One of America’s great early engineering feats, the Erie Canal was first completed in 1825 and helped ensure New York City’s place as the economic capital of the country. Here are 14 facts you might not know about the waterway that stretches across New York State.
1. GEORGE WASHINGTON PROVIDED AN EARLY MODEL
After the Revolutionary War and prior to his election as the first American president, George Washington helped found the Patowmack Company in order to ease the navigation of the Potomac through Maryland and Virginia. Construction of the Patowmack Canal began in 1785 and took 17 years, with a series of canals and locks built to navigate the Potomac, most famously at Great Falls. The canal and its company folded in 1828, with a portion of the waterway absorbed by the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Company.
2. A FORMER PRISONER HELPED SPUR THE CANAL’S CONSTRUCTION
New York Mayor, Governor, and Senator DeWitt Clinton became known as the “Father of the Erie Canal” for championing the construction of the waterway through upstate New York. But flour merchant Jesse Hawley, who had gone bankrupt and was spending time in debtors’ prison, wrote several impassioned essays and articles to persuade legislators to build a canal in order to improve shipping and trade to the Great Lakes and American Midwest. The Erie Canal Commission, of which Clinton was a board member, was later established, and Clinton highlighted Hawley for bringing the canal idea to his attention.
3. THOMAS JEFFERSON HATED THE IDEA OF THE CANAL
Although naysayers like Jefferson (he called it “little short of madness”) and James Madison rejected the canal proposal, and others mocked the project by calling it “Clinton’s Ditch” and “Clinton’s Folly,” the onetime mayor of New York City persisted in securing both public and private funds for the project, and not long after the state authorized the bill to begin work on the canal, Clinton was elected governor. “The great Erie Canal will make New York one of the most splendid commercial cities on the face of the Earth,” Clinton stated.
4. IT WAS DESIGNED BY AMATEURS
Construction on the canal began on July 4, 1817 in Rome, NY, but the United States Military Academy at West Point offered the only engineering schooling in the country at the time. The bulk of the designers on the project, including Chief Engineer Benjamin Wright and surveyor James Geddes (who were both judges) and farmers who lived along the route and contributed to the construction, had no formal training and instead relied on practical experience and examples of European canals.
5. THOUSANDS OF LABORERS BUILT THE CANAL BY HAND
Without modern construction equipment and the technology that has been used to build the biggest projects in the world, human and horse power unearthed the miles of rough terrain in upstate New York. Irish, German, and British workers made up to $1 a day shoveling dirt and rocks by hand, masons lined the sides of the canal with stone, and teams of animals pulled scrapers to move larger material. Barrels of whiskey were allegedly strategically placed upstream from the workers as encouragement, and methods were devised for uprooting trees, yanking out tree stumps, and pouring hydraulic cement underwater.
6. THE ORIGINAL ROUTE SPANNED 363 MILES
From its beginnings on the upper Hudson River near Albany, the canal snaked west through the Mohawk Valley region until it reached Buffalo and Lake Erie. Over that span the canal rose 571 feet in elevation with the help of 83 locks, and laborers excavated a 4-foot deep, 40-foot wide path for canal traffic.
7. A 'CANNONADE' BROUGHT NEWS OF THE CANAL’S OPENING TO NEW YORK CITY
Clinton traveled from Buffalo to Albany on the Seneca Chief, carrying with him a jug of water from Lake Erie. To alert New Yorkers of the opening of the canal, a succession of cannons lined the waterway, each within earshot of the other, so that news of Clinton’s departure made it to the city in only 81 minutes. On October 26, 1825, Clinton celebrated his pet project’s grand opening by pouring the jug of water into New York harbor. Another reason for Clinton to celebrate was the fact that the canal finished ahead of schedule and right on its $7 million budget.
8. THE CANAL EMBOLDENED THE MIDWEST
The only previous all-water route that reached the Midwest was through New Orleans, which made the Erie Canal an important conveyor of goods not only from the Eastern metropolitan cities but those in Europe. It also strengthened economic and social ties between the two different portions of the country. “It just brought things alive in America like they had never done before,” New York Senator Daniel Moynihan told PBS. “And that canal brought the seaborne Atlantic trade right up into the central of the American Great Plains.”
9. MULES PULLED BARGES ALONG THE CANAL
To navigate the 40-foot wide waterway, a rope was tethered to a team of mules, which walked along a 10-foot towpath that was built with the detritus dug for the canal. The mule team driver was called a “hoggee,” and the duty was often performed by a teenage boy. Upon approaching a lock, the mule team would disengage the rope and allow the boat to enter the lock, where it was raised to the appropriate height before the tow was reattached and the boat moved on its way.
10. IT CUT TRANSPORTATION COSTS BY 90 PERCENT
To haul one ton of goods from Buffalo to New York City prior to 1825 cost upwards of $100, and that number fell all the way to $10 once the Canal opened. In addition, the time to ship items from Albany to Buffalo was cut by a third, and what was once a two-week trip by stagecoach was shortened to five days.
11. THE CANAL WAS SOON UPGRADED AND EXPANDED
Although Clinton, the Canal’s biggest proponent, passed away in 1828 while in office, the obvious benefits of the project were apparent and led to the waterway’s expansion. Locks were lengthened, from 90 to 110 feet, and widened from 15 to 18 feet, with "double locks" installed so that boats going in opposite directions could pass at the same time. By the middle of the century the canal itself was enlarged to 70 feet wide and 7 feet deep, and canal systems were built along lakes Champlain, Oswego, and Cayuga-Seneca that connected to Lake Erie.
12. THE CANAL HELPED SWAY THE CIVIL WAR
With economic and cultural ties linking the Northeast and Midwest, the old Northwest Territory states (Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota) were more inclined to support the union cause once tensions between the North and South boiled over. The Midwest also became the food-producing capital of America, while the South focused on crops like cotton, and the Erie Canal remained the primary route for the Midwest’s agricultural resources, giving the Union a significant economic advantage. In addition, runaway slaves used the towpath along the Canal as part of the Underground Railroad in their escape to Canada.
13. THE CANAL HAS AN UNOFFICIAL SONG
Thomas Allen wrote an ode to the Erie Canal called “Low Bridge! Everybody Down!” in 1905, and it became known as the Erie Canal Song. It was first recorded in 1912 and has been covered by legends like Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen. Prominent 19th century writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Mark Twain also wrote about life along the Erie Canal.
14. THE CANAL HAS BECOME A RECREATIONAL ATTRACTION
While commercial traffic still accounts for around 100,000 tons of cargo shipped per year, its main purpose today is as a destination for nature and boating enthusiasts. The Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor encompasses over 4,800 square miles of land in New York and includes national and state parks, historic sites and landmarks, cycling paths, hiking trails, and 524 miles of waterways.