New York History: Building the Erie Canal

The Erie Canal showing its route from Lake Erie to The Hudson River
The Erie Canal showing its route from Lake Erie to The Hudson River | Source
DeWitt Clinton
DeWitt Clinton
Jesse Hawley
Jesse Hawley

'Clinton's Big Ditch' - The New York Canal Folly

When New York governor, DeWitt Clinton listened to a proposal to build a canal which would stretch from Albany to Buffalo, he thought it sounded like a great idea.

The proposal came from Jesse Hawley, an entrepreneur serving time in the Debtor's Prison, who could see the value of having an infrastructure on undeveloped land in upstate New York.

Hawley wanted to sell land and plant wheat on the western plains. The land would be bought for a song and the harvest shipped on the canal. Investors would make good money and the legacy of these early labours would see upstate New York become more industrially developed and linked forever after with the already developed south of the state. Hawley was struggling though to make money from his current trade with those already upstate; he waited months for cash to come his way from transactions with farmers. He wanted to remedy this problem.

Hawley had tried to sell his proposal elsewhere. Even President Thomas Jefferson thought it was an over-ambitious folly, bound to fail.

But DeWitt Clinton believed in Hawley's imaginative ideas and won the day. Work started on the Erie Canal and against all odds, it was completed in 1825, 8 years after DeWitt Clinton had the project rubber stamped.

When Hawley began the construction work on the Erie Canal in 1817, it was referred to as 'Clinton's Big Ditch' - nobody believed that the canal would be constructed but it was and is still in use today.

It has been painted, drawn and even sung about - here is the amazing history of the Erie Canal.


New York, New York - Not Yet A Prominent City in the USA

Hawley's vision for the Erie Canal came about from his own experiences as a tradesman, trying and failing to sell and ship goods to farms in upstate New York.

In fact, the issues led to Jesse Hawley being imprisoned in Canandaigua debtor's prison because he was constantly in debt. Transportation concerns regularly left him financially disabled for long periods.

Unable to settle his debts, he was imprisoned. This gave him plenty of time to consider a solution to New York City's failing infrastructure. He spent many months in the first few years of the first decade of the 19th century locked up, and imprisonment certainly seems to have made him focus on what had put him there!

At the time he was imprisoned, in 1807, New York was not the #1 centre of trade and commerce that is is today. In fact, Philadephia held that distinction.

New York City was on the rise but lacked a means of shipping goods west across the Appalachian mountain range, leaving those who had pioneered that far to farm arable land with the problem of first, getting necessary supplies to enable them to farm successfully and secondly, the added problem of being unable to sell their wares and take cattle and crops to New York's markets to sell.

Hawley sat in his cell in the Debtor's Prison and wrote a series of journals under the name 'Hercules'. He would later publish these papers (they are now held at the University of Rochester, NY) in the hope of attracting investors in the building of the Erie Canal.

The Erie Canal, arguably, represented the first major infrastructural development which enabled New York City's rise in prominence to become the east coast's centre for trade, industry and commerce. In due course, New York overtook Philadelphia as the USA's biggest city.

The Erie Canal was a central part of New York's early success.

Canvass White, engineer on the Rome to Syracuse section.
Canvass White, engineer on the Rome to Syracuse section. | Source
Chief Engineer of Rome, the first canal boat to navigate the middle section of the Erie Canal
Chief Engineer of Rome, the first canal boat to navigate the middle section of the Erie Canal | Source
Irish immigrants posing
Irish immigrants posing | Source
Immigrant diggers on the Erie Canal
Immigrant diggers on the Erie Canal

Building the Erie Canal - Beginnings

The War of 1812 which saw the USA and British forces once more battling it out for territory along the Canadian border stopped any early 'lobbying' by Hawley and his fellow businessmen anxious to find finance for the Erie Canal project.

When the war ended though, Hawley once more set about politicians in New York and finally in 1817 work was finally about to start.

Unusually for such projects, the canal was actually started in the middle! There were already some waterways established in the 98 mile middle section and ground breaking began in the town of Rome, New York on July 4th 1817.

Finance for the Erie Canal project was only part-funded by the government. The rest of the money was put up by farmers and landowners along its route, safe in the knowledge that they would get their money back many times over once the transportation route was in every day use.

Farmers themselves with their own labourers started the original land clearance work and soon British, Irish and French labourers joined the project which paid about $1 a day, good money for most of these men who were used to earning much less in their own countries.

