Map of the U.S. c. 1800
Map of U.S. at 1800. Dark orange are states; blue are territories; light orange is foreign area.
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The size, shape and nature of the United States, as it now exists, is due largely to the political, social and economic landscape of the first half of the nineteenth century. In what was, for many reasons, the most important period in the nation's history, the construction of the Erie Canal ranks at the top of the list, along with the Louisiana Purchase, of the most significant events of the antebellum period, impacting westward expansion, and in turn, the development of the nation. The canal also had other important, if unintended, consequences for the country, including promoting nationalism and helping to preserve the Union, which further affirm its value to the nation.

The antebellum period witnessed the development of an inchoate union of eastern states into a tested constitutional democracy that extended across a continent rich with natural resources, fertile land and an extensive system of waterways. The age of expansion, even while acknowledging some of its morally questionable aspects, was an era of vision and opportunity that enabled the United States to acquire the territory and resources without which it would not have been able to develop into the strongest and most prosperous nation in the world. In the era that began with the shrewd purchase by Thomas Jefferson of the Louisiana Territory from France (effectually doubling the land holdings of the United States) the nation saw much change in its geography as it strove to achieve its Manifest Destiny; Americans crossed the Mississippi River and began to settle the great western frontier; westward expansion dictated the Indian removal policies of Andrew Jackson; the United States annexed Texas and fought a war with Mexico, through which it gained additional territory; gold was discovered in California and a vast westward movement began; a northern border was established and new passages opened the Great Northwest to settlement.
But while the historical study of expansion focuses primarily on national events (the acquisition of the southwest, the push to the opposite coast and the increasing sectionalism that was a major factor in the Civil War), the actions of New Yorkers and the impact of their unparalleled construction project go largely unmentioned.

While it may upon first appearance seem to be a matter of local interest and importance with limited consequence, the economics and demographics of the Erie Canal prove otherwise. At the end of the first decade of the nineteenth century, the nation consisted of eighteen states, thirteen of which were original colonies and lay on or along the eastern seaboard; several largely unsettled territories surrounding the Great Lakes (and the Mississippi Territory to their south); and the newly acquired vast expanse known as the Louisiana Territory. The western part of the state of New York was considered frontier land, and the city of New York was contending with the Boston and Baltimore to be the principal port on the Atlantic (as well as Montreal and New Orleans for imports and exports) and Philadelphia as the foremost commercial center of the east.

As towns emerged along the Erie Canal, bringing business, agriculture and industry to the previously unsettled western New York the canal helped New York City establish its trade position and develop into the world's dominant commercial center. Additionally, the canal brought people and products west and provided the fertile land of the Old Northwest (what is now considered the Midwest) a burgeoning market for its produce. The emigration from New England and the northeast and the development of America's breadbasket was at least as important to achieving Manifest Destiny as any other expansion era movement. The economic value of the canal is immeasurable, extending beyond its significance to the state and allowing the United States to compete in world markets. Finally, an often-overlooked achievement of the Erie Canal, and one with enormous national significance, is the role it played establishing a bond between the east and the west and its impact on the preservation of the Union. The Erie Canal's impact when measured in the context of the national expansion that occurred directly prior to the Civil War serves to vindicate the assertion that construction of the canal was an act of nationalism in every way.

While one of the original thirteen colonies, in 1810 New York existed primarily in the east--the Catskills, Lake George, and the Mohawk and Hudson River valleys--with the western part of the state still largely unsettled. The six counties between the Pennsylvania border and Lake Ontario were inhabited by only 23,148 people, and no town had more than 6,000, while most were less than half that size. The west was served by several small, poor roads, which did not advance far into the wilderness, and its development depended on improved transportation, particularly by water, which had been shown to cost only one-eighth as much as by land transport. The canal, it was thought, could cut shipping costs from Seneca Lake to Albany by two-thirds ($32/ton versus $100/ton) and from Albany to the Niagara River by half. Perhaps more important, the proposed canal would bring settlers to western New York (and beyond) who would build towns, develop industry and agriculture, and increase land value. The canal's economic impact would be realized almost immediately.

