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Erie Canal

The white section highlights the general area of the canal, with the actual canal shown in blue
The white section highlights the general area of the canal, with the actual canal shown in blue

The Erie Canal (later replaced by the Barge Canal, and subsequently renamed to the Erie Canal) is a canal in New York State, United States, that runs from the Hudson River to Lake Erie, connecting the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean. Although the canal was first proposed in 1699, it was not until 1798 that the Niagara Canal Company was incorporated and commenced preparations for building. The first section of canal was completed in 1819, and the entire canal was opened on October 26, 1825. It was 363 miles (584 km) long, 40 feet (12 m) wide, and 4 feet (1.2 m) deep. There were 83 locks along the canal, each 90 feet by 15 feet (27 m by 4.5 m). Maximum canal-boat displacement was 75 tons (68 tonnes). The Erie Canal was the first transportation route faster than carts pulled by draft animals between the Eastern Seaboard of the United States and the western interior, and cut transport costs into what was then wilderness by about 90%. The Canal resulted in a massive population surge in western New York, and opened regions further west to increased settlement.



The Appalachian Mountains cut off the interior of North America from the Atlantic Ocean. At their northern end, the Appalachians connect with the equally formidable Canadian Shield. The Adirondack Mountains in northeastern New York state are actually an extension of the Canadian Shield although they are often seen as part of the Appalachians.

It was possible to use pack animals to bring light high-value products like furs from the interior to the Atlantic coast for export. However, the only way to economically move bulky low-value agricultural and timber products was by water. It was these latter products that formed the majority of North American exports until the 20th century. There are only four navigable water routes through or around the mountain barrier into the interior – Hudson Bay, the St. Lawrence River, the Hudson River and the Mississippi River. Until the development of railroads in the middle of the 19th century, much of North American history revolved around the contest to control these routes.

In some ways, the Hudson River is the least attractive of these routes. Once past the mountains it ends in a cul-de-sac with no access to the rest of the Great Lakes Basin. The Erie Canal addressed this weakness by providing a route from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. Prior to the construction of the canal, the British colonies north of the Great Lakes expected to be major beneficiaries of the settlement of the American Midwest. Without the Erie Canal, produce from the Midwest would have flowed through the St. Lawrence River, and Montreal, rather than New York, would have become the great exporting and immigration center for North America.

Because the Great Lakes Basin has no great heights of land separating it from neighboring drainage basins, access to the Great Lakes also provides access to other regions of North America. The early French access to the Great Lakes allowed them to become the first Europeans to explore the Mississippi River system. Today, the Chicago Ship Canal allows ships to travel between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.

In the west, fur traders from Montreal were able to portage between the Great Lakes and the Hudson Bay drainage basin which extends all the way to the Rocky Mountains. From this drainage basin, other portages gave access to the Mackenzie River system. These two drainage basins effectively define the western and Alaskan borders between Canada and the United States.


The canal was the idea of the entrepreneurial Jessie Hawley, who imagined being able to grow huge quantities of grain in the upstate New York plains (then largely unsettled) for sale on the Eastern Seaboard. However he went bankrupt trying to ship it to the coast, and while sitting in the Canandaigua debtors' prison he started pressing for the construction of a canal running along the Mohawk River valley. He had strong support from Joseph Ellicott, the agent for the Holland Land Company in Batavia. Ellicott realized that a canal would add immense value to the land he was selling in the western part of the state. Ellicott later became the first canal commissioner.

The Mohawk River, a tributary to the Hudson, runs in a glacial meltwater channel across the northern reaches of the Appalachians, separating them in New York State into the Catskills and Adirondacks. The Mohawk Valley was the only cut across the Appalachians north of Alabama, and pointed almost directly from the already widely used Hudson River to the east, to either Lake Ontario or Lake Erie on the west. From there much of the interior and many settlements would be accessible on the lakes.

Stonework of Erie Canal lock (abandoned due to route change), Durhamville, New York
Stonework of Erie Canal lock (abandoned due to route change), Durhamville, New York

The problem with this was that the land rises about 600 feet (183 m) from the Hudson River at Albany, New York to Lake Erie. Locks at the time could handle a change of up to 12 feet (3.5 m), so at least 50 locks would be required along the 360 mile canal. Any such canal would cost a fortune even today, but in 1800 such an undertaking was barely feasible. President Jefferson thought the proposal was ridiculous and rejected it. Nevertheless Hawley managed to interest the governor, DeWitt Clinton, and after surveying the plan went ahead.

The canal was to consist of a 4 foot (1.2 m) deep cut, with the removed soil being piled on the downhill side to form a walkway on that side. Barges, up to 3.5 feet (1.07 m) in draft, would be pulled by mules on the walkway. When barges crossed there was a quick unhitching and re-hitching of the mule teams while the barges continued due to momentum. The sides of the cut would be lined with stone, while the bottom would be covered with clay. The stone work required hundreds of German masons to be brought in, who would later go on to build many of New York's famous buildings when the canal was completed.

