Clinton's Big Ditch

At a time when the colonies were still being settled, Americans familiar with the English and Danish canal systems, imagined a similar system of manmade waterways in America. The westward expansion of settlements was severely limited by the difficulty of transportation into the heartland of the continent. Rivers provided adequate waterways, but only as far inward as the Appalachian Mountains when passengers and freight had to travel overland on roads that were deplorable. George Washington even publicly wished that Americans had "the wisdom to improve" its system of waterways. By the 1790s small canals were being attempted, although they were privately and usually underfunded. But it became clear that whoever succeeded in developing a cheap, reliable route to the West would enjoy economic success.

Buffalo-1908.jpg (191383 bytes)Into the next century, statesmen were still dreaming of a canal to connect New York City via the Hudson River to the Great Lakes. In 1810 Dewitt Clinton was appointed to head the Erie Canal Commission to explore a route for a canal to Lake Erie. At the same time he attempted to obtain national funding for the project. Unsuccessful in that attempt, he enlisted the assistance of Ohio’s legislature, which in 1812 passed a resolution expressing the view that the connection of the Great Lakes with the Hudson River was a project of "national concern"… a step forward for the idea. President Madison was against it, but the War of 1812 interrupted the process anyway.

After the war, when Clinton had become Governor of New York, he received approval from the New York Legislature for seven million dollars for the much-maligned "Clinton’s folly." Construction on the Erie Canal began in 1817 in Rome, New York heading towards Utica. The first 15 miles opened in1819. At that rate it would take 30 years to complete. The first problem was felling the trees. For each tree, the workers threw a rope over the top branches, winched it down, and pulled the stump using an axle system pulled by oxen. Then they shoveled the soil into wheelbarrows and took it to mule-pulled carts to carry it to form the towpath.

woodenbuckscraper.jpeg (51152 bytes)As new immigrants came to the United States, the speed of construction increased, but workers were dying of swamp fever, a generic term given to a number of diseases, such as mumps and malaria, acquired in wet swampy environments. The epidemic actually halted construction for a while.

By 1823 construction had reached the Niagara Escarpment, a steep slope or long cliff caused by erosion or faulting that separates two level areas of differing elevations, and its presence necessitated the building of five locks along a three mile stretch to carry the canal over it.

To move the dirt, horses pulled a slip-scraper. The sides of the canal were lined with stones set in clay, requiring hundreds of German masons (who later built many of New York’s buildings), and the bottom was also lined with clay.

The entire canal was completed in October of 1825 and was celebrated by a "Grand Celebration" with a 90-minute succession of cannon shots fired along the length of the canal and the Hudson River. A flotilla of boats led by Governor DeWitt Clinton aboard the Seneca Chief sailed from Buffalo to New York City carrying ceremonial water from Lake Erie to pour into the Hudson in the "Wedding of the Waters." Conversely a barrel of Atlantic water was poured into Lake Erie.

Erie Canal map.jpg (315878 bytes)The Erie Canal began on the west side of the Hudson River at Albany, ran north along the west side of the river to the Mohawk River, where it turned west along the river’s south shore through Schenectady and Utica and all the way to Rome. At Rome the canal continued west parallel to Wood Creek until the creek neared Oneida Lake. Avoiding the lake, the Erie Canal ran southwest through Syracuse and Rochester. At Lockport the canal turned southwest to rise to the top of the Niagara Escarpment, using the ravine of Eighteen Mile Creek. It continued south-southwest to Pendleton using the channel of Tonawanda Creek, continued south toward Buffalo running just east of the Niagara River where it reached its western terminus, Little Buffalo Creek. Buffalo had worked very hard to get that western terminus position by widening and deepening Little Buffalo Creek to make it navigable and creating a harbor at its mouth.

Western New York grew exponentially due to the canal. Rochester, which had built its first frame house only five years earlier, established itself as the Flour City and developed as an industrial center. Buffalo, only a small trading post prior to the canal became a boomtown and was the final stop for immigrants heading west.

New towns popped up along the canal as well. The Erie impacted the state’s agricultural development by providing access to new markets and lowering shipping costs. Farmers descended on the canal towns from across the entire northeast. The Erie also took business away from the older ports of Philadelphia and Baltimore. Those cities and their states began projects to compete for business as well as for travelers. Pennsylvania created the Main Line of Public Works, a combined canal and railroad that ran between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh on the Ohio River. Maryland created the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, also on the Ohio River, that ran west to Wheeling.

Numerous other railroads emerged, the Mohawk & Hudson that bypassed the slowest part of the canal between Albany and Schenectady, and the precursor to the New York Central that ran all the way to Buffalo. Passengers, learning that the trip was quicker via the railroad soon switched to rail travel, but as late as 1852 the canal was still carrying thirteen times more freight than all the railroads in New York State combined.

The Erie Canal made an immense contribution to the wealth and importance of New York City, Buffalo and the entire state by increasing trade throughout the nation, opening foreign markets to the Midwest, and enabling migration to the West. New York became the primary port of entry for European immigrants. Entire ethnic communities formed towns and supplied labor for further construction. Earth removed for the canal was transported to New York and New Jersey for landfill.

The first New York railroads were constructed to supply the canal. Later, despite the loss of some passengers to the railroads, the Erie Canal remained competitive by an enlargement program begun in 1834. The canal was widened to 70 feet, deepened to 7 feet, locks were widened or rebuilt, some areas abandoned, and new aqueducts over obstacles were constructed. Once enlargement started, the Erie remained competitive with the railroads until after the Civil War.

Eventually as America’s infrastructure grew and shipping times decreased, the railroads won out. But the construction of the Erie Canal has been written into history as one of the most significant events of the antebellum period because of its importance to America’s westward expansion and the development of the nation.

1908 Postcard of the Erie Canal in Buffalo, NY
Slip scraper : As the slip scraper filled with dirt and rocks the handles would be lowered and the loaded scraper pulled to a location where the load could be dumped by flipping the scraper forward and over.
Map of the Erie Canal