A few days after the first shovel was thrust into the central New York state dirt on July 4, 1817, to ceremoniously begin the building of the Erie Canal, the real work got started.
A few dozen workers supplied with nothing more than shovels and draft animals started digging in both directions in Rome. One crew headed west toward Buffalo; another started digging east toward Albany. By the time the 363-mile waterway was fully opened in the fall of 1825, thousands of people had labored on what was considered the greatest engineering feat of the era — and one that would change history.
“It opens America to the Midwest, all the natural resources out there and in western New York as well,” said Brad Utter, a senior historian and curator at the New York State Museum in Albany. “You now have the ability to migrate to those areas fairly cheaply. And the canal really opened up markets and avenues of commerce and everything that followed.”
Talk of building a canal linking the Hudson River to the Great Lakes had been around since the 18th century. It wasn’t until the early 1800s that a serious effort was made in Albany to raise the money for the project. With their request for federal funding rejected by then-President Thomas Jefferson, the plan’s backers found an influential supporter in DeWitt Clinton, a former New York City mayor who had served in the New York Legislature and U.S. Senate.
In April 1817, two years after the end of the War of 1812, the Legislature approved $7.1 million for construction of the Erie Canal. Three months later Clinton became New York governor. By then detractors of the canal idea were already calling the plan Clinton’s Ditch.
Surveyors sent into the New York wilderness to plot a route for the waterway faced a daunting task: miles and miles of virgin forest and rattlesnake-infested swamps, plus countless untamed rivers and streams to cross. The work of clearing a path and digging a 4-foot-deep-by-40-foot-wide ditch hundreds of miles long would be done by unskilled workers, many of them Irish or German immigrants, as well as blacks and local farmers.
The short stretch between Rome and nearby Utica opened first, on Oct. 22, 1819. Other sections followed until the full length of the canal was declared completed on Oct. 26, 1825.
The canal’s impact was felt nearly immediately. A cross-state journey that could take weeks was now cut to as short as six days. The expense of hauling goods from one end of New York to the other by horse-drawn wagon was cut to a fraction of its earlier cost. The canal connected the crowded Eastern Seaboard to the Midwest, creating markets for various goods and products and opening upstate New York and points farther west for settlement.
The development of railroads in the 19th century and the rise of the automobile industry and the nation’s improving road system in the 20th century eventually made the Erie Canal obsolete for hauling all but the largest loads.
Today the waterway is mostly used by recreational boaters and by tourists who can hike and bicycle along the paved trails running along the canal corridor, where mules plodding along canal-side dirt paths once towed cargo- and people-laden boats.