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Building the Erie Canal

When we think about great routes that built the United States, the Transcontinental Railroad is probably the first that comes to mind. But nearly fifty years before the completion of America’s great iron way, another route opened that helped transform both the eastern states and the midwest. There were no trains and no track on this particular passageway – it was a 584 km (363 miles) stretch of water that reached from the Upper Hudson River, north of New York, to the boundaries of Canada, and Lake Erie. And it became known as the Erie Canal.

Size has always been both a blessing and a curse for the United States – and especially so when it was a young fledgeling nation. The distances across the country are quite simply staggering. It is 4,488 km (2,788 miles) from New York to Los Angeles – and that’s just East to West. If you were to go from the town of Portal that sits on the Canadian border, to Brownsville on the border with Mexico you would be faced with a journey of 2,993 km (1,860 miles). It is a country of immense distances. 

Of course, these distances don’t sound quite as imposing with these rapid machines that we call aeroplanes, but centuries ago travelling to the American interior was both time consuming and at times dangerous. The Transcontinental Railroad may have transformed the nation when it opened in 1869, but before that, it was a slither of man-made water pushing westward that opened up the midwest.  

George Washington  

The story of the Erie Canal begins with the first U.S President, George Washington. When he assumed the Presidency in 1789, his young nation was a small grouping of 13 states huddled along the eastern seaboard.

With the global powers of the time, Britain and France sniffing around to further their colonial ambitions, Washington was eager to push the United States’ boundary further west. At the time, little was known about the vast interior of the continent, which was inhabited by Native Americans and of course plenty of buffalo. But from what could be gathered from various expeditions it was a vast, fertile land that was prime for expansion.  

The Northwest Territory, which would eventually become Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and Indiana, was rich in timber, furs and minerals while providing vast open land perfect for farming. In terms of potential commerce, it was a gold mine – but one that came with an imposing problem – the imposing Appalachian Mountains which stood between the Northwest Territory and the 13 States. 

At that time it took weeks for goods to travel along the difficult route and try as they might early explorers failed to find a major east-west river that would have sped up expansion no end. If the young nation needed a waterway running westward, they would need to build one themselves. 

Washington’s plan to build a canal from the Potomac River, which begins in West Virginia, to the Ohio River Valley was hugely ambitious for the late 19th Century and would represent the first extensive canal construction in the country. 

But this wasn’t quite a canal as we think of in the modern sense. In total, five skirting canals were constructed throughout the 17-year process which was finally completed in 1802. These were essentially small sections of canals that were built to navigate around the rapids on the Potomac River, which dropped 182 miles (600 ft) over a 321km (200 miles) stretch.  

While Patowmack Canals certainly provided for greater trade along the route, they never quite lived up to expectations and the organisation that built it, the Potomac Company, went out of business in 1825. Partly because of the huge cost of construction and relatively low revenue it produced, but also by that time it had major competition from a considerably bigger and better canal.  

DeWitt Clinton

DeWitt Clinton  [mingling the waters of Lake Erie with the Atlantic]

George Washington didn’t live to see the opening of the canal that had become somewhat of an obsession for him, and while it struggled to live up to his lofty dream, it was still a quite extraordinary construction feat. It showed the young nation what was possible and proved to be a loose blueprint for what would arrive soon after.

The idea for a canal that stretched from the Hudson River to Lake Erie first materialised in 1807. Jess Hawley, a flour merchant from western New York state who went bankrupt while trying to get his produce to the Atlantic coast, penned a series of essays while in debtor’s prison. If you’ve never come across this kind of jail, well, it’s exactly what you might think it is. If you couldn’t pay your debts, you would be incarcerated for a set period, depending on the amount and personal situation – a practice that was abolished in 1833. 

Anyway, back to Jess Hawley, who wrote a passionate series of essays which advocated for a great canal linking Lake Erie and the Hudson River. This would allow goods to move quickly back and forth, which could then be unloaded onto other boats that could either travel further west across Lake Erie or down south down the Hudson to the bustling New York City, from where it could be transported to Europe. These essays caught the eye of DeWitt Clinton, who was at the time a young upstart businessman but would eventually become mayor of New York and even run unsuccessfully for president. 

