An Historical Journey Through the Erie Canal

Map of Erie Canal

When I was in fifth grade, we had to memorize and sing the song "Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal." That was the full extent of our knowledge of the Canal; there was no geographical understanding of where the Erie Canal was, nor was there any discussion of what a canal did and why it was important to our history!! What a shame because as I learned many years later, the Erie Canal was central to the westward expansion of our nation and is also central to our understanding of 19th Century progress and capitalism. This means the Erie Canal is really an important topic to teach in our classrooms. So, let's begin with a geographic understanding of the canal by thinking about what we read in Chapter 6 of Americana and then reading the above map.

Let's begin our understanding with a brief historical overview in this video.

Our goals for today are as follows:

  1. To understand the chronology of early canals, focusing on the Erie Canal.
  2. To discuss 11 of the teachable topics about the Erie Canal.
  3. To talk about the historiography related to the scholarship on the Erie Canal.
  4. To discuss teaching resources about the Erie Canal.

Goal #1: To understand the chronology of early canals, focusing on the Erie Canal.

1524 The Florentine navigator Giovanni da Verrazano discovered the Hudson River.

1609 Henry Hudson explored the river that bears his name - the Hudson River - in the hopes of finding the Northwest Passage - the legendary waterway that many Europeans believed would carry a ship all the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. They passed by the island we know today as Manhattan and sailed up the river. After 150 miles, they had not reached the Pacific and instead, got as far as what would later become Albany, New York. There, they turned around.

1760 A small group of Map of Patowmack CanalVirginians formed the Patowmack Company - a corporation devoted to building a canal that would make the Potomac River a navigable waterway.

1784 George Washington took over the Patowmack Company, renamed it the Potomac Canal Company, and began exploring how to build an east to west system of trade and commerce by transforming the Potomac River into a navigable waterway. It was to built entirely with private investors in the Company; no public money was to be used for construction.

1785 Construction began on a five lock canal on the Potomac. It took seventeen years to complete because construction was incredibly difficult, dangerous, and costly due to the river's swift currents, solid rock, and constant financial and labor problems. The upstream portion of the canal was constructed by hired hands, indentured servants, and slaves,while the remaining and most difficult portions were constructed by slaves rented from local slaveowners.

1828 - The Patowmack Company folded and turned over its assets and liabilities to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company - which abandoned the Patowmack Canal in 1830. While the Potomac Company was a financial failure, it's history was not - this capitalist enterprise pioneered lock engineering, opened trade between Virginia and Maryland, and stimulated the beginning of canal construction that helped build the growing nation's economy. It's failure, however, made it clear that private corporate investments were not enough to finance and complete any future canal systems; government financing would be required for any future endeavors.

Theme: Capitalism and corporations are the foundational elements of our economic system

1785 Christopher Colles was the first person to propose that the New York legislature approve a bill to improve the navigation of the Mohawk River Valley to facilitate trade and commerce between the east and the west. The 149-mile-long Mohawk River - named for the Mohawk Nation - was theMap of Mohawk River Hudson River's largest tributary and flows into the Hudson a few miles north of Albany.  The legislature funded some preliminary research, but Colles was unable to get enough money and support to begin a canal. 

1792 New York State launched its first attempt began to transform the falls, rapids, and shallow stretches of the Mohawk River into a navigable waterway (not a canal) from Albany to New York City. The attempt was a private venture of a growing corporation - the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company.

1805 President Jefferson's Second Inaugural Address proposed spending some of the federal surplus on internal improvements, including canals.

1807 The U.S. Senate authorized the Secretary of Treasury, Albert Gallatin to prepare "a plan for the application of such means as are within the power of Congress, to the purposes of opening roads, and making canals...which as objects of public improvement, may require and serve the aid of government."

1808 In April, Gallatin submitted his report, concluding that improved transportation was an indispensable condition for increasing national income and wealth. He proposed Federal financing - $20 million dollars over ten years - to support canals from the coastal plain to the interior that would create one single great transportation system rather than relying on state funding that would result in a fragmented system.

A New York assemblyman, Joshua Forman, introduced a resolution to provide public funding for a survey to build a canal. He proposed that New York State would finance the study and the federal government would finance the canal. The legislature provided $6,000 for the study which one year later, concluded that a continuous canal across New York was both desireable and feasible.

1810 The New York Legislature appointed a Canal Commission to survey the Mohawk River Valley over which a canal could be built. The group was led by the most powerful politician in the state, DeWitt Clinton.

