A Lesson in History
Before there was an Erie Canal, there were miles of wilderness, swamps, mountains, waterfalls, great inland lakes, an ocean, tribes of Native Americans, and a few intrepid settlers. There was no easy way to move people, raw materials or manufactured goods from the international highway of the Atlantic Ocean to America’s internal thoroughfare—the Great Lakes. That fact changed forever when a man-made channel called the Erie Canal was born on July 4, 1817 as crews of untrained men, with no professional engineers to lead them, began digging at Rome, New York. Working through incredible obstacles and major construction challenges, “Clinton’s Folly” was completed in 1825.
First envisioned by Jesse Hawley, a miller in the town of Geneva, the idea of such a project was deemed “little short of madness” by President Thomas Jefferson. Nonetheless, the concept of a canal stretching across the state of New York became a reality with the support of DeWitt Clinton, mayor of New York City at that time. Despite ridicule of his canal-building dreams, Clinton became governor of the state in 1817, got funding quickly approved by the state’s Legislature, and construction of the most famous canal in America began.
When if officially opened on October 26, 1825, the Erie Canal was acclaimed as the greatest engineering marvel in the world:
63 miles long • 40 feet wide • 4 feet deep
18 aqueducts to carry its waters across rivers,
and 83 locks to raise and lower boats a total of
682 vertical feet from end to end
At a cost of just over $7,000,000
The benefits from this new route to the western frontier were both immediate and dramatic. Travel time was cut in half and shipping costs reduced by 94%! The Erie Canal also caused the first great westward movement of American settlers, turned Rochester into a “boom town”, and made New York City the busiest port in the United States.
Between 1836 and 1862, the canal was rebuilt to make it wider (70 feet) and deeper (seven feet) with 72 double locks and minor course changes to increase the speed of traversing it. From 1905 to 1918, an entirely new and enlarged canal system was created to accommodate even larger barges. Major course changes were made and most of the original man-made channel was abandoned as rivers that originally had been avoided were “canalized.” One hundred years after its creation, the Erie Canal evolved in the shape you see today:
125 feet wide • 12 feet deep • 35 locks
It also became part of a larger New York State Canal System with four connected canals and natural waterways covering 524 miles. Although its path and shape have been altered through the years, the wonder of that very first Erie Canal has never been forgotten. Visitors by the thousands continue to travel a tranquil route as this fascinating ribbon of water threads its way through a 21st century, while still proudly retaining traces of its 19th-century origination.