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.
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.
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. 
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.
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 and 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:
- An 1881 proposal map for the Hennepin Canal which was to connect the Erie Canal to the Mississippi River.
- An 1891 article on the “Haunts of Dewitt Clinton” was quite fun.
- A 1906 Spanish Fork Press article on the importance of the Canal.
- There is a photograph of the painting “Marriage of the Waters” which portrayed the opening of the Canal in 1925 and is painted on the walls of DeWitt Clinton High School.
- A 1909 article on enlarging the Canal.
- A 1917 article reporting on the Canal celebrating its birthday.
- A 1918 article about the take-over of the Canal by the railroad administration.
- A 1920 article about freight piling up along the Canal waiting to be moved.
- A 1922 article with the headline “What will the ship canal do to New York?”, which includes a fabulous drawing.
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.
- Prints & Photographs has some of the Lock “plan, sections, and elevation of a canal lock” as part of their Architecture, Design, and Engineering (ADE) Drawings, as well as photos in the Historic American Engineering Record collection.
- For teachers there is a lesson plan based on the book Marco Paul’s Travels on the Erie Canal .
- Look at the online presentation “Life on the Ohio and Erie Canal” which contains information on Captain Pearl R. Nye including a nice recording of the Captain.
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.”
 Canal Statistics. Bureau of Statistics, p. 1101.