1811 The Commission presented its report consisting of three major findings:

To fund the Canal, the New York legislature created the Canal Fund. The Fund borrowed money by selling public bonds to private investors - wealthy individuals, overseas investors, and savings banks. The investors who held the bonds received interest payments from the Canal Fund and the Fund, in turn, paid the interest from tolls collected from the boats that used the Canal. The Fund also sought land grants from property owners along the proposed route.

At the same time, New York exercised its rights to eminent domain. This empowered the state to force persons who held private property along the canal route to sell it to the state for the public purpose of building a canal.

1812-1816 The plans called for a 363-mile canal with 83 locks and 18 aqueducts. It would be built in three sections and the funding for each section would be negotiated independently of the others. The proposed expenses were $4.9 million or $13,400 per mile. Approval to build the canal was delayed and almost lost during and after the War of 1812. Political infighting began over the proposed route and New Yorkers were skeptical; they were simply unable to visualize how such a novel, gigantic, and hugely expensive project could ever fulfill the economic promises of its supporters.

1817 Congress passed a bill to fund the New York Canal but President James Madison vetoed it. Why might Madison - a southerner and strict constuctionist of the Constitution - veto this bill?

Theme: Federal versus states' rights battles have always dominated our political landscape

If the canal was to be built, it would have to be primarily with New York State and some private funds. The first bonds were bought by small investors from New York. When the first section of the canal was opened successfully, larger investors from New York and London became involved in the financing.

1817 On July 4th, construction began on the first section of the Eric Canal. For the next several years, canal supporters had to battle state-wide political opposition which was largely related to public funding. The real financial difficulty was arranging state and private contracts for the separate portions of the canal.

Map showing the sections of the Erie Canal

Theme: Capitalism and corporations are the foundational elements of our economic system

Traveling down the Erie Canal painting1820 The middle course of the canal was completed and opened on July 4th. It allowed for continuous travel over 90 flat miles from Seneca Falls at the western end to Rome and through to Utica.

1821 The 24-mile stretch from Utica to Great Falls opened. Construction began on the most difficult portion of the canal, the 86 miles from Little Falls to the Hudson River. Squeezed between steep banks rising as high as 500 feet above the river' level, the torrent of white water poured down over a broad tumble of rocks and then fell over 40 feet in less than half a mile through the canal's narrowest stretch. The village of Little Falls connected with the canal along a large aqueduct about 30 feet over the rushing water. Twenty-seven locks needed to be constructed in one 16-mile stretch between Schenectady and Troy.

1823 The final section - westward from Rochester to the terminus on Lake Erie - presented two of the greatest challenges to the canal'sPainting of traveling down the Erie Canal engineers: a 60- foot escarpment at Lockport and a section several miles long of hard rock between Lockport and Pendleton through which a deep cut would have to be made.

1824 Over 300 bridges were built across the canal between Utica and Albany to connect farms and properties that had been divided by the canal route.

1825 On October 26, the Erie Canal was officially completed and opened with a grand celebration. The completed canal stretched 363 miles from Buffalo to Albany on the Hudson River. From there, it was 150 miles down river to New York City. The work had been accomplished by thousands of workers - most of whom were Irish - who essentially hand dug a ditch 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide through 363 miles of forest and land largely unpopulated by Euro-Americans.

On November 4, the "Wedding of the Waters" occurred when the Seneca Chief arrived in Buffalo with a keg of Atlantic water. Judge Samuel Wilkeson emptied the keg into Lake Erie and in so doing, the official chronicler of the events, William L. Stone, wrote: "Europe already begins to admire, American can never forget to acknowledge, that THEY HAVE BUILT THE LONGEST CANAL IN THE WORLD IN THE LEAST TIME, WITH THE LEAST EXPERIENCE, FOR THE LEAST MONEY, AND TO THE GREATEST PUBLIC BENEFIT."

Before the Canal was built, it took 6 weeks to move goods from Albany to Buffalo. After the Canal was built, it took less than a week and it cost 1/10 of the price to move goods!

1826 New York State began the first enlargement of the Erie Canal which was completed in 1862.

1836 The New York legislature considered a plan to enlarge the Erie Canal to a70 foot width and a 7 foot depth.

At the same time the State of New York government was encouraging the development of canals it was also encouraging the development of railroads, the competing transportation system. For a short period the state government tried to protect the financial interests of the canals by prohibiting the railroads from carrying cargo, but this absurd restriction was soon lifted. In 1853 the New York Central Railroad was created by the consolidation of several smaller railroads.

