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Erie Canal

Stonework of Erie Canal lock,
(abandoned due to route change)
Durhamville, New York

The Erie Canal was a canal in New York State, United States, that runs from the Hudson River to Lake Erie, connecting the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean. The first version of the canal opened on December 26, 1825 and was 363 miles long, 40 feet wide, and 4 feet deep. There were 77 locks along the canal, each 90 feet by 15 feet. Maximum canal-boat displacement was 75 tons. The Erie Canal was the first transportation route faster than carts pulled by draft animals between the Eastern Seaboard of the United States and the western interior, and cut transport costs into what was then wilderness by about ten times. The Canal resulted in a massive population surge in western New York, and opened regions further west to further settlement.

The Geopolitics

The Appalachian Mountains cut off the interior of North America from the Atlantic Ocean. At their northern end, the Appalachians connect with the equally formidable Canadian Shield. The Adirondack Mountains in northeastern New York state are actually an extension of the Canadian Shield although they are often seen as part of the Appalachians.

It was possible to use pack animals to bring light high-value products like furs from the interior to the Atlantic coast for export. However, the only way to economically move bulky low-value agricultural and timber products was by water. It was these latter products that formed the majority of North American exports until the 20th century. There are only four navigable water routes through or around the mountain barrier into the interior Hudson Bay, the St. Lawrence River, the Hudson River and the Mississippi River. Until the development of railroads in the middle of the 19th century, much of North American history revolved around the contest to control these routes.

In some ways. the Hudson River is the least attractive of these routes. Once past the mountains it ends in a cul-de-sac with no access to the rest of the Great Lakes Basin. The Erie Canal addressed this weakness by providing a route from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. Prior to the construction of the canal, the British colonies north of the Great Lakes expected to be major beneficiaries of the settlement of the American Midwest. Without the Erie Canal, produce from the Midwest would have flowed through the St. Lawrence River with Montreal, rather than New York, becoming the great exporting and immigration center for North America.

Because the Great Lakes Basin has no great heights of land separating it from neighboring drainage basins, access to the Great Lakes also provides access to other regions of North America. The early French access to the Great Lakes allowed them to become the first Europeans to explore the Mississippi River system. Today, the Chicago Ship Canal allows ships to travel between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.

In the west, fur traders from Montreal were able to portage between the Great Lakes and the Hudson Bay drainage basin which extends all the way to the Rocky Mountains. From this drainage basin, other portages gave access to the Mackenzie River system. These two drainage basins effectively define the western and Alaskan borders between Canada and the United States.


The canal was the idea of the entrepreneurial Jessie Hawley, who imagined being able to grow huge quantities of grain in the upstate New York plains (then largely unsettled) for sale on the Eastern Seaboard. However he went bankrupt trying to ship it to the coast, and while sitting in the Canandaigua debtors' prison he started pressing for the construction of a canal running along the Mohawk River valley.

The Mohawk River runs in the channel across the northern reaches of the Appalachians, separating them in New York State into the Catskills and Adirondacks. The Mohawk Valley was the only cut across the Appalachians north of Alabama, and pointed almost directly from the already widely used Hudson River to the east, to either Lake Ontario or Lake Erie on the west. From there much of the interior and many settlements would be accessible on the lakes.

The problem is that the land rises about 600 feet from the Hudson River at Albany, New York to Lake Erie. Locks at the time could handle a change of up to 12 feet, so at least 50 locks would be required along the 360 mile canal. Any such canal would cost a fortune even today, but in 1800 such an undertaking was barely feasible. President Jefferson thought the proposal was ridiculous and rejected it. Nevertheless Hawley managed to interest the governor, DeWitt Clinton, and after surveying the plan went ahead.

The canal was to consist of a 4 foot deep cut, with the removed soil being piled on the downhill side to form a walkway on that side. Barges, up to 3.5 feet in draught, would be pulled by mules on the walkway. When barges crossed there was a quick unhitching and rehitching of the mule teams while the barges continued due to momentum. The sides of the cut would be lined with stone, while the bottom would be covered with clay. The stone work required hundreds of German masons to be brought in, who would later go on to build many of New York's famous buildings when the canal was completed.

Construction began July 4, 1817, at Rome, New York. The first 15 mile section between Rome and Utica opened two years later. At this rate the canal would not be finished for another 30 years or so. The main problems were cutting the trees and moving the dirt, which was proving to be much slower than expected. Solutions were discovered, trees were pulled down with a rope thrown over the top of the tree and then winched down, and the stumps pulled out with a huge tripod-mounted winch. Mule-pulled carts were filled from much larger wheelbarrows to clear the dirt. A three-man team with mules could now build a mile long stretch in a year, meaning that the problem now was staffing.

Construction continued at an increased rate as new workers arrived, but halted completely when the canal reached the Montezuma Swamp near Syracuse, New York when over 1000 workers died of malaria. Work continued on the "downhill" side towards the Hudson, and when the swamp froze over in the winter the crews all worked to complete the section right across the swamps. Leaks developed along the entire length of the canal, but these were sealed with a newly invented concrete. Erosion on the clay bottom proved to be a problem and the speed was limited to 4mph. Work was completed in 1825.

Additional canals soon added to the coverage, including the Cayuga-Seneca south to the Finger Lakes, the Oswego from Three Rivers north to Lake Ontario at Oswego, and the Champlain running north from Troy to Lake Champlain.

The original design planned for an annual tonnage of 1.5 million tones, but this was exceeded immediately. A program to enlarge the canal, notably the locks, started only a year later, and then again in the late 1800s. By 1883 the tolls on the canal had raised 121 million dollars, and all fees were waived for future use.

In 1918 the canal was replaced by the larger New York Barge Canal, running roughly the same route. Railway traffic largely replaced both, and today the original Erie Canal is being turned into a trail. However, the Erie Canal, during its construction, launched a canal boom which strengthened the infrastructure of the U.S., tying agricultural interests of the West to the industrial interests of the East.

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