October 26, 2012
On Oct. 26, 1825, the Erie Canal opened for traffic. It was the first direct link between the eastern United States and the interior of the United States, and made New York City the country’s primary port.
The 363-mile canal directly connected the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean using a system of 83 locks to manage the 568-feet elevation change between the Hudson River and Lake Erie. The 4-feet deep, 40-feet wide canal also used 18 aqueducts to cross ravines and rivers. The canal reduced the cost of shipping by as much as 95 percent; opened up western New York for rapid development; and made settlements near the Great Lakes more accessible for settlers and businesses.
After the Revolutionary War, businessmen and political leaders wanted to create more efficient ways to connect the eastern seaboard to the fertile North American interior. George Washington saw transportation as the key to building trade between the original colonies and western settlers, and forge a relationship that would “bind those people to us by a chain which never can be broken.”
In the mid-1700s, the Bridgewater Canal in northwestern England had been built to bring coal from the Worsley mines to the city of Manchester, making the movement of heavy and large cargo easier and cheaper. Canals became the rage in Great Britain, and some Americans thought to capitalize on their construction as well.
Washington led an effort to make the Potomac River the main link into the fertile Ohio River Valley by building the Patowmack Canal with locks to get around the Great Falls, where the river descends 80 feet in less than mile. Begun in 1785, the mile-long canal with five locks took 17 years to complete, because of the difficult blasting and construction through the cliffs. Washington did not see this dream completed; he died in 1799, three years before it was finished in 1802. The canal closed in 1830. (It is now part of the Great Falls National Park.)
A New York canal was proposed as early as 1784, when Christopher Colles promoted a canal from Lake Ontario through the Mohawk River Valley, which with the Hudson River Valley, is the only cut through the Appalachian Mountains north of Alabama. Financing a canal from the Great Lakes to the Hudson proved difficult. Private financiers balked; President Thomas Jefferson called the idea “little short of madness,” but land developer Jesse Hawley finally interested New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton to fund a survey.
Construction began on “Clinton’s Folly” in 1817. It took eight years, cost $7 million, and was an engineering marvel of the age.
The completed canal made New York City, at the mouth of the Hudson River, the United State’s chief port, its financial capital, and opened western New York, which had been stifled by the Appalachian Mountains, to development. The canal also made Buffalo a western trading center.
The shifting of trade from Philadelphia and Baltimore to New York forced those cities to charter competitive transportation networks and fostered the development of railroads in conjunction with the canal-borne traffic. In 1918, the Erie Canal was replaced by the New York State Barge Canal, which could accommodate larger barges, and in 1992 the canal system was renamed the New York State Canal System.