Erie Canal - Business in United States of America

Erie Canal: The Original Canal

Erie Canal: Later Versions

Identification: A system of artificial waterways from Buffalo on Lake Erie to Albany on the Hudson River providing transportation between the less-developed interior of New York and the eastern seaboard

Date: Completed in 1825

Significance: The Erie Canal allowed goods to be shipped between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean faster and cheaper than by mule-drawn carts. It resulted in the settling of western New York and helped establish New York City as the main port on the East Coast.

Until the construction of the Erie Canal, travel westward for both people and goods was by stagecoach or cart and was slow and expensive. General Philip Schuyler’s Western In land Lock Navigation Company became the first to seek easier, smoother, and cheaper travel by waterway when it started improving some of the natural waterways in upstate New York. Although the company’s improvements by no means constituted a statewide waterway, they encouraged merchant Jesse Hawley in 1807 to publish a series of essays envisioning how a waterway connecting Lake Erie with the Hudson River would yield tremendous economic growth for the nation.

A year later, New York assemblyman Joshua Forman successfully proposed an expenditure of $600 for a survey of possible canal routes across the state. This was followed in 1810 by an act appointing commissioners to study the possibility of limited inland waterway improvements, and in 1811, the commissioners were given a mandate to study a waterway from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. As a result of their work and the vision of Governor DeWitt Clinton, the legislature authorized construction of the Erie and Champlain Canals in 1817. The first 94 miles from Utica to Salina opened in 1820, and local business owners experienced an immediate and substantial reduction in shipping costs. In 1823, a 250-mile section from Brockport to Albany was opened, and the Champlain Canal, from Lake Champlain to the Hudson, also opened. The remaining sections of the Erie Canal were completed in October, 1825.

Erika E. Pilver

Further Reading

  • Bernstein, Peter L. Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. Examines the social ramifications, political squabbles, and economic risks and returns of the canal.
  • Bourne, Russell. Floating West: The Erie and Other American Canals. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992. This series of histories of canals covers the Erie.
  • Hecht, Roger W., ed. The Erie Canal Reader, 1790- 1950. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2003. Essays, travelogues, poems, and fiction by major American and British writers; part celebration of the men and women who worked the canal and part social observation.
  • Shaw, Ronald E. Erie Water West: A History of the Erie Canal, 1792-1854. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990. Examines the canal from its development to its use during the mid-nineteenth century.
  • Sheriff, Carol. The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862. New York: Hill & Wang, 1996. Innovative use of archival research to document the varied responses of ordinary people who lived along the waterway. 

See also: Dams and aqueducts; highways; Mississippi and Missouri Rivers; Panama Canal; railroads; shipping industry; First stagecoach line; water resources.

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