Fifteen Years on the Erie Canal: Teaching About an Almost-Forgotten Form of Transportation

This post is by Michael Apfeldorf of the Library of Congress.

When we think about key modes of transportation that enabled early U.S. expansion, we often imagine coal-fired locomotive trains racing across the western landscape. Less frequently, if ever, do we think about canal boats floating along human-made ditches, being pulled by mules or horses. Yet in the 1800s, before the widespread use of trains, such canals and canal boats were critically important to American travel, trade, and growth.

Drawing of a child guiding two mules and a barge through a canal

The Canal Boy, 1881

Introduce students to the topic by showing them this engraving, “The Canal Boy.” Invite students to share their observations and questions. Some may wonder why horses are pulling the barge, as opposed to it traveling along a current or being powered by some other means. Explain to students that canals were human-constructed waterways, created to allow the passage of boats inland. As the engraving shows, mules or horses would often walk along a towpath and pull the boat along. This early 20th century film, “Down the Old Potomac,” also provides an opportunity for students to observe how the canal system operated.

Next, play the song “Low Bridge! Everybody Down!” and ask students to speculate about why canals were so useful in the 19th century. The first stanza provides some immediate clues:

I’ve got an old mule, and her name is Sal
Fifteen years on the Erie Canal
She’s a good old worker and a good old pal
Fifteen years on the Erie Canal
We’ve hauled some barges in our day
Filled with lumber, coal, and hay
And every inch of the way I know
From Albany to Buffalo

Students might note the importance of the canal system in hauling heavy loads of material such as coal and lumber, which facilitated trade and national expansion. Typically, a horse or mule – in this case “Sal” – could transport a much greater weight of goods by hauling them on a floating barge than by pulling a wagon over land.

As follow up research to the engraving, video, and song, encourage students to explore more resources from the Library of Congress that shed light on the importance of such canals to national growth. For example, Today in History provides background information regarding how the Erie Canal helped to make New York City the chief port in the U.S. and opened the western part of the state of New York and other western territories to increased settlement and trade.  And this map of various channels for conveying trade shows how canals worked alongside of trains in the mid-1800s to facilitate trade between the Atlantic seaboard and western regions of the United States.

Finally, check out the Library’s Transportation Primary Source Set to explore other modes of transportation that have played a significant role in U.S. History. If you use these resources and strategies with your students, let us know what insights they come up with!

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7 Comments

  1. Heidi Ziemer
    October 6, 2022 at 11:19 am

    So glad to see a nod to the canals! At a time when the nation had just barely emerged from another conflict with Britain (War of 1812) and recognized the weaknesses of our internal transportation systems, the canals became a focus as a solution for state and national leaders – and determining the routes and how to finance, especially for the Erie Canal, became very politicized! It basically changed the national flow of trade, helped develop a significant part of the western territories as non-slave holding states, helped spread new ideas such as abolition and women’s suffrage, and led to the emergence of the national rail system! Here in New York, we have many great resources for teachers and students to learn all these things and more, focusing on the Erie Canal!

  2. Debra Shapiro
    October 6, 2022 at 11:44 am

    Are there ways that STEM/science teachers could use this in their classrooms?

    • Danna Bell
      October 6, 2022 at 12:00 pm

      Absolutely! You may want to look at the teaching ideas for the Primary Source set on Transportation for ideas. I also did a search of the Historic American Building Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscape Survey for canals and got a large number of results. The collection will include measured drawings, photographs and background information a variety of canals. Look at the item for the Ohio/Erie canal for an example. I’ve also asked our Einstein Teaching Fellow and the author of this post for ideas and I’ll include them in the comments when they get back to me.

  3. Jackie Katz
    October 6, 2022 at 12:13 pm

    This photo and video can serve as a great phenomenon in a science classroom. If you prompt students to observe, reflect and wonder about the image and video they may come up with questions like: Why would people of the 1800s use this type of transportation? Why is it easier to pull things along a canal than along a street? These questions can launch the class into an exploration of forces and friction; they may even build some small scale models to collect evidence (how much weight can they pull in a model canal compared to a model car?).

    The video refers to canal locks. These might not be familiar to students. Set them on a mission to understand the purpose of a lock. Students can do literature based research or build models. There are several resources online about how students can build locks in the classroom.

  4. Michael Apfeldorf
    October 6, 2022 at 1:42 pm

    Thank you for your question Debra. I believe my colleagues Danna and Jackie have done a terrific job sharing some of the ways to integrate this material in a a STEM/science classroom. In addition, I will just say that it can at times be helpful to stress how science and engineering are implemented in a real world context, as well as how they impact society. For instance, the Next Generation Science Standards stress that successful Science and Engineering practices involve defining problems and designing solutions. Understanding this concept through real-world, historically contextualized examples, can help scientific and engineering concepts become meaningful to students. Why was canal transportation a successful mode of transportation at this particular period in history? And why did other forms of transportation overtake it as an optimal means of transportation? Answering these questions might involve students grappling with both questions of science and engineering, in addition to other disciplines such as history or geography. Thanks again for your question and good luck with your students!

  5. Debra Shapiro
    October 6, 2022 at 4:56 pm

    Thank you, Michael, Jackie, and Danna, for your speedy response to my question! I’m one of the editors of NSTA Reports, a weekly e-newsletter of the National Science Teaching Association, and we like to mention the LOC’s free resources in the e-newsletter (https://www.nsta.org/types/nsta-reports).

  6. Michael Apfeldorf
    October 11, 2022 at 10:41 am

    Debra, thank you so much for mentioning our resources! I hope your readers will find something useful for their students…

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