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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