Western New York grew exponentially due to the canal, which "spurred economic diversification" and attracted new business and industry. Proximity to the canal reduced costs and manufacturing in the western part of the state increased by 262% between 1820 and 1840.

Business and industry followed the canal. Left: An 1832 Rochester flour mill. Below: Syracuse Savings Bank, founded 1849, located on the canal. Below Opposite: Clinton Square in Syracuse.
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Courtesy Erie Canal Museum Collection.
"Many of the cities mothered by the canal in western New York took places near the top of the list of the most rapidly growing in the nation." (Shaw, 263) By 1850, the population of New York had reached three million. Cities like Rochester and Buffalo, due in part to the natural advantages of farm land and waterways and social assets like their industrious populations, gained prominence as commercial centers in their own right. Rochester, which had built it's first frame house only five years before canal construction began, established itself as the Flour City and developed an industrial center. Buffalo, previously a small trading post, became a western boomtown, attracting a branch of the United States National Bank and becoming the final stop for individuals emigrating to the Old Northwest as a part of the Big Push. "Three days after the first canal boat arrived in Buffalo from the east…the Hiram arrived by canal to deposit 50 emigrants bound for Michigan." (Shaw, 274) A year later 1200 emigrants "seeking west" were delivered in one day. Waggoner notes that, as late as 1795, Buffalo was a "town" of four or five houses, nearly wiped out by the British in 1813, and even in 1815, it was considered "still a mere trading post, struggling hopelessly to become a village." (43) Between 1820 and 1850, the population of Rochester exploded, from 1,502 to 36,403 and Buffalo ballooned from just over 2,000 to 42,261. (U.S. Census Data) Their respective counties grew as well; Monroe's population increased 43% between 1820 and 1840 and Erie blossomed by 145% in the same period. For better or worse, the fortune of these cities was bound to the Erie Canal.

Courtesy Erie Canal Museum Collection.
Along with the many towns that popped up along its path, the canal impacted the state's agricultural development as well, modifying theories of land use and altering the notion of land value to include proximity to the canal. The access to new markets and decreased shipping costs that the canal provided drew farmers from across the northeast to the canal corridor. Western New York was developing at a feverish pace, but it was not the only part of the state that benefited from the economics of the Erie Canal.

There are two schools of thought regarding the impact of the Erie Canal on New York City. While one cautions attributing New York's success and development to the construction of the canal, there are others who argue, as one unnamed historian does, that the canal "played a most important role in the commercial development of the State of New York and probably more than any other influence contributed to the establishment of New York City as the chief port of entry of the United States." (Rochester Historical Society Publication Fund Series, v. VIII) While the first part of that statement seems beyond impeachment, the more bold assertion perhaps requires further evidence. At the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, New York was not a leading American port; by 1790 it was only the fifth largest city in population. The increase in trade and population impacted manufacturing, trade and general wealth, and New York became to the new century what Boston and Philadelphia had been in the last.
The canal opened new markets to the port of New York, as it exported the natural resources extracted from the west and imported manufactured products and finished commodities that would be shipped up the canal.

But it was not just goods that were being transported from the city-New York became the primary port of entry for European immigrants, many of whom would travel up the Hudson and across the canal to settle in the Old Northwest, evidenced by the fact that over 300,000 immigrants landed in New York between 1840 and 1845, but the population of New York City increased by only 80,000. Travel between New York and Lake Erie prior to the canal required a combination of land and water transport and took about 50 days, costing approximately $150. The alternative to this was an almost impassable 200-mile overland route through unconquered wilderness. This new route west facilitated the emigration west allowing newly arrived immigrants a cheaper, faster way to get west and establish themselves in the land of abundance. But the canal not only took people and goods away from New York, the new businesses and increased shipping market associated with the canal attracted workers, businessmen and families, and the population of New York more than quadrupled from 125,706 in 1820 to 515,547 in 1850.

