Erie Canal

Erie Canal, artificial waterway, c.360 mi (580 km) long; connecting New York City with the Great Lakes via the Hudson River. Locks were built to overcome the 571-ft (174-m) difference between the level of the river and that of Lake Erie. With its three branch canals it forms the New York State Canal System.

After the American Revolution, the need for an all-American water route between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic coast was evident. Political unity, easy and inexpensive transportation, and increased trade (free from Canadian competition) were the anticipated benefits of such a route. Several land surveys followed, and by 1810, the issue was paramount in the New York legislature, where De Witt Clinton lent his political support. A canal commission, including Clinton, Gouverneur Morris, Stephen Van Rensselaer, and Thomas Eddy, recommended (1811) a canal to Lake Erie rather than to Lake Ontario. The canal bill, drawn up by Clinton in 1815, was debated in the legislature (1816–17), with New York City and the Lake Ontario interests opposing it vigorously. Although a presidential veto of a national waterway project forced the proposed canal's financial burden on New York alone, the canal bill passed the state legislature in Apr., 1817.

Work on the canal was carried on by gangs made up, in many cases, of European immigrants. The canal's course was entirely enclosed; streams and lakes were not incorporated into the waterway. The middle section (Utica to Salina) was completed in 1820; the eastern section through the Mohawk River valley was finished in 1823. Elaborate celebrations opened the entire canal in 1825; Clinton and other notables sailed from Buffalo to New York City, where Clinton emptied a barrel of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic Ocean. The canal was enlarged beginning in 1835; its most important branches, the Champlain (opened 1819), the Oswego (1828), and the Cayuga-Seneca (1829), were also enlarged. The Erie Canal contributed to New York City's financial development, opened eastern markets to Midwest farm products and encouraged immigration to that region, and helped to create numerous large cities. Its initial success started a wave of canal building in the United States.

Railroad competition, beginning in the 1850s, eventually destroyed the canal's long-haul advantages; however, for many years the Erie Canal was a profitable route. Tolls were abolished in 1882, however, because of its state of disrepair and to lure more traffic. Although some improvements were made (1884–94), inadequate navigability, the competition of Canadian routes, and the disclosure of fraudulent administration (the “Canal Ring”) brought about plans for complete renovation and subsequent conversion (1905–18) into a large, modern barge canal. Unlike the original canal, the revamped waterway incorporated canalized rivers and lakes in the waterway; parallel sections of the old Erie Canal were abandoned.

Much tonnage was still shipped via the canal in the 1950s, but the opening of the New York State Thruway and the St. Lawrence Seaway sealed the canal's commercial demise. Traffic in the late 20th cent. consisted almost entirely of pleasure boats, and a five-year overhaul in the late 1990s was undertaken to make the canal a major “recreationway.” Commercial interest in the highly fuel-efficient waterway was renewed some in 2008 when energy costs soared to record highs.

See R. K. Andrist, The Erie Canal (1964); G. E. Condon, Stars in the Water (1973); R. Shaw Erie Water West (1996); C. Carol, The Artificial River (1996); P. L. Bernstein, Wedding of the Waters (2005).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: U.S. Physical Geography