Construction began July 4, 1817, at Rome, New York. The first 15 mile (24 km) section between Rome and Utica opened two years later. At this rate the canal would not have been finished for another 30 years or so. The main problems were cutting the trees and moving the dirt, which was proving to be much slower than expected. Solutions were discovered, trees were pulled down with a rope thrown over the top of the tree and then winched down, and the stumps pulled out with a huge tripod-mounted winch. Mule-pulled carts were filled from much larger wheelbarrows to clear the dirt. A three-man team with mules could now build a mile long stretch in a year, meaning that the problem now was staffing.

Construction continued at an increased rate as new workers arrived, but halted completely when the canal reached the Montezuma Swamp in 1819 at the outlet of Cayuga Lake west of Syracuse, New York, when over 1000 workers died of swamp fevers. Work continued on the "downhill" side towards the Hudson, and when the swamp froze over in the winter, the crews all worked to complete the section right across the swamps.

After Montezuma, the next obstacle was crossing the Niagara Escarpment, an 80-foot (24 m) wall of hard dolomitic limestone, in order to rise to the level of Lake Erie. The route followed the channel of a creek that had cut a ravine steeply down the escarpment, with five locks in a series, thus giving rise to the community of Lockport, New York. The final leg of the canal had to be cut as much as 30 feet (9 m) through another limestone layer, the Onondaga ridge. Much of that section was blasted with black powder. The inexperience of the crews often led to accidents, and sometimes rocks falling on nearby homes.

Two villages competed to be the terminus of the canal, Black Rock, on the Niagara River, and Buffalo, at the eastern tip of Lake Erie. Buffalo expended great energy to widen and deepen Buffalo Creek to make it navigable, and to create a harbor at its mouth. Buffalo won over Black Rock, and quickly grew into a great city, eventually swallowing its former competitor.

Work was completed in 1825. Officially the event was celebrated by cannon shots along the length, and by Governor Clinton ceremonially pouring Lake Erie water into the New York Harbor in the "Wedding of the Waters."

Problems developed but were quickly solved. Leaks developed along the entire length of the canal, but these were sealed with a newly invented concrete that hardened under water. Erosion on the clay bottom proved to be a problem and the speed was limited to 4 mph (6 km/h). The original design planned for an annual tonnage of 1.5 million tons (1.36 million tonnes), but this was exceeded immediately. A program to enlarge the canal, notably the locks, started only a year later. This First Enlargement was completed in 1862, with further minor enlargements in later decades. By 1883 the tolls on the canal had raised 121 million dollars, and all fees were waived for future use.

Concerns that erosion caused by logging in the Adirondacks could silt up the canal led to the creation of the Adirondack Park in 1885.

Additional canals (called feeder canals) soon added to the coverage, including the Cayuga-Seneca south to the Finger Lakes, the Oswego from Three Rivers north to Lake Ontario at Oswego, and the Champlain running north from Troy to Lake Champlain. A short canal, the Crooked Lake Canal, from 1833 to 1877 connected Keuka Lake and Seneca Lake. The Chemung Canal connected the south end of Seneca Lake to Elmira in 1833, and was an important route for Pennsylvania coal and timber to be shipped throughout the canal system. The Chenango Canal in 1836 connected the Erie at Utica to Binghamton and caused a business boom in the Chenango River valley. The Chenango and Chemung canals linked the Erie with the Susquehenna River system. The Genesee Canal was run along the Genesee River to connect with the Allegheny River at Olean, but the Allegheny section which would have connected to the Ohio and Mississippi was never built. The Genesee Canal was later abandoned and became a railroad right of way.

The Erie Canal today

In 1918 the canal was replaced by the larger New York Barge Canal. The new canal replaced much of the original route, and sought to 'canalize' rivers along the way that the original canal sought to avoid such as the Mohawk, Seneca, Clyde, Genesee and Oneida Lake.

Abandoned sections of the old Erie Canal were filled by most communities to create parks, recreational trails, and roads such as Erie Boulevard in Syracuse and Broad Street in Rochester, Monroe County, New York. Some communities elected to keep their sections of the canal as a means of historic preservation.

Due to the growth of the highway system, railways, and the Saint Lawrence Seaway, commercial traffic on the canal declined dramatically during the second half of the twentieth century. In the 1990s, a series of legislation renamed the Barge Canal back to the Erie Canal, and its use was restricted to recreational traffic. The Erie Canal is open to small craft and some larger vessels for most of the year. During the winter, water is drained from parts of the canal, enabling repairs and maintenance.

Today the Erie Canal Corridor covers 524 miles (843 km) of navigable water from Lake Champlain to the Capital Region and west to Lake Erie. The area has a population of 2.7 million, and it has been estimated that about 75% of upstate New York's population lives within 25 miles (40 km) of the Erie Canal. The current New York State Canal System includes the Erie, Cayuga-Seneca Canal , Oswego Canal and Champlain canals .


Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation, by Peter L. Bernstein, New York : W.W. Norton, 2005, ISBN 0393052338.

The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862, by Carol Sheriff, New York : Hill and Wang, 1996, ISBN 0809027534.

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