The Erie Canal
from Lake Erie to the Hudson River

Completed in 1825

Erie Canal was the first important national waterway built in the United States. It crossed New York from Buffalo on Lake Erie to Troy and Albany on the Hudson River. Completed in 1825, the canal joined the Great Lakes system with the Atlantic Ocean. It provided a route over which manufactured goods and settlers could flow into the West and timber and agricultural products could pour into the East. The canal cut freight rates between Buffalo and New York City by more than 90 percent and helped New York City become the nation's leading port during the 1800's. The building of the canal was paid for by the state of New York. It cost $7,143,789, but it soon earned its price many times over.

The original canal was 363 miles long. It was 28 feet wide at the bottom, 40 feet wide at the top, and 4 feet deep. It could carry barges that were 80 feet long and 15 feet wide, with a draft of 31/2 feet. The canal had 83 locks, which raised vessels on the canal about 565 feet from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. Barges were towed through the canal by horses and mules on shore. The canal was enlarged several times between 1835 and 1862.

The development of railroads made the canal less important after 1865. Business began to fall off. In 1903, the people of New York voted to make the canal part of a great modern waterway. The canal was linked with three shorter canals in New York to form the New York State Barge Canal System. This system, which is 524 miles long, opened in 1918.

For a hundred years before the Erie Canal was built, people had been talking about a canal that would join the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean. The man who planned the Erie Canal and carried the plans through was De Witt Clinton. Those who opposed the canal laughingly called it "Clinton's Ditch." Clinton and Gouverneur Morris went to Washington in 1812 to ask for federal help for the project. But they were unsuccessful.

In 1816, Clinton petitioned the New York legislature to build the canal. His petition won so much support that the governor appointed a canal commission and made Clinton its head. Clinton became governor in 1817, and shortly afterward, on July 4, 1817, broke ground for the canal in Rome, N.Y., then a village on the Mohawk River. Construction of the canal took eight years. The first section was completed in 1820. As the canal grew, towns along its course prospered. Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo became major cities.

Clinton was governor again when the canal was completed in 1825. The first barge to travel its entire length, the Seneca Chief, left Buffalo on Oct. 26, 1825, and arrived in New York City on November 4. Clinton was on board. The barge was greeted all along the way by enthusiastic crowds.

At first, travel on the canal was slow. The famous editor Horace Greeley wrote that passengers traveled a mile and a half an hour on the Erie Canal for a cent and a half a mile. But fast passenger boats could travel 100 miles a day.

See also Top Ten Historic Canals
Contributor: Michael K. Heiman, Ph.D., Associate Prof. of Geography and Environmental Studies, Dickinson College.


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