The middle section was difficult because of terrain. Its route took it through swamp and dense forest and with no surveyors or qualified engineers (other than Benjamin Wright and James Geddes, actually boundary surveyors rather than land surveyors) on sight to oversee the project, it quickly hit problems.

Canvass White from the inexperienced corps of engineers on the Erie Canal middle section was sent to England to visit with civil engineers there who were overseeing continuing infrastructure expansion at the height of Britain's industrial revolution. England already had several excellent canals; the Bridgewater Canal had been completed in 1769 and was used as a prime example of canal engineering throughout Europe. Canvass White returned far more knowledgeable than when he had left and was ready for the challenges ahead.

After the 1812 War, the British and Americans quickly established an excellent trading relationship and the Erie Canal project offered an excellent opportunity for new engineering knowledge to be shared.

In spite of 1,000 men dying from swine fever and many deaths due to malarial mosquitoes, the middle section was completed in 1819. Transportation on this section of the Erie Canal began in 1820.

Erie Canal Packet Dock, Syracure, New York
Erie Canal Packet Dock, Syracure, New York | Source

Completion of the Erie Canal - 1820-1825

The Eastern section and western section were excavated after the middle section because both were, at that time, less able to be used for trade, both being still fairly sparsely populated.

By 1820 the Western section was almost complete and work on the eastern section then had more labourers from the other two areas seeking work .

DeWitt Clinton took a canal boat at the Erie Canal's official opening ceremony in October 1826, travelling from Buffalo. It was possible to travel all the way from Buffalo to New York City in 9 days by canal; in all a journey of 363 miles. An amazing feat, and all achieved on a canal built in 8 years

This would have been impossible just ten years before and Jesse Hawley deserves much praise for first publicising his journals and then getting DeWitt Clinton, an extremely influential governor of New York to listen to him.

It is amazing to think that in just a matter of six more years, the means of making the canal obsolete would be built - a railroad from Albany to Schenectady.

So the Erie Canal, itself considered an industrial and engineering breakthrough in American industrial history became less used as new engineering and 'technology', namely, the railways, took over the job of speedily moving freight from A to B.

However, the Erie Canal should not be seen as some 6 year 'wonder' - had it not been for the Erie Canal, there would never have been the somewhat rapid migration and settlement of the western part of upstate New York, a move which led the state to gain in prominence and become very prosperous.

The entire state but more especially, the eastern seaboard became the prime trading centre of the east coast of the United States at a time when its relationship with the British Empire was being cemented for the next century.

Trade was flourishing with Europe and freight heading across the Atlantic for export to England and elsewhere was thriving, with New York at its centre.

Apples - Erie Canal Freight in Medina, NY
Apples - Erie Canal Freight in Medina, NY
A rather pastoral paining of the Erie Canal, more pleasure than work!
A rather pastoral paining of the Erie Canal, more pleasure than work! | Source
Syracuse, 1890
Syracuse, 1890
Mohawk Valley, 1905
Mohawk Valley, 1905

Making the Building of The Erie Canal Profitable - 1931 and Beyond

Surprisingly, even after the first railroad in New York state, the Erie Canal continued to be popular.

Often, it was more easily accessible to farmers than the railroads.

Remember the initial building phase, calling on a forty feet wide, four feet deep canal was originally excavated by farmers themselves so for a lot of farmers the canal was already cutting through their land.

It was actually easier to freight goods on the Erie Canal than the railroads. At this time, there were no other motorised vehicles available. The farmers trusted the canal to get the goods to New York in good shape.

So a strange thing happened - in spite of the railways having money thrown at them by the government, the canals were still able to make money by charging a modest toll to all who used the waterway.

The government decided to pay for the expansion of the canal system and work to expand the Erie Canal and also start the building of other canals began in 1836. Issues over raising tax to fund the enlargement of the canals lead to the work halting completely until 1847 but it expanded at a tremendous rate from that time on.

The programme to enlarge the Erie Canal completed all of the work by 1862.

Eventually, more work was commissioned at the end of the 19th century but insufficient capital could be raised in an industrial environment where the train system was becoming the #1 means of transporting freight.

In 1898, Theodore Roosevelt, then governor of New York chaired the Committee on Canals and proposals were made for a sort of 'final push' towards making the canals as efficient as possible to enable them to remain a viable means of moving freight from west from the Great Lakes to New York City.

