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The Erie Canal

The material courtesy of Anne M. Beiter

In the early nineteenth century Americans looked west where the land was abundant and fertile. The more adventurous ventured west and were soon shipping timber, furs and agricultural products east. They soon found that poor roads caused shipping costs to absorb almost half their profits and called for better transportation.

Upstate New York politicians and businessmen saw the need and called for a cross state canal. They lobbied the federal government, European countries and the New York legislature to build the canal. A typical response was that of President Thomas Jefferson who advised that they were one hundred years ahead of their time. It was Dewitt Clinton, a prominent New York politician who saw the canal as the future of the state and the nation. He became an advocate and with his support the canal bill was approved by the legislature in 1816. On July 4, 1817, Clinton, then governor, presided over the ground breaking ceremonies near Rome.

Construction on the longest canal in the western world began. The proposed route was 353 miles through the sparsely settled wilderness of forests, hills and a swamp. Boats had to be raised and lowered to accommodate the 565 foot difference in elevation between Lake Erie and the Hudson River. Engineers with no canal building experience and laborers wielding picks and shovels comprised the construction crew. With good reason the smug opponents dubbed the project “Clinton’s Ditch”.

Undaunted the Canallers, improvising as they moved along, designed and built the most formidable public works project of the early nineteenth century. Horse drawn plows replaced pick and shovel; cables attached to the top of trees and the other end to a drum toppled trees as the cable was tightened, stumps were removed by a three wheel axle with chains attached to the axle and the stump and pulled by horses.

Muck and quicksand slipped from the shovels slowing construction through the swamp. Once the weather turned cold and the earth was frozen the men were able to move quickly through the swamp.The cold weather also killed mosquitoes which carried swamp sickness through the camp. Many men died of the disease and were buried in anonymous graves along the canal.

To accommodate the difference in elevation between the lake and river eighty-three locks were built, five at the aptly named Lockport. Boats entered a lock and the water level would be raised or lowered to the necessary level.

The canal was completed in 1825 and was an immediate financial success as decreased shipping costs began a boom in east-west trade. It was called the Gateway to the West. It was the beginning of westward migration by Americans.

The vision had become a reality.

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