to handle greater traffic and bigger boats and barges. Now steam-driven boat engines could push hundreds of tons all day, and the mules were out of a job. In time, the canal, once only 4 feet deep, grew to depths of 12-23 feet, and had its width expanded to 120-200 feet. The locks lengthened to 310 feet, and were compartmentalized, thus able to handle traffic going in two directions at once.
The Erie Canal saw the height of its usage in 1880. The development of rail lines across the country in the late 19th century siphoned passenger traffic away, but the canal maintained its role by expanding its size and capability. The 1918 expansion, called the Erie Barge Canal, utilized some natural waterways in its new course. Petroleum product transport began to be the canal’s cash cow in the early 20th century, and on into the 1950s. But the development of pipeline networks and the Interstate Highway System in the 1960s cut the Erie Barge Canal’s effectiveness. In addition, 1959 saw the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, a joint US and Canadian project. It created locks and dredged the channels for the passage of full-sized, ocean-going ships to travel from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic by way of the St. Lawrence River. Its capacity was enormous—the Erie Barge Canal had been superseded.
But life goes on for the Erie Canal even today. It and the canal systems that built up around it have been named as a National Historic Corridor. All these canals now support a very popular tourist trade, transiting pleasure craft both private and charter along their historic routes, allowing modern-day travelers the chance to witness first-hand the engineering marvels that helped build the young US of A.
Would you like to see what the Erie Canal had done for New York City about 30 years after it was built? This antique birds-eye-view map of NYC from 1856 shows a growing metropolis in amazing detail. Perfect for your wall, or a gift for a friend in New York.