The ambitious project suggested making all of the existent canals 125 feet in width and increasing their depth to twelve feet. This would actually make it easier to take advantage of rivers which ran across the existent Erie Canal route.

In all six rivers crossing the route were canalised but in turn this led to the old middle section of the canal being rerouted from its original path.

The Barge Canal System of New York as it was known, was now complete. It included the Erie Canal, the Champlain Canal, the Oswego Canal and the Cayuga-Seneca Canal.

In spite of seemingly failing to compete with the railways, the canals remained a viable means of transportation long into the twentieth century.

In all the tolls raised $121 million and those who bought bonds in canal building work reaped excellent financial rewards from their speculation.


History of the Erie Canal - The Canal Now

In spite of completion to the newly enlarged Barge Canal System in 1918, it was never used as much as hoped and over subsequent decades, use of the Erie Canal and others became less prevalent.

The canal system was due to get another financial boost in the 1990s after a brief rise in transport use but this has failed to gain momentum.

It is pleasing to see that some sections of the Erie Canal have now become areas of historical significance.

A visitors centre has been established at the original start of the middle section in Rome, NY and there are many activities available to visitors.

A voyage on a canal boat can be a very pleasant experience, especially when it is still done using the 'Hogee', a man leading horses along the path as they pull the canal boat. The Visitors Centre seems to pride itself on giving visitors an authentic experience of the Erie Canal in its earliest incarnation.

I hope you have enjoyed this history of the Erie Canal.

Many thanks for reading.

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Comments 34 comments

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Glad you liked it Mary. It was all new to me when I wrote it but I got swept along with its amazing story.

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Audra, how lucky to live so close to it! We have no canals in my area of England (the North East where I live was more industrial but I live on the coast so lots of water anyway), which is a shame. I really love water and being beside rivers etc so I would love to live near a canal.

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Gus, many thanks for your comment! Sounds like the canal has been and is still part of your life - how wonderful! The Waterloo Parade must be a good day. I am so envious of all of you lovely Americans getting to be near the canal :o)

tillsontitan profile image

tillsontitan 3 years ago from New York

What a great re-telling of the history of the Erie Canal! I live in NY but downstate from the Erie Canal, however, as a resident of NY you would think I'd know this! You've included everything and made it interesting to read.

Voted up, useful, and interesting.

profile image

AudraLeigh 3 years ago

I live like 4 miles from the stop on the Erie Canal in Fairport, NY and like 8 miles from the stop in Pittsford , NY. Micah, my friends and I ate at a Greek restaurant and had icecream while looking out on the water...good times! My sister used to go "Scum" jumping; jumping off the bridge into the canal water...icky./ You wrote great info here with lots of info I never new. You did great!! Voted up and shared!!!

GusTheRedneck profile image

GusTheRedneck 3 years ago from USA

Jools99 -

This is certainly a well-written article. I can verify to all that the Erie Canal is alive and well, in use from the Hudson River all the way west to the Great Lakes. My brothers-in-law and I used to go swimming and diving in the canal where it passed through "Cold Springs," close to Syracuse, New York. Our veterans group has had some fun "floats" along the canal during times of our reunions, the same being held at Waterloo, New York, home of the first Memorial Day celebration - there is a parade in Waterloo each year on that day.

Thanks for this great article. It was much appreciated.

Gus :-)))

DanaTeresa profile image

DanaTeresa 3 years ago from Ohio

OH JULIE! don't be bummed about th number of readers. traffic could pick up. keep sharin git now and then. AND BE PROUD of the great job you did! Really. PLUS it is always good practice. That is how I consider a lot of my writing. The more I write, the better I get. KEEP WRITING! :)

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Dana, How wonderful to be so close to the canal. I knew nothing about it before I started the hub, it was a HP 'Exclusive' but I really enjoyed learning about it and writing the article; sadly you are one of only about 50 readers (and most of the rest are fellow hubbers- bless 'em!).

DanaTeresa profile image

DanaTeresa 3 years ago from Ohio

AWESOME! I am from Albany, NY and have family form all over the stats. The Erie Canal holds a very special place in my heart. Canals in general are so fascinating. Most people know nothing about them. Once you learn about it you can't help but be amazed...

The C&O Canal (Chesapeak and Ohio) is another great one!

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

John, Many thanks for reading! I would love to visit it sometime.

John MacNab profile image

John MacNab 3 years ago from the banks of the St. Lawrence

A fascinating tale Jools. Being so close to the canal and now appreciating the vastness of North America, I admire the people who opened it up even more.

