A canal connecting the Hudson River to Lake Erie was an early dream for New York settlers. The morass of forest, swamps and underbrush that was much of New York state in the early nineteenth century was hardly conducive to overland travel, and much of the western part of the state was considered unreachable. The distance proposed for the canal was 363 miles, longer than had ever been attempted in the United States. The project was considered impossible by many who cited lack of funds, untrained engineers, and unforgiving terrain. Thomas Jefferson, when petitioned for federal funds, refused to support the canal; "It is a splendid project," he responded, "and may be executed a century hence."

De Witt Clinton, mayor of New York City,

believed that such a canal was crucial to the advancement of his state. Fighting for his city to be perceived as advanced and cosmopolitan as Boston and Philadelphia, Clinton threw all his political weight behind the project, beginning a Canal Fund and enlisting the support of former rival Martin Van Buren in the state senate. He used the rhetoric of nationalism and republicanism in a popularly supported memorandum to the legislature demanding that a canal be built; eventually, it bore over one hundred thousand signatures. Momentum for the project increased during the early teens; surveys continued, engineers were trained in England and Holland, and the federal government was expected to finance the canal partially. In 1816, the plans were stalled when the Bonus Bill, the key to national funding, was vetoed by President James Madison. Clinton, although he did not have adequate state funding at the time, decided to go ahead with his plans; as he was running for state governor at the time, he could not forestall the canal any further. Fortunately, the veto of the Bonus Bill strengthened the state's sense of resolution and independence, and by April of 1817, a canal bill was passed, guarenteeing funds for the completion of the project. On July 4, 1817, ground was broken at Utica, New York and construction began simultaneously to the east and west.

Lockport on the Erie Canal

The building of the Erie Canal continued for eight years. As Clinton's political fortunes rose and fell, so did the popularity of the canal project. Often known as "Clinton's Ditch" and "Clinton's Folly", the canal and it supporters were lambasted by the New York press. Clinton, who had won the governorship, was voted out of office in 1822, and removed from the Canal Board by political enemies in 1824. Using his martyrdom and popular support, Clinton rode the excitement as the canal neared completion and was re-elected as governor in time to preside over the Erie Canal's opening ceremonies in October of 1825. The celebration lasted ten days as Governor Clinton traveled the length of the canal in a packet boat, Seneca Chief, receiving accolades at every town. Page Smith wrote that "the historian has difficulty in suggesting the degree to which the canal obsessed and enchanted Americans in the fall of 1825. It was taken to be a symbol of the boundless potentialities of the country, its resilience and its hopes."

The canal provided impressive revenue for the state of New York. Turning a profit in its first year, the canal steadily made money until the tolls were abolished in 1883; this was not usually the case with later canals. Also unique to the Erie Canal was the fact that it survived the rise of the railroad. The tonnage on the canal continued to increase well past the time of the Civil War, finally peaking in 1872.

For the dissemination of people, ideas, goods and American nationalism, as well as a model for most subsequent canals, the Erie Canal stands alone in the first half of the nineteenth century.