Brief History of New York's Erie Canal

historic canalway map


Called in its day "the eighth wonder of the world," the Erie Canal remains one of America's best known and enduring icons. A marvel of nineteenth-century engineering, the canal, begun in 1817, followed a path already popular to westward-moving Americans, following the Mohawk River through the Appalachian Mountains and then on to Lake Erie.

Building the canal was a tremendous feat. Workers had to dig a 363-mile ditch, 40 feet wide and four feet deep, through rocky hills and swamps and across rivers. What's more, this ditch had to slowly rise 565 feet on its way from the Hudson River to Lake Erie through a series of locks. Derided as "Clinton's Ditch," after New York Governor DeWitt Clinton, within months of the canal's opening in 1825 the doubters were proven wrong by the canal's overwhelming success. Opening the west to commerce and settlement, the canal was to be the engine for the state's growth into an economic powerhouse.

The canal gave rise to additional connecting canals, including the Oswego, Cayuga-Seneca, and Champlain, the last of which actually opened before the Erie Canal. It also spawned dozens of towns and cities to serve the commerce along it. The canal not only transported people, raw materials, and goods, it was also an avenue for ideas and social reforms, making Erie Canal towns players both in America's commercial history and in the history of ideas including abolition of slavery and advocacy of women's rights.

Eventually, the canal was eclipsed by railroads and highways. Today, however, the canal and its communities are being rediscovered for their fascinating history and plentiful recreational opportunities. State and federal entities have turned their attention to enhancing recreational opportunities, fostering economic development, and preserving history. Regional efforts are also under way, including the Mohawk Valley Heritage Corridor, which Parks & Trails New York helped get started in 1993, and the Western Erie Canal Heritage Corridor. In December 2000, the entire corridor was named a National Heritage Corridor, bringing additional programs to polish this American gem and making it an even better place to live and visit.


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