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Alicia, this was a brand new subject for me but I found it very a very interesting subject- I would love to visit the canal.

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Bobbi, thanks for your comment, I do love writing history hubs - but they take ages to write (no pun intended!)

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

Thank you very much for all the interesting facts and the great history lesson! I knew nothing about this topic before I read your hub. The information and photos combine to make a great article.

PurvisBobbi44 profile image

PurvisBobbi44 4 years ago from Florida


Thanks for the great article and history review. I really enjoyed it and I look forward to reading more of your great history hubs.

Bobbi Purvis

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Dianna, you are very kind! Thanks so much for reading. I began this hub with no knowledge of American canals but I found the whole subject very interesting, though it took me a long time to write :o)

teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 4 years ago

I remember studying this in high school with great interest. Your share on this is even more exciting and very colorful. It is an important part of our American history. Great job and thanks for the education.

fpherj48 profile image

fpherj48 4 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

Julie...are you kidding? I have a special coffee pot reserved...just for you. Who better than a member of the Hogg clan?

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Russ, many thanks for your comment - yes, debt caused Hawley to think 'outside the box' (no pun intended!) to get what he needed for his business.

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Effer, so if I visit the Erie Canal, I can catch ya for a coffee? Fab, it'll make any possible trip even better knowing I will meet you :o)

rfmoran profile image

rfmoran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

Great hub. Taking a canal tour has been on my list for a long time and your hub has nudged it up. An amazing feat, dreamed up by a guy in debtor's pros9n. Well don Jools, and excellent writing an photographs.

fpherj48 profile image

fpherj48 4 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

Well, Jools....How do I thank you for the fabulous education about something I should KNOW, due to the fact that I"M RIGHT HERE! ? It takes my buddy from across the pond to enlighten me... Shame, shame on Effer!.........You're very good at what you do, girl!! ..UP+++

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

steveso, Many thanks for your comment. How great that you can see a great piece of history like this from your car! I think New York City's expansion and growth may have been a bit slower had it not been for the canal. It's a very interesting part of America's industrial history.

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

UnnamedHarald, Ha! Ha! It was certainly an amazing accomplishment for the many men who were involved in it. Thanks for your comment.

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Theresa, many thanks for your comment - I enjoyed researching the subject but now I want to visit :o)

steveso profile image

steveso 4 years ago from Brockport, NY

Thank you for a wonderful article. When I used to live in Boston and take the New York State Thruway to return to my hometown of Watertown,NY, I enjoyed seeing the remnants of the old Erie Canal along the way. Parts of the canal can be seen driving up Rt. 12 in New York State and I am willing to bet that most, if not all of those who see them, don't now what they are. What a shame! Once again great read.

UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Very nice article! I think the last time I heard about the Erie Canal was in school-- you know, a few years after the Erie Canal opened up.

phdast7 profile image

phdast7 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

Absolutely fascinating retelling of an amazing accomplishment. Really enjoyed this. History and storytelling, both at their best, :) Merry Christmas.

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Bill, I think given the terrain - having to cut through the Appalachians, swamp, forests etc, it truly is an amazing feat, especially with no qualified engineer on site - it was an incredible story and I enjoyed researching it.

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Michelle, thanks for your comment. Sometimes, it's the voice at the back that gets ignored but Hawley and Clinton believed in what they were doing and made it all happen.

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Asp52, wrote this as one of HPs new 'exclusives' but it completely took me over - I got so interested that I now want to go to Rome and visit the Visitor Centre and go on the canal boat. Thanks so much for visiting and leaving your nice comment, I appreciate it.

billybuc profile image

billybuc 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

You know, Julie, these kinds of engineering feats just blow my mind. They are incredible testaments to the skill of the workers and the genius of those visionaries who believed it possible.

Great history lesson my friend.

midget38 profile image

midget38 4 years ago from Singapore

Yet another case of how lives have changed when someone steps forward to try something new. A great historical read, Julie! I share too!

Asp52 profile image

Asp52 4 years ago from England

Thank you for a very good article on a subject until this week knew nothing about. Clinton was obviously a man of great vision and determination, who continued in the pioneering tradition. To prove so many people wrong and bring New York City more prestige and trade has shaped the History of the USA greatly. I was shocked to read that he spent a lot of time in the debtors prison. Great Historical read and I shall look out for more.

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