The Erie Canal Enlargement program was completed in 1862. The toll charges not only paid for the construction of the canal but brought in a surplus which covered a substanial portion of the New York State budget.

1837 The entire debt for the canal was repaid.

1842 The New York Legislature passed an act that required raising funds for public projects from tax funds rather than public borrowing. This brought the Erie Canal Enlargement Program to a halt.

1845 Over a million tons of goods were carried on the canal each year. There were 4,000 boats on the canal, operated by 25,000 men, women, and children. Packet boats, which carried passengers, were largely operated by boat companies, while cargo boats tended to be family owned. A typical crew included a captain, a steersman, a cook, a deckhand, and hoggees, who drove the teams that pulled the canal boats. In addition, thousands were employed to maintain and operate the canal itself, including lock tenders, toll collectors, bridge operators, surveyors, repair crews, and bank patrollers, whose job, called the bankwatch, required a man to patrol a ten-mile stretch of canal looking for leaks and breaks in the canal bank. There were also merchants, hostellers, liverymen, and shopkeepers along the route who fed, clothed, housed, and supplied those employed on the canal.

1847 Work on the Erie Canal Enlargement resumed.

1862 The "Enlarged Erie" was completed; it was 70 feet wide and 7 feet deep and could handle boats carrying 240 tons. Most of the original single locks were replaced with double locks to enable traffic to pass in both directions simultaneously. Most of the existing traces of the Old Erie Canal are from the Enlarged Erice Canal 1905Enlarged Erie era.

1882 Tolls were abolished on the canal which was serving over 20 million people a year and $121 million in revenues had been collected since it opened.

1895 New York State began the second enlargement of the canal with plans to deepen it to a minimum depth of nine feet.

1903   New York State began the third enlargement of the Erie Canal through passage of the Barge Canal Act which amalgamated the Erie, Champlain, Oswego, Cayuga, and Seneca canals into the New York State Barge Canal System. The state also passed a bond issue of $101 million ($1 billion in current dollars) to finance the enlargement.

1918 The Barge Canal System was completed; it was12 to 14 feet deep, 120 to 200 feet wide, and 363 miles long, from Albany to Buffalo. Fifty-seven locks  were built to handle barges carrying up to 3,000 tons of cargo, with lifts of 6 to 40 feet. This project took 13 years, double the time of the original canal, and cost 15 times more than the original cost of construction - even though the technology was far superior than it was over 85 years earlier. This is the Erie Canal which today is utilized largely by recreational boats rather than cargo-carrying barges.

1966 New York created a state park along the old canal route. Today, Old Erie Canal State Historic Park preserves the historic resources of the enlarged Erie Canal.

1994 The last commercial ship was retired from operation on the Erie Canal. For the next 14 years,the canal was mainly used by recreational watercraft

2008 The canal opened to commercial traffic during a short period of each year, usually between late May and early October.

2017 Erie Canal was 200 years old.

Erie Canal today

Goal #2: To discuss eleven of the most teachable topics about the Erie Canal

  1. The Erie Canal joined eastern and western Americans at the same time that it bound the U.S. with Europe.
  2. The Erie Canal was built and operated by amateurs as there were no experts in the country who understood how canals were constructed or how they worked.
  3. The Erie Canal emphasized the regional split and eventual divide in the nation between north and south and in so doing, exacerbated the tensions between slave and non-slave holding states.
  4. The Erie Canal made New York City the nation's largest city, its financial capital, and its biggest and most prosperous port of entry.
  5. The Erie Canal helped shape the history of Mormonism.
  6. The Erie Canal enabled the migration of thousands immigrants and emigrants who moved westward in search of a better life.
  7. The Erie Canal encouraged new construction of over 3,000 miles of canals across the U.S.
  8. The Erie Canal transformed the American economy.
  9. The Erie Canal's political squabbling during its planning stages is an example of our course theme that federal and states' rights battles have always dominated our political landscape.
  10. The Erie Canal's financing and building is an example of how capiitalism and corporations formed the basis of our economic system.
  11. The Erie Canal's consequences for those who constructed it and those who lived along its pathway is an example of our course theme that progress is not always progressive.
    Erie Canal scene 1830

Goal #3: To talk about the historiography related to the scholarship on the Erie Canal.

See the power point presentation: Erie Canal Historians

Goal #4: To discuss selected teaching resources about the Erie Canal