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15 Years on the Erie Canal

The Erie Canal played a major part in commerce in the history of the United States.  Its creation helped to make New York City the chief port in the United States and opened the western part of the state and other western territories to increased settlement and trade. It connected the Hudson River to Lake Erie and many of New York state’s biggest cities – Albany, Utica, Syracuse, Buffalo – lie along its banks.

A detail of “A geological and agricultural survey of the district adjoining the Erie canal in the state of New York. Taken under the direction of the Hon. Stephen Van Rensselaer. Part I. Containing a description of the rock formations; together with a geological profile, extending from the Atlantic to Lake Erie”. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.gmd/g3801c.ct000233

Its history began in the early years of the 18th century when Governor DeWitt Clinton proposed a canal to connect the Hudson River to Lake Erie.   There were many in New York who didn’t support the development of a canal – hence the monikers Clinton’s Folly or Clinton’s Big Ditch – but it did have other big name supporters including Gideon Granger, Stephen Van Rensselaer, and Gouverneur Morris who helped to insure that it indeed did get built.

Construction on the Canal began on July 4, 1817 and lasted about 8 years.  It finally opened October 26, 1825 with then Governor Clinton presiding over the official opening aboard the Seneca Chief.  The Canal was an engineering marvel of the day at four feet deep, 40 feet wide, and 363 miles long.

photograph of the Erie Canal that features a building in the distance and a boat on the canal

Erie Canal at Little Falls. Detroit Publishing Co. between 1880 and 1897.

It was a major transportation line for all sorts of products like timber, agricultural goods, merchandise, manufactured goods, etc.  You can see the Canal’s growing importance reflected in the numbers.  In 1837 the tonnage of property moved was 667,151; it was over 1 million in 1845;  over 4 million in 1880; and in 1897 it was just over 2.5 million.  The only other New York canal that came close was the Champlain which often had less than half of that amount.  [1]

Just looking at the annual publications provides an amazingly detailed account of commerce on the Canal.  In the 1839 Annual Report of the Commissioners of the Canal Fund I found that revenue received from the tolls on the Erie Canal alone was over one million dollars.  However, what was most fascinating were the many fold-out charts.  One chart included the number of tolls paid and received at the various places of collection, the names of the collectors as well as what the salaries were for collectors, inspectors, and clerks –  on each of the New York canals.  Other charts showed the tonnage on each of the canals (by office) for the various products, value of the products, and provided a very detailed accounting of tolls per product.

The Annual Financial Report from 1872 shows even more detail with over 90 charts and tables covering various aspects of the state’s canals.  This same detail and information could be found in the Annual Report of the Comptroller, of the Expenditures on the Canals.

Image features the canal with boats that includes office buildings in the distance with overhead telephone wires and a horse and carriage on the bridge crossing the canal

Erie Canal at Salina St., Syracuse, N.Y. Detroit Publishing Co., c1900.

Over time the use of the Canal diminished as railroads boomed and became the dominant mode of transportation and shipping.  However, it was still in use in 1918 was enlarged again and renamed the New York State Barge Canal.  Traffic still declined rapidly and over time many parts were abandoned.  While some parts of the Canal are still in use, most of the activity comes from tourists and other recreational users and it has become a National Heritage Corridor administered by the National Park Service and the Ohio & Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor Commission.

In writing this post I found that news articles were an interesting way to trace the path (no pun intended) of the Canal, and the Library’s Chronicling America has some great ones:

The Library has quite a bit of interesting material beyond the annual reports mentioned above.   Letters on the Natural History and Internal Resources of the State of New York was published in 1822 and was a collection of articles by Hibernicus (AKA DeWitt Clinton) that supposedly ran in a local newspaper in 1820.  I also found this amazing item with a very long title that included “public documents” relating to the New York canals.  It has a stupendous fold-out color map that was over 67.5 inches long.


Learn More

The title of today’s post was taken from one variation of the lyrics from the song “Low Bridge” by Thomas S. Allen written in 1905 . Other versions use the word “miles” in place of “years.”

[1] Canal Statistics. Bureau of Statistics, p. 1101.

Note: We have added the strike-through to one sentence to correct the record related to the 1918 time period.


  1. MA Hillier
    October 27, 2011 at 9:35 am

    Fascinating article and thank you so much for including the song. It was very popular with the music teachers when I was in grade school and I remember it well. I wonder if they still teach that song today? Probably not, which is sad. It was fun to sing and made learning about the Erie Canal fun too.

  2. Chuck Piotrowski
    June 16, 2020 at 7:53 am

    The New York State Barge Canal is not part of the Ohio & Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor Commission. It is located within the Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor. The Ohio & Erie was/is a different canal.

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