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Building the Erie Canal

  • Amy Puetz Home School Enrichment
  • 2010 28 Jul
Building the Erie Canal

Imagine what it would be like if there was no good form of transportation within a state. How would that affect the country's economy and communications? Now imagine what life was like before the invention of railroads, cars, and airplanes. There would really be only two forms of travel, other than walking: one would be by animal (either wagon or riding) and the other would be by water.

Transportation has played an important part in U.S. history. In the early 1800s, traveling beyond the Allegheny Mountains was a big problem. A road had been built in the south called the Wilderness Road, but it was not easily accessible to wagons. A more practical route needed to be found. A man-made waterway—a canal—seemed like a logical solution.

Even before the Revolution, people in New York had thought of creating a canal that would reach the Great Lakes. During America's War for Independence, the patriot Gouverneur Morris, who would later play an influential role in drafting the U.S. Constitution, publicly proposed the usefulness of such a canal. Morris proved very influential, and in the early 1800s a commission was formed to report on the possibility of connecting the Hudson River to Lake Erie by a canal. "Gouverneur Morris was the father of our great canal," said Stephen Van Rensselaer.

In 1812, five million dollars were allocated to the project, but with the eruption of the War of 1812, the funds were urgently needed elsewhere. After the war, De Witt Clinton became the champion of the canal project. He dedicated much of his life to this endeavor.

While serving as mayor of New York City (1803-1815), Clinton promoted the canal idea. Finally, in 1817 construction began at Rome, New York. The canal would eventually run from Albany to Buffalo, but the project began in the middle. Clinton reasoned that if the center section was completed, both ends would insist that the canal be finished. Besides, the land around Rome was relatively flat for 80 miles, which would make digging and building easier. At the ground-breaking ceremony on July 4, 1817, a lavish celebration was held. Vigorously the canal-making began, and by 1819, a small portion opened for use.

Construction of the canal was a colossal undertaking. Many of the men who labored on it were Irish immigrants who had come to the new world looking to improve their lives. They made eighty cents to one dollar a day.

Several obstacles faced the builders, including the difference of elevation—560 feet!—between Buffalo and Albany. With Buffalo so much higher, the builders created numerous locks to solve the problem. A lock is a stair by which a boat can go up or down, only in this case the stair is made of water which raises or lowers the boat to the next level. The Erie Canal contained 83 locks.

One of the most dangerous parts of the canal, for those building it, was Montezuma's Swamp. The mosquito-infested marsh caused a wave of sickness among the workers, and many died of malaria.

Special waterproof cement had to be created to line the bottom and sides of the canal. Rivers also proved a challenge. To cross a river, an aqueduct would be built over it, and the canal would run through the aqueduct. The aqueducts were like bridges over a river, only the bridges had water in them instead of being solid paths. In all, 18 aqueducts were built. The canal itself had to be dug out by hand with the help of horses, and it ended up being forty feet wide and four feet deep. Along one edge, a towpath was made for horses to walk on as they pulled the canal boats.

Finally, on October 26, 1825, the canal was complete. De Witt Clinton, who had risen to the position of governor, presided over the ceremony in Buffalo. The happy governor led a procession from Buffalo to Albany in the Seneca Chief. From Albany he journeyed to New York City, where he poured a keg of water from Lake Erie into the Atlantic in what has been called "the marriage of the water." The Atlantic was now connected to the Great Lakes.

Life on the canal was colorful and busy. History books call it "the Erie Canal," but in the beginning it was called "the Great Canal" or "the Great Western Canal." Along the waterway, towns sprang up and flourished. Two kinds of canal boats traveled on the water highway—packets, which carried passengers, and line boats, which carried freight. The average size of a boat was 15 feet wide by 80 feet long. Another essential element of the boats was the horsepower used to pull them. And it really was horsepower! A team of horses or mules would pull the boats by a rope, walking steadily and slowly along the towpath. Travel on the canal would be slow by modern standards, but in the 1820s and 1830s, going from Buffalo to Albany in five days was a remarkable feat.

Since so many towns lined the Erie Canal, people needed to be able to get from one side to the other easily. The solution was the building of bridges. Those traveling on the canal soon learned that the bridges had been constructed so low that passengers would have to bend down to keep from being knocked off the boat. Before reaching a bridge, the helmsman would call out a warning of "Bridge!" or "Low Bridge!" to alert passengers to crouch down. The well-known "Erie Canal Song" says it this way: "Low bridge, everybody down/Low bridge, we're coming to a town." Many times boats also served as homes for the captains and their families. The wife would cook the meals for the crew and passengers, and the children would help with the horses.

The Erie Canal immediately proved successful, and soon a canal craze swept over the country. Over seven million dollars had been spent building the canal, a staggering sum at the time, but it only took ten years to recoup the money. The main source of income was earned from tolls. Transporting goods between east and west had now become practical. Before the canal, it cost $100 to send a ton of freight from the west. By 1835, it had dropped to $7. Two years later, an estimated $47,740,000 worth of property was transported on the Erie Canal. In the first ten years of its existence, the amount of flour barrels shipped increased rapidly. In 1825, 237,000 barrels were transported on the canal, and less than ten years later the number had risen to 1,157,000.

Of the cities that profited from the canal, none enjoyed more fortune than New York City. Cargo that reached Albany would sail down the Hudson River to New York City. In 1811, the population of New York City numbered 96,000, and by 1834 there were over 200,000 people living there.

The Erie Canal helped open up the west. Pioneers eager to find new land were able to travel to the Great Lakes in comfort. As people moved west they set up new states, and the country continued to grow.

Eventually railroads replaced canals, but the Erie Canal survived into the 1900s.

When the Erie Canal was constructed, many people said it was years ahead of its time. When President Thomas Jefferson heard of the plan he remarked, "It was a very fine project and might be executed a century hence . . . You talk of making a canal of 350 miles through the wilderness—it is little short of madness to think of it at this day." Even though the project seemed impossible, De Witt Clinton, who many call "the Father of the Erie Canal," knew it could be done. It took ingenuity and fortitude, but Clinton pushed forward, and the end result changed history.  

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Amy Puetz

, a homeschool graduate, loves history. She is the author of Uncover Exciting History: Revealing America's Christian Heritage in Short, Easy-to-Read Nuggets and Heroines of the Past, as well as a growing number of historical books. Visit her Web site at to see many resources relating to history. Join her mailing list and receive a free e-book! 

This article was originally published in the Jul/Aug 2010 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine. Sign up now to receive a FREE sample copy! Just click here: