Canal History


Known in its day as, "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, canal construction began in 1817. It followed a path already made popular by Americans heading west along the Mohawk River, through the Appalachian Mountains and then on to Lake Erie.

“Clinton’s Ditch”

Construction of the canal was a tremendous feat. Workers dug a ditch that stretched 363 miles. At 40 feet wide and four feet deep, it was built to weave through rocky hills and swamps and across rivers.

In addition, this ditch had to gradually rise more than 500 feet en route from the Hudson River to Lake Erie, using a series of locks. First ridiculed as "Clinton's Ditch," after New York Governor and canal proponent DeWitt Clinton, within months of opening in 1825, doubters were quickly silenced by the canal’s overwhelming success. By connecting east to west, the canal became an unprecedented engine of growth, spurring commerce and development and turning New York State into an economic powerhouse.

Transporting ideas and reforms

The success of the Eric Canal spurred additional waterways, connecting to the Oswego, Cayuga-Seneca, and Champlain canals. Dozens of towns and cities also sprung up to meet the human and commercial needs it created.

It is important to note that people, raw materials, and goods were not the only thing that traveled the canal. It became a means of transporting new ideas and social reforms, elevating Erie Canal towns to the national level and solidifying their role in historical movements including abolition of slavery and women's suffrage.

Rediscovering canal communities

Like any invention, the canal was eventually replaced by new technology in this case railroads and highways. Today, however, the canal and its communities are being rediscovered as a recreational path rich in history and natural beauty.

With the combined efforts of regional, state and federal entities, tourism and economic development efforts are attracting a growing number of visitors each year.

The Erie Canal was named a National Heritage Corridor in 2000, bringing additional investment and attention to this important attraction.

In 2014, the canal was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, marking it as America’s most iconic, influential and enduring waterway.