A packet boat delivers freight to waiting ships.
As New York developed into the Atlantic port of choice, it also stayed ahead of New Orleans and Montreal, otherwise the most desirable and accessible options, and in doing so, accomplished important goals relating to the competition for international commerce and the preservation of the Union. In the years before the Erie Canal, most of the agricultural products from the Old Northwest and the Ohio Valley (with the exception of those from Northern Ohio) went south, down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. In the 1830s, however, with a waterway extending to the Atlantic, trade started to go east, with the tonnage of staples more than doubling between 1826 and 1835. Flour was particularly important to the development of New York, which by 1827 had surpassed all other cities in its export, doubling Baltimore (its nearest competitor) and selling more than four times that of New Orleans. It is difficult to imagine what advantages New York could claim over its rivals without the benefit of a cheaper and faster transportation route connecting east to west and opening new and growing markets. By the time railroads began to appear, potentially evening the playing field, New York was already established as the port of favor and had secured its position as the nation's most dominant and productive commercial center.

Population of Old Northwest in thousands
(*in thousands)
** Decade surrounding
opening of canal

As Shaw asserts in Erie Water West, "during the first years of navigation on the Erie Canal, the bulk of the goods carried came from New York State itself. Emigrants and tools had first to be delivered to the shores of the great lakes before western products could pass through New York in significant volume." (238) And delivered they were. There were two main groups of emigrants who traveled west on the Erie Canal; as previously mentioned, a significant number of these settlers came directly from Europe to New York and traveled on the canal to the Great Lakes to settle in large numbers in the Old Northwest. But many who moved west were not new to the country. Farmers from New England and New York saw the opportunity to trade their small tracts of rocky, fruitless soil for a larger quantity of fertile land. Many saw increased opportunities to the west and took advantage of the easy and inexpensive trip to the frontier. The Erie Canal had accidentally introduced competition to New York, and as the population and production of western New York began to decline, the Great lakes region were experiencing the inverse. As a result, the west (now Midwest) became the "breadbasket" of the nation, opportunities for increased agricultural production seemingly endless. While Rochester was once the Flour City, wheat production in the west had expanded exponentially, from 14 thousand bushels in 1826 to eight million bushels in 1840. While canal traffic historically flowed to the west, the current changed once the Great Lakes region had established itself as the heart of national agriculture.

The Old Northwest had been cleared for settlement by the War of 1812 when American victory on the Great Lakes gave the nation control of an unparalleled system of waterways, commercial access to the west and "undisputed access to the Northwest Territory." (Waggoner, 25) The canal was vital to this development, Waggoner argues, and helped to make the nation "ready for that time when they must support the greatest migration in history, the so-called Big Push, a movement so mammoth as to transport people of so many nations by the hundreds of thousands, across the Alleghenies in that vast American interior," setting the stage for the expansion to come. (13) Agriculture and opportunity brought the populations west, and it arrived on the Erie Canal.

As there was previously no easy way to get across the Allegheny Mountains, the Northwest Territory had remained relatively unsettled prior to the construction of the Erie Canal. Even after the Northwest Territory had been divided by congress (in 1800 it sliced off the Indiana Territory; Ohio entered the Union in 1803; in 1805 a large piece of the Indiana Territory was detached to make the Michigan Territory; in 1809 another part of the Indiana Territory pulled away, eventually to become Illinois and Wisconsin; Indiana entered the Union in 1816 and Illinois was granted statehood in 1818) and prepared for settlement, the quality of the one route west (the Cumberland Road) kept those territories more or less uninhabited. As the canal became a viable option for travel to the west, the Old Northwest received the emigrants it had been expecting. The population of Ohio doubled five years after the canal was opened to Buffalo; Northern Indiana, once a "bleak wilderness" became the most important part of the state; and Michigan saw an influx of northeasterners to Detroit, 15,000 from New York and New England settling there in 1830. One historian calculates that if the territory west of New York (between the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers) increased in value by only two dollars per acre, the territory's value would have increased by over half a million dollars. Perhaps a more telling statistic is that between 1815 and 1825 the market value of produce decreased; between 1825 and 1835 (the first decade of the canal) market prices increased by 100%. The Erie Canal had made the west accessible and valuable, and facilitated the Big Push, as imperative to American expansion as the movement into the Louisiana Territory and the drive to the Pacific Coast.

