The notion of a navigable, inland waterway in the northeastern part of the United States predates the conception of this nation. It's potential value was apparent in colonial times, and it is believed that the Dutch settlers of New York, bringing with them traditions of agriculture and canals, first discussed the idea of connecting the Great Lakes to the Hudson River in 1724. George Washington wrote of the "vast inland navigation of these United States" and hoped "to God we may have the wisdom enough" to improve upon it. In the decade immediately prior to the Louisiana Purchase, national attention began to shift from establishing a government to developing an infrastructure that would allow this inchoate nation to thrive and grow. The ability to move raw materials from the resource-rich and emerging west to Atlantic ports and conversely transport finished products and settlers to the frontier was seen as vital to achieving the perceived national destiny.
Beyond its importance to commerce and national development, inland transportation had broad international implications for the United States. At the beginning of the nineteenth century America was competing for foreign trade, sandwiched between the French (in what is now Canada) and the Spanish (to the south, including Florida and land that would be included in the Louisiana Purchase) and preparing for another war with Britain. Unobstructed transport of troops, as well as goods, was imperative to national survival.
But while a New York canal was discussed by the earliest settlers and its value asserted by national leaders, it was a merchant, confined to debtors' prison, who articulated in writing not only the necessity, but the feasibility, of a canal connecting Lake Erie to the Hudson River, providing a link to the west that would prove vital to the commercial and territorial development of the United States.
Jesse Hawley's proposal was championed by politicians who shared his vision for the state and the nation and were willing to attempt what many thought impossible. Their careers, along with the status of the state of New York, would rise and fall with the success or failure of the proposed canal. The most ambitious engineering project the country had yet attempted, the Erie Canal would officially open in October 1825, forever altering the fate of a state and the nation.
Of the bold claims made for the impact of the Erie Canal, several deserve recognition and defense: It is the purpose of this site to offer historical background and evidence to buttress these assertions.
The Erie Canal established the city of New York as the dominant commercial center it has become and was responsible for the development of the western part of the state.
The canal played a vital role in the settlement of the Midwest.
Canal construction developed the engineers and systems necessary for the creation of a national infrastructure that allowed the nation to expand and prosper.
The Erie Canal eased growing sectionalism and helped to preserve the Union during the pivotal antebellum and Civil War years.
While these statements seem to utilize superlative rhetoric, it is difficult to overstate the significance of the Erie Canal to the political, social and territorial development of the United States and its lasting impact on the character of the nation.
The idea of a canal system corresponded with the era of national expansion and internal improvement. But the "opportunity to bring the Great Lakes heartland to the mouth of the Hudson" (Shaw, 3) was unlike previous proposals for small canals to connect waterways within reasonable proximity.
Using primary documents and economic statistics and examining canal culture, this site will illustrate that the Erie Canal was a physical representation of American ideals and a tangible symbol of the nineteenth century national philosophy. Relying solely on innovation, hard work and determination, New Yorkers dug a ditch that would serve the national interest in both the short and long term, provide the impetus and capacity for territorial and commercial expansion and help unite east and west at a crucial point in the nation's history.
The first section of this project is devoted to the conception and development of the Erie Canal, telling its story by focusing on the political history that surrounded its construction. Essays, memorials and newspaper articles by advocates of the canal will demonstrate the popularity of the idea as well as provide insight into the impact it had on individual careers as well as the rise of New York. A cursory discussion of the engineering feats, the political setbacks and public debate over routes and funding will provide important background information and put the Erie Canal and into historical context. This section covers the period leading up to the opening of the canal, primarily 1807-1825.
Judging the impact of the Erie Canal requires examining its success and function in the context of American expansion during the antebellum period. Using the economics and demographics of the canal, this section explores the canal's effect on the Old Northwest by opening it to emigration and trade, as well its importance to New York itself, building cities and towns in the western part of the state and establishing New York City as the primary port on the Atlantic. Additionally, this section contains an argument regarding the role of the Erie Canal in preserving the Union and reducing the power of slavery. The focus is the period between the opening of the canal in 1825 to 1860, the year just prior to the beginning of the Civil War.
The final section is independent of the other two in its focus and function. The information it offers has little to do with the national impact of the canal, rather, it centers on other aspects of the Erie Canal that are significant on a regional and cultural level. Using canal music, folklore and lexicon as narrative tools, it explores the social and cultural history of the Erie Canal and provides insight into the society of individuals that constructed and traversed the Grand Western Canal, many of whom would eventually settle in the territories of the Midwest.
The intention of this site is to provide historical and cultural information on the Erie Canal and demonstrate its importance to the state and the nation. While its national impact is open for discussion, its accomplishment and subsequent success, along with the vision and determination of its parents, are indubitable. Overcoming sectional and political opposition and conquering the physical landscape of the state, New York politicians, engineers and farmers built the largest canal (363 miles) in the shortest amount of time (eight years), opened the Old Northwest, set the stage for further developments in transportation and substantially altered the face of American commerce, politics and geography in the nineteenth century and beyond.