Located between the Hudson River and Lake Erie, the canal is something President Thomas Jefferson once called, “little short of madness”. Canal locks of the day, when the Erie canal was built in 1800, could raise or lower boats about 12 feet. That means at least 50 locks would be required to build a canal linking the Hudson with the Great Lakes.
When Jefferson called the project madness, at the time New York’s governor, Dewitt Clinton, disagreed and supported the project. This is why some people call it Dewitt’s Ditch. He pursued the project fervently, overseeing the creation of the 360 mile long waterway across upstate New York.
Why it is an architectural achievement? Well, the engineering demands of the canal included the removal of earth using animal power, water power, and gunpowder to blast through limestone. None of the planners and builders were professional engineers. Instead, they were mathematics instructors, judges, and amateur surveyors. They learned as they went.
In 1825, the canal was completed. It was considered an engineering masterpiece, one of the longest canals in the world. It remains a masterpiece to this day.
When we talk about the importance of the Erie canal, we have to mention the social and economic situation at the time.
Prior to the advent of railroads, water transport was the most cost-effective way to ship bulk goods. A mule could only carry about 250 pounds, but can draw a barge weighing as much as 60,000 pounds along a towpath. In total, a canal could cut transport costs by 90%.
In the early years of the United States, transportation between the coastal ports and the interior was slow and difficult. Rivers provided easy inland transport up to the fall line. That is because floating vessels encountered much less friction than land vehicles.
Yet, there was this big obstacle called the Appalachian Mountains. They stretched for 1,500 miles from Maine to Mississippi. There were only five places were mule trains or wagon roads could be routed.
Many times, it was not worth the cost of transporting products like grain to far-away population centers. Because of that, farmers in the west turned their grains into whiskey for easier transport and higher sales. This resulted in the Whiskey Rebellion.
But by the early 19th century, it became clear to coastal residents that the city or state that could develop a cheap and reliable route to the West could enjoy economic success.
Now that we talked about the background of trade and social situation, let’s talk about what happened with the build of the Erie Canal.
The completion of the canal spurred the first great westward movement of American settlers. It also gave access to the rich land and resources west of the Appalachians and made New York the preeminent commercial city in the United States.
New York remains one of the most important cities in the US to this day thanks to its early economic development.
The Erie Canal is a historic canal in upstate New York. It runs east-west between the Hudson River and Lake Erie.
Completed in 1825, the canal was the first navigable waterway connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes.
Its completion vastly reduced the cost of transporting people and goods across the Appalachians. It accelerated the settlement of the Great Lakes region and the westward expansion of the United States.
Speaking about the history of the project, it was first proposed in the 17980s. Yet, the formal survey was not conducted until 1808.
New York State legislature authorized construction in 1817. New York Governor DeWitt Clinton served as the lead supporter of the project.
Toll revenue covered the state’s construction debt within the first year of operation. It was a landmark civil engineering achievement in the early history of the US.
When built, the 363-mile canal was the second-longest in the world after the Grand Canal in China.
The peak of the canal came in 1855, when 33,000 commercial shipments took place. The Erie canal continued to be competitive with railroads until about 1902, when tolls were abolished. Commercial traffic declined heavily in the second half of the 20th century due to competition from trucking and the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway.
Today it serves as recreational watercraft, connecting the three other canals in the New York State canal system.
- Started construction in 1817
- Grand opening in 1825
- Opening of the Champlain canal in 1823
- Length from Albany to Buffalo, 363 miles
- Number of locks in 1825 – 83
- Number of locks today – 57
- Elevation change from Albany to Buffalo – 571 feet
- Cost to build - $7,143,789
- Travel time form Albany to Buffalo in 1825 – 5 days
Over the years, the Erie Canal was enlarged twice to fit winder and deeper boats. Some parts were rerouted to make way for more ship traffic in 1918. While portions of the original canal are still operable, tourism is now the main source of boat traffic.
Commercial and shipping traffic declined after the completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959. This new waterway along the border between US and Canada allowed large ships to enter the Great lakes directly from the Atlantic Ocean.
In 2000, the US Congress designated the Canal a National Heritage Corridor to help preserve New York State’s historic waterway and the communities.
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