Courtesy Erie Canal Museum
Weighlocks, like these in Syracuse (above) and Rochester (left), helped determine tolls due.

Perhaps the most obvious way to gauge the Erie Canal's success is to examine the receipts and economic statistics that tell the story of its impact on the commercial development of the United States. But an analysis of its social and political functions demonstrates that the canal also served the nation in a different way, binding east to west and helping preserve the Union in the tumultuous antebellum years.

The economic success of the canal was guaranteed within its first years of operation when the revenue it generated insured a speedy repayment of the construction debt. The income it had accumulated by mid-century was staggering, and cemented the Erie Canal's claim as one of the most profitable ventures in American history. One measure of the canal's achievement is freight hauled (see table) and another is tolls collected; while earnings declined in the 1850s, they rebounded and peaked during the Civil War. In 1835, New York collected $1.5 million in tolls and in 1847 that number was $3 1/3 million; the total revenue of the canal when tolls were abolished in 1882 was $121,461,871.

In 1849, the "up canal" traffic (to the west) brought 315,550 tons of freight, mostly finished merchandise, valued at nearly $70 million.
CargoWeight (tons)Value
forest products665,547$7 million
agricultural products769,000$38 million
manufactured products44,286$4 million
other products95,000$2 million
In 1852, freight destined for tidewater weighed in at 2 ½ million tons, worth over $74 million. Up canal shipping saw 560,764 tons of freight worth $114,090,801.

In the 1830s however, the American canal system got its first glimpse of the competition. "Paradoxically, the years of greatest expansion of canal transportation saw also the rise of the competitor which would ultimately bring an end to the canal era." (Shaw, 286-287) Also ironically, the first railroads in New York were used to feed and complement the canal, often running along side already-established canal routes. When the infrastructure was built and railroads became faster than canals, conventional history tells us that the Erie Canal quickly became obsolete. In fact, once canal enlargement began, it remained competitive with the railroads until after the Civil War. In 1843, for example, canal boat arrivals and departures at Albany, New York averaged 80 per day. In 1852, the canal brought the Albany Basin more than 20 million tons of property valued at more than $27 million. The city saw its population quadruple between 1824 and 1850. But in 1842, rails connected Albany to Lake Erie and by 1849 six trains were leaving Albany daily, four making the trip to Buffalo, the fastest in fifteen hours. While there was some resistance, by mid-century there were twenty-two railroad lines in New York, carrying passengers and freight, ten of which ran parallel to the Erie Canal. The increased rail presence in the state secured the western trade that the canal had established and enabled New York to keep its rival Atlantic ports at bay. The two main New York railroad companies carried three times as much freight to the Atlantic as Pennsylvania's rails and twice that of the Baltimore-Ohio connection. But even at the height of railroad productivity during the antebellum period the Erie Canal held its own, carrying more western freight to the Atlantic than all four railroads combined. (Shaw, 292) Eventually, as infrastructure grew and shipping time decreased, railroads won out; but the benefits of canal transportation had been reaped by New York and the Great lakes region for over forty years, and allowed both to establish themselves as the most productive and profitable areas in their respective modes of commerce. While New York was the primary beneficiary of the financial windfall created by it, "the Erie Canal was a state work with a national function," and played a vital role in the economic development and commercial growth of the nation. (Shaw, 416) But the canal was valuable to the nation as more than just a financial resource; it bonded east to west and was a significant factor in the preservation of the Union during the antebellum and Civil War years.

