This FreightWaves Classics article celebrates the opening of the Erie Canal on this date in 1825. Before giving details about the Erie Canal, though, an overview of North American canals is provided.
A number of successful canals had been built in Europe and Great Britain. Therefore, during the late 1700s and early 1800s, canal construction was considered in order to improve inland transportation in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic areas of the United States. At that time, geography and topography limited transportation to trails and coastal navigation. There was no navigable river system from the East Coast that reached very far inland, except for the St. Lawrence River, which was navigable to Montreal.
The Appalachian Mountains were the primary barrier, limiting the inland reach along rivers to a few hundred miles at most before navigation was blocked by rapids or waterfalls. The area around the Great Lakes had significant agricultural potential, but their access via water was blocked by the Lachine Rapids on the St. Lawrence River and the Niagara Escarpment, which is a long, steep slope in the U.S. and Canada that runs primarily east-west from New York through Ontario, Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois. Areas between navigable waterways meant costly and time-consuming portage; freight had to be carried by horses or horse-drawn wagons. There were few roads at that time, and most would be considered only rough trails today. Journeys were difficult and time-consuming.
The canals built in the 1820s and 1830s closely followed the course of rivers; in fact, some river segments were replaced by a canal. Because the rivers did not follow a direct or straight path, neither could the canals. The only exception was where a “cut” was needed; these were constructed along the straightest path possible. However, they were very costly.
As the first major canals were constructed they provided key economies of scale for inland transportation. On average, a horse was able to carry one-eighth of a ton, while a canal barge could carry 30 tons. Two canal systems emerged, one east of the Appalachians along the East Coast and one west of the Appalachians in the Midwest.
The Erie Canal system included the Lachine Canal, which opened in 1825; it stretched from Montreal along the St. Lawrence River to Lake Erie. The Welland Canal opened in 1829, which overcame the Niagara Escarpment between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.
The Erie Canal was completed in 1825 and connected Albany, Syracuse and Buffalo. The Erie Canal was expanded in 1828 by a connection to Lake Ontario via the Oswego branch. Several other branch canals were built to carry coal from mines in the Appalachian Mountains to East Coast cities.
The Midwestern canal system primarily connected the Ohio River with Lake Erie, providing access to the region’s agricultural resources and carrying them to the East Coast through the Erie Canal. The Ohio & Erie Canal was completed in 1833; it linked Cleveland, Columbus and the Ohio River. The Wabash & Erie Canal was finished in 1853; it linked Toledo to Evansville.
Canals were not only constrained by the rivers that “fed” them, but there were also technical limitations in regard to their draft (usually 4 to 10 feet) and their locks. The first locks were only capable of elevating a barge 8 to 10 feet; this meant the need to climb upward by 100 feet required 10 to 15 locks. An example was the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, linking Washington, D.C. to Cumberland, Maryland. The canal climbed 605 feet; it therefore required 74 locks. By the late 1800s, lock technology had improved; they could lift a boat 30 to 40 feet.
When the first canals were opened, the barges used to carry passengers and freight were propelled downstream manually by using a pike to push off from the banks and/or the bottom of the canal and a rudder. Upstream trips usually meant that the barges were propelled by horses on the towpath.
Competition from railroads
Where canals ran prompted the construction of many of the first railroads. The railroads were built to compete with canals and/or to provide portage between unserviced segments. An example was the Allegheny Portage Railroad; in 1834 it was the first railroad built through the Allegheny Mountains (which are part of the Appalachian Range). The railroad linked the two canal cities of Johnstown (east of Pittsburgh) and Hollidaysburg (west of Harrisburg). Canada’s first railroad was the Champlain & St. Lawrence Railroad; finished in 1838, it ran between La Prairie and St. Jean-sur-Richelieu and provided portage between the St. Lawrence River and Lake Champlain.
By the late 1800s, most U.S. canals had been abandoned because the railroads were more efficient and not as constrained by weather as the canals. Those that remain today, such as the Erie Canal, the Rideau Canal and the Champlain Canal, are managed by state or federal agencies and are used for recreational purposes. Sections of some canals also have been restored for recreational purposes.
There are a few canals still being used for commercial purposes. A couple of examples are: the Welland Canal, which has been improved several times and is a key part of the St. Lawrence Seaway that was completed in 1959 (you can read a FreightWaves Classics article about the Seaway here); and the Illinois and Michigan Canal that links Chicago and the Illinois River, which was supplemented by the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal in 1900.
The Erie Canal
The Erie Canal was a 363-mile inland waterway that connected New York City to Lake Erie via the Hudson River. On this date in 1825 the canal was opened to boat traffic.
It was built to provide a faster and more direct transportation route between the Eastern seaboard and the vast land west of the Appalachian Mountains.
During much of the 18th century and the early 19th century, there were discussions and ideas regarding the development of a canal to link key Eastern cities with western settlements (west of the Allegheny Mountains).
However, it was Jesse Hawley, a flour merchant from Geneva, New York, who successfully promoted the talk and ideas into action. Hawley was serving a 20-month sentence in debtors’ prison in 1807.
Like other merchants, trying to transport his products to markets on the Eastern seaboard had been difficult because of the time it took, the distance and rugged terrain. He knew first-hand that a canal would make it easier to deliver goods more expeditiously and efficiently. While in prison Hawley wrote a series of essays advocating for construction of a canal between the Hudson River and Lake Erie. He wrote under the name “Hercules,” and his essays were published in the Genesee Messenger newspaper.
The essays received widespread attention. Many people agreed with Hawley, and his analysis was considered both compelling and well-researched. A key proponent who read Hawley’s essays was DeWitt Clinton, who served as New York City’s mayor in 1803-07, 1808-10 and 1811-15. Clinton understood the economic benefits of the canal for New York City and the state. He became an outspoken champion of the idea and he was one of the first members of the Erie Canal Commission after it was created in 1810 to oversee funding for the construction of the canal.
Clinton was elected governor of New York in 1817. In that role he secured the financing to build the canal. However, the canal was controversial; Clinton’s political foes and skeptics were critical of the proposed waterway and dubbed it “Clinton’s Big Ditch” or “Clinton’s Folly.”
Construction, completion and success
Groundbreaking for the Erie Canal took place near Utica on July 4, 1817. Construction of the canal took more than eight years. Among those at the grand opening near Buffalo on October 26, 1825 was Hawley, who had been released from debtors’ prison nearly two decades earlier. He even had been elected as a member of the New York State Assembly. Governor Clinton sailed on a boat named the Seneca Chief; it led other boats on the waterway.
When it opened the Erie Canal included 18 aqueducts and 83 locks. It was 40 feet wide and four feet deep. Over several decades, the Erie Canal was further improved and enlarged. The canal was the first major man-made waterway in the nation, and because of it the trade of raw materials and finished goods was expedited and expanded. Perhaps more importantly, the canal helped facilitate the large-scale settlement of areas to the west of the Appalachian Mountains (particularly the Great Lakes area).