Erie Canal history
The first major inland waterway built in the United States. Canals became the first commonly used method of transporting goods in America, especially from areas that were located between two bodies of water. They quickly replaced the TURNPIKES that had been built decades before but proved expensive to build and maintain. The Erie crossed New York State from Buffalo to the Hudson River, covering 363 miles. It was completed in 1825 at a cost of $7.1 million and completely funded by New York. Some other smaller canals were funded by private investors, such as the Morris Canal in New Jersey. Originally, the Erie Canal charged tolls of about a cent and a half per mile, but tolls finally were abandoned in 1882.
The canal opened New York State to commerce from the Hudson River to Lake Erie and helped develop it into a major commercial and financial center. This was just as vital to the area’s commerce as the St. Lawrence Seaway would be in the 20th century. Although the idea had circulated for years in New York, DeWitt Clinton (1769–1828) was responsible for planning and developing the canal. Originally, he and Gouverneur Morris petitioned Washington for help in building the canal but were denied. Then he petitioned New York, which was much more amenable to the proposal. Clinton was appointed the head of a canal commission. The canal received substantially more support when Clinton was elected governor in 1817, and ground was finally broken for construction. The canal was completed eight years later, and Clinton was aboard the first boat to navigate it, taking nine days to make the journey. The opening of the canal was a national event, and news of its opening traveled quickly throughout the country. The stocks of canals also became popular investments on the stock exchanges.
Canals were quickly overtaken by RAILROADS before the Civil War as a means of transportation but nevertheless remained popular throughout most of the 19th century, remaining as a symbol of economic growth and bringing goods to market as quickly as possible. The Erie was enlarged several times in order to make it more accommodating for increased trade and larger barges. New York finally incorporated the Erie into the New York State Barge Canal System in 1918, merging it with several other smaller canals connecting many of the lakes in the interior of the state.
In addition to building the canal and serving as governor (1817–22 and 1825–28), Clinton was also a state assemblyman, state senator, and mayor of New York City (1803–15). While mayor, he established the New York City school system. The Erie Canal remains his most noteworthy achievement.
- Cornog, Evan. The Birth of Empire: DeWitt Clinton and the American Experience, 1769–1828. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
- Shaw, Ronald E. Erie Water West. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1966.
- Sheriff, Carol. The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817–1862. New York: Hill & Wang, 1996.