boat on a canal

New York Spotlight: The Historic Erie Canal System

The Erie Canal is a 363-mile historic waterway connecting the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean. The channel, which goes through the Hudson River in upstate New York to Lake Erie in Buffalo, triggered a large-scale commercial and agricultural development to Western states’ frontiers. It was also considered an engineering wonder when it was officially opened in 1825.

How was the Erie Canal built?

In 1807, a flour merchant named Jesse Hawley published a series of essays from the debtor’s prison advocating for a canal system that would span 400 miles from Buffalo to Albany. His writings came after he went broke while trying to get his product to market in cities located along the Atlantic coast.

Hawley’s essays caught the attention of politicians in New York who believed building the canal system would help his city prosper. On July 4, 1817, Governor DeWitt Clinton broke ground on the Erie Canal near Utica, New York—a project many of his political opponents ridiculed as “Clinton’s Folly.”

The project saw Americans and Irish immigrants working together for eight years. They cleared through the mountainous terrain and dense rocks by hand, animal power, or gunpowder.

The original Erie Canal was only four feet deep and 40 feet wide at its completion. It spanned nearly 400 miles and went through fields, forests, and cliffs. The engineers installed 83 locks at the time, which were raised and lowered between areas with different water levels.

How did the Erie Canal system affect the economy?

Governor Clinton led a fleet of boats to open the Erie Canal on October 26, 1825. He was aboard the Seneca Chief when they sailed from Buffalo to New York City in just ten days.

For the first time, furniture and clothing could be shipped in bulk to the frontier and the rest of the country. Farmers now have more cash to make purchases as the shipping cost dropped.

The Erie Canal also attracted vacationers, including famous British novelist, journalist, and social commentator Charles Dickens. Thousands of tourists also used the system to go on excursions from New York City to the Niagara Falls.

Many attribute the canal system to New York City’s economic advancement, making it into the commercial capital that it is still known for today. It also made the city the primary port of entry to the United States for immigrants from European nations.

Is the Erie Canal still used?

Commercial and shipping traffic declined in 1959 after the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway had finished. It has been nearly 200 years since New York’s canal system was opened to the public. Over the years, the Erie Canal has been enlarged to accommodate more traffic. Today, pleasure boats, kayaks, and canoes dot the canal’s waters. Commercial vessels also share the waterway.

Some parts of the canal’s original 40-foot-wide ditch, which was deepened, widened, and expanded over a century ago, are still operable. Many towns depend on the rout to attract visitors into their inns and eateries.

In 2000, Congress designated the Erie Canal as a National Heritage Corridor to ensure the preservation of New York’s historic waterway.

 

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