Canal's entrance to the Hudson at Albany
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While New York was the primary beneficiary of the financial windfall created by it, "the Erie Canal was a state work with a national function," and played a vital role in the economic development and commercial growth of the nation. (Shaw, 416) But the canal was valuable to the nation as more than just a financial resource; it bonded east to west and was a significant factor in the preservation of the Union during the antebellum and Civil War years.

In the early part of the century when the Erie Canal was first proposed, the project was viewed as a way to connect the western frontier to the established eastern United States and retain commercial and cultural loyalty for fear of losing it to the French. The Northwest Territory's proximity to what is now Canada and its accessibility to the St. Lawrence River, which led directly to Montreal, were considered assets in "New France's attempts to unite her Canadian and Louisianan halves into a continental whole." (Bourne, 64)

Even after the threat of losing the territory to France had subsided, the Erie Canal served as an important commercial bond for the fertile west and populous east, providing markets for western resources and supplying manufactured items a route to the frontier. This commercial bond became more significant as antebellum sectionalism intensified. Historian Noble Whitford maintained that, in this way the canal benefited the nation, "binding together, by a more extensive and sympathetic intercourse and interdependence, the great divisions of our land." Rivalry between east and west was contained and their mutual dependence generated a sense of national unity.

It can also be argued that the canal played an important role in the Civil War, and as one historian contends "it requires no fanciful imagination to conceive that the opening of the Erie Canal was an agency which did more than almost an other to curb the power of slavery." (Rochester Historical Society Publication Fund Series, v. IX) The canal was not directly involved in battles, nor was it central to freeing slaves, but it indirectly was as valuable as if it had. In the first respect, the canal was vital to securing the support of the Old Northwest and its loyalty to the Union. Had the Erie Canal not provided an outlet for the agricultural products of the west, the most obvious path to export would have been down the Mississippi to New Orleans. The Midwest would have established a commercial alliance with the south, which, along with its common dependence on agriculture, would have undoubtedly impacted the Civil War divisions. With New Orleans as the only viable American port, the economic pressures and threat of a southern blockade or boycott of western agricultural products would easily have been enough for the south to secure the support of the west. The separation of east and west was especially dangerous because, with its ability to trade to the south, the cities and farms of the Midwest would become more powerful and prosperous while cities in the east, without exports or prolific farming of their own, would decline as commercial centers. The trade outlet to the east enabled the Old Northwest to avoid being used as a pawn in the Civil War, while the military and political support of Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana proved vital to Union victory.

As for its claim to "curbing the power of slavery," in much the same way it proved central to the war, the canal reduced the dependence of the industrial north on the agriculturally dominant south. The ability of the northern states to access the resources and farm products of the Midwest and reap the financial benefit of their exports reduced their reliance on the south. The comparative inefficiency of the slave plantations versus small farms and the south's inclination towards plantation crops like tobacco and cotton, allowed the Midwest to establish itself as the agricultural heart of the nation. Additionally, the ability to export the products overseas secured the financial superiority of the north over the south and caused doubt in some southern states over the profitability and rationale of slave labor.

The Erie Canal in its lifetime proved economically valuable to the nation, and through commerce became a vital component of its social and political fabric. Its impact on both national commercial and territorial development was illustrated through the settlement and success of Western New York and the Old Northwest and its demonstrated value to the preservation of the Union is unambiguous, if not prominently discussed in our national history. Looking back at the legacy of the canal he proposed in his essays, Jesse Hawley wrote, with no small sense of pride and perhaps a touch of bias, that "no single act-no public measure-except the Declaration of Independence and the formation of the U.S. Constitution, has done so much to promote public prosperity and produce a new era in the history of the country, as the construction of the Erie Canal." A bold statement, indeed, but one that finds support in the ledgers, maps, newspapers, and documents that convey our national history.