To call Clinton the driving force behind the project would be a vast understatement – and the canal was sometimes referred to as either Clinton’s Big Ditch or Clinton’s Folly – depending on the level of support for the project I suppose. Initial plans submitted to President Thomas Jefferson were rejected, with the rather disparaging remark that the project was “little short of madness”. 

While there was plenty in the way of physical obstacles that could cause significant hold-up, the 180 metres (600ft) altitude increase from the Hudson River to Lake Erie was seen as the biggest problem. Locks would be needed to raise the water level but single locks at that time could only handle an increase of about 3.7 metres (12 ft), meaning roughly 50 would be needed for the entire distance – a number that eventually went up to 83. It was a mammoth undertaking, but by 1817, after a delay caused by the American Civil War, Clinton had secured approval from the New York legislature for the $7 million (roughly $100 million today) construction project. 

Construction

The fact that the Erie Canal was even completed was an astonishing engineering feat, let alone when you consider that those taking part had little to no experience of anything like this. The majority of the engineers involved had never worked on a canal before and some were packed off to England for a quick crash-course in everything canal related. James Geddes and Benjamin Wright, who laid out the route, were both judges who primarily focused on boundary disputes. This was a rag-tag group, but one that learned quickly on the job. 

The canal would not be built in one continuous process, instead, the route was divided into three sections; west, middle and east. Construction began, no doubt symbolically on July 4th 1817 – Independence Day – from Rome near Syracuse (roughly in the middle of the whole canal) and began heading east towards Utica.

The canal was opened in stages as different sections were finished. This was no doubt down to an eagerness to get trade, and revenue, moving, but with the first section, a distance of just 24km (15 miles) between Rome and Utica, taking two long years, it meant that if present pace continued, the entire canal would take over 30 years until it was finished – a truly daunting prospect. This was mostly down to the lack of experience among those working on the project and subsequent sections were completed much faster. 

Many of the labourers were Irish immigrants, fresh off the boat and eager for whatever work they could find. And this was absolutely backbreaking work that paid just 50 cents a day (roughly $10 today). Dynamite wasn’t invented until the 1860s so the majority of the work was done with shovels, spades and pickaxes – although gunpowder was occasionally used to blast through difficult sections of rock. There is a long-told story that barrels of whiskey were left upstream from where the workers were to encourage them to work faster. Whether this is actually true or not we aren’t sure, but you can certainly imagine it would have worked.  

The vast channel that was dug measured 12 metres (40ft) in width and 1.2 metres (4ft) in-depth. Earth was excavated using slip scrapers – imagine a horse dragging a large metal plate similar to what is seen today on bulldozers – and the removed soil was then piled on either side to form a walkway, which eventually became the towpath. The bottom and sides of the canal were set in clay and stone, most of which was done by hundreds of German masons who would later find bountiful employment in New York constructing buildings. 

As the canal pushed westward it came to a shuddering halt when it reached the Montezuma Marshes near the Finger Lakes region of New York. There are reports that up to 1000 workers died of malaria at this point of the story, but it must be said that no mass graves have ever been found, and this figure has been constantly debated over the years. Soon after, with numbers no doubt replenished, construction work resumed. 

The section between Utica and Salina was completed in 1820 and opened up for traffic almost immediately, while the completed middle and eastern section from Brockport to Albany, a distance of 400km (250 miles) was formally opened on 10th September 1823. 

With the eastern route done, all was left was to join Brockport and Buffalo. But it was here they faced one of the most daunting challenges – how to cross the Irondequoit Creek and the Genesee River. Crossing the creek required the construction of what came to be known as the “Great Embankment” a 400 metre (1,320-foot) long embankment which carried the canal 23 metres (76ft) above the creek. The river itself was traversed by a stone aqueduct measuring 244 metres (802 feet) in length and 5.2 metres (17 feet) wide, with a total of 11 arches supporting it. A total of 18 aqueducts were built along the way, with the largest measuring 290 metres (950ft) in length. 

