The Big Ditzh.
People laughed and called it names--the "Big Ditch" and "Clinton's Folly." But once the Erie Canal opened in 1825, people stopped laughing. The 363-mile waterway was 10 times longer than any other U.S. canal. One of the most amazing engineering achievements of its day, it earned a new nickname: the "Eighth Wonder of the World."
Even before the U.S. gained its independence, settlers Were moving west across the Appalachian Mountains. But traveling west involved a long, difficult journey by wagon over rough dirt trails.
Many Americans thought there must be an easier way to move goods and people west. Could a canal be dug to connect the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean?
They looked to New York City, with its excellent harbor on the Atlantic Ocean. Boats could travel north on the Hudson River as far as Albany (see map). Could a canal be dug to connect Albany with Lake Erie and the West?
People had talked about a canal as early as 1700. George Washington liked the idea. In 1784, Congress ordered a land survey to see if building a canal would be possible.
Governor De Witt Clinton of New York enthusiastically backed the idea, saying it would "create the greatest inland trade ever witnessed."
Not everyone agreed. Mordecai Noah, a newspaper editor, said the canal would cost too much and be a "monument of weakness and folly."
Some people said it would harm New York farmers. One farmer wrote, "I should like to know whether my little farm has got to be taxed from year to year for the purpose of enabling the farmers on the shores of Lakes Erie, Huron, and Michigan to bring their produce to market for nothing."
But others argued that the canal would lower the cost of transporting goods from Buffalo to Albany, from $100 a ton to just $10.50.
Finally, in 1816, the New York Legislature approved a bill to begin construction.
Building the Canal
Workers began digging in Rome, New York, on July 4,1817. By starting at one of the flattest parts of the proposed canal route, they made quick progress. More than 94 miles of the canal had been completed and filled with water by 1820.
Workers earned 50 cents a day for their backbreaking labor. Except for the use of explosives to blast rock and a few simple machines, men dug most of the canal by hand.
New uses of technology were needed to make the canal work. The elevation of Lake Erie is 565 feet higher than that of the Hudson River, so 83 locks had to be built. (Locks are enclosed parts of a canal equipped with gates so that the level of the water can be changed to raise or lower boats from one level to another.)
One of the most challenging sections of the canal was near Lockport, New York. Workers had to drill a two-mile channel through solid rock. Five pairs of locks were built at Lockport. Later, a traveler would write, "Here, the great Erie Canal has defied nature, and used it like a toy; lock rises upon lock, and miles are cut in the solid stone."
The canal was only 40 feet wide on the surface, 28 feet on the bottom, and 4 feet deep.
The Canal Opens
On October 25, 1825, the Erie Canal officially opened. A politician who spoke at the ceremony in Buffalo bragged that "New York had made the longest canal-- in the least time--with the least experience--for the least money-- and of the greatest public utility [usefulness] of any other in the world."
The Seneca Chief, the first barge to travel the entire length of the canal, left Buffalo on October 26 with Governor De Witt Clinton on board. When it arrived in New York City on November 5, in a special ceremony called the "Wedding of the Waters," Clinton poured water from Lake Erie into the Atlantic Ocean.
Low Bridge! Everybody Down!
Soon, traffic was booming on the canal. Horses and mules followed towpaths alongside the canal to pull the long, narrow barges.
In towns along the way, dozens of low bridges were built to cross the canal. The bridges helped inspire a popular song, "The Erie Canal," whose chorus warned, "Low bridge, ev'rybody down!"
Tourists from all over the world traveled the canal. Some didn't like the experience. Said author Harriet Martineau, "I would never advise ladies to travel by canal... The heat and noise, the... crowd, lying packed like herrings in a barrel, the bumping against the sides of the locks, and the hissing of water... these things are very disagreeable." Not everyone shared her low opinion. Wrote one visitor, Caroline Gilman, "Canal navigation is pleasant enough. I do not at all object to bobbing one's head down at the bridges-- it is somewhat exciting."
A Smash Success
The Erie Canal cost $7 million to build, but it paid for itself within a decade. Soon, it was earning the state about $3 million a year.
More and more people headed west by canal. A Buffalo newspaper wrote in 1832, "Several steamboats and vessels daily depart for the far west. ... Some days, near a thousand [people] depart."
Towns along the canal prospered. Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo grew into major cities.
New York City was drastically changed by the canal. Between 1820 and 1850, its population quadrupled. It went from being the fifth-largest U.S. port city to the nation's largest city, and its finacial center.
The Erie Canal was enlarged several times. But later, the canal faced increased competition from railroads and trucks. It slowly went into decline.
Today, the canal has a new life-- recreation. Thousands of pleasure boats use the canal each year. Visitors flock to historic sites along the canal to learn about the role it once played in our nation's history.
As historian Francis Kimball said, "The Erie Canal rubbed Aladdin's Lamp. America awoke, catching for the first time the wondrous vision of its own dimensions and power."