The final major hurdle was the Niagara Escarpment, an imposing 24 metre (80-foot) high wall of dolomitic limestone, which lay directly in the canal’s path. This is the site of the largest concentration of locks anywhere on the canal and the two sets of five locks soon gave birth to the town of Lockport – hence the name. The locks together raised the canal 18 metres (60 feet) with the final section being cut 9.1 metres (30 ft) into the limestone rock of the Onondaga ridge before continuing west.

On 26th October 1825, the Erie Canal was finally completed and in a truly grandiose manner, a series of cannon shots were ordered along the length of the canal. The cannonade lasted 90 minutes and stretched from New York City to Buffalo. The canal was completed in just eight years at a final cost of $7.143 million (equivalent to $115 million today).

Impact

The Erie Canal proved to be an instant success, with both ends greatly benefiting. The Eastern cities were able to bring in cheaper food from the west, while machinery and manufactured goods poured the other way.

New York City, which at the time was smaller than Boston, Philadelphia and New Orleans, saw a huge boom soon after, while at the other end, the competition between two villages, Buffalo and Black Rock, to be the western terminus was won by Buffalo, which went on to become a major city and would eventually envelop Black Rock. In 1820, Buffalo numbered only 200 inhabitants, but twenty years later that figure had risen to 18,000. To give you an idea of how many major communities sprang up close to the Canal, today 80% of the population of upstate New York still lives within 25 miles of the Canal.    

Tolls were collected along the route and within a year they had surpassed the state’s construction debt for the canal. In fact, the entire debt was paid off by 1837. 

Upgrades and Into the Modern Era

The canal became such a success that before long there was talk of upgrading it. Work began on these upgrades in 1834, with the preliminary stage known as the First Enlargement. This was no small undertaking and called for the canal to widened from 12 to 21 metres (40 to 70 feet) and deepened from 1.2 to 2.1 metres (4 to 7 feet). Locks were also improved upon, while new aqueducts were installed along the route during a busy period that was finished in 1862.

Feeder canals which led into the Erie Canal also quickly began to appear, with those living further away from the main canal eager to get in on the act. These included the Cayuga-Seneca Canal south to the Finger Lakes, the Oswego Canal from Three Rivers north to Lake Ontario at Oswego, and the Champlain Canal from Troy north to Lake Champlain. Business was booming, and everybody wanted in.

With others looking on enviously it was only a matter of time until competition began to heat up. A rival canal operating from Philadelphia opened in 1834, while the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad opened in 1837 and 5 years later was extended all the way to Buffalo. Goods could now be delivered much faster by rail, but this didn’t kill off the canal. In 1852, the canal still hauled 13 times more freight than all of New York State’s rail network combined. 

It wasn’t until 1918 that the canal was effectively replaced by the New York State Barge Canal which used certain sections of the Erie Canal while missing out others. But by this point canals as form freight transportation were in decline and they have steadily become more of a past time activity. 

Parts of the old Erie Canal that weren’t incorporated into the newer barge canal can still be found. Some still with water that act as canal parks, while others stand empty filled with overgrowth and debris, barely recognisable from the thriving waterway it once was.  

The Other Route That Built America

While the Erie Canal might not have the same kind of prestige as the Transcontinental Railroad, it should certainly be held in similar regard. To today’s mind, the distance of 584 km (363 miles) might not sound particularly impressive, but in the early 19th Century it was monumental. 

This certainly facilitated greater and faster trade between the northwest territory and the 13 states, and significantly sped up the expansion of the United States. Cities like New York and Buffalo rose substantially in magnitude because of the canal, with New York quickly becoming the most important city in the nation. 

By 1853, 63% of all U.S trade was flowing along the Erie Canal, while allowing tourism to flourish along the way, and in particular at Niagara Falls on the U.S – Canada border. 

While the Transcontinental certainly united the country, in both a symbolic and literal sense, the Erie Canal provided that burst that led a prosperous nation into the 20th Century. If the Transcontinental was the railroad that built America, then Erie Canal was the waterway that laid the vital foundations beforehand. 

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