The Once Mighty Erie Canal, Gateway to the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley

View of the Erie Canal in Delphi, Indiana.

The Erie Canal is a waterway that connects Lake Erie to the Hudson River. It stretches 363 miles, and while an airplane today can travel that distance in less than an hour, the Erie Canal was a wonder of transportation when it was built—a manmade river that altered the course of history for people in the United States. Let’s take a closer look at when the Erie Canal was built and why it is historically significant.

Why Was the Erie Canal Built?

Throughout the 1700s, the Europeans who explored North America searched for a navigable river that would connect the sparsely populated areas around the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley with growing cities like New York and Boston. Lands on the western frontier were rich in natural resources, but getting those resources to people in the east who could afford them wasn’t easy. The same was true for moving people and goods in the opposite direction. Without a navigable east-west river, the only option was to pull a wagon over and through the Appalachian Mountains—a route that was as time-consuming as it was expensive.

Erie Canal historical marker in Watervliet, New York.
Tyler A. McNeil, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When Was the Erie Canal Built?

Government and business leaders had debated the possibility of building a canal across New York to Lake Erie for decades. DeWitt Clinton was a state senator for New York when he first began promoting the idea in 1811. He later served as mayor of New York City, and then as governor of the state.

Rembrandt Peale's portrait of DeWitt Clinton.
Rembrandt Peale's portrait of DeWitt Clinton.
Rembrandt Peale, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It was during his term as governor that Clinton finally convinced the New York State Legislature to authorize $7 million to build the canal. The year was 1817, and more than a few people doubted such a feat could ever be accomplished. The longest canal in the U.S. at the time was only 27 miles long—much shorter than the 363-mile canal that Clinton was proposing. His political opponents predicted a catastrophically expensive disaster—enough to bankrupt the state of New York for good. They referred to the project as “Clinton’s Folly” or “Clinton’s Ditch” and waited for the project to fail.

How Long Did It Take to Build the Erie Canal?

Construction on the Erie Canal started in 1817 and ended in 1825. Easier said than done, of course. The engineers who planned the canal had almost no formal training, and the laborers who did the work—approximately 50,000 of them—performed almost all of it by hand for 80 cents a day, which translates into a little under $17 today. Dynamite hadn’t been invented yet, so the men used gunpowder to blast through the rocky terrain. This dangerous work took the lives of more than 1,000 people.

When it was finally completed, the canal was 4 feet deep in most places and about 40 feet wide. The average adult could have waded through it. Still, there was enough room for barges loaded with supplies, people, and animals to travel upon it.

How Did the Erie Canal Change the World?

To understand the significance of the Erie Canal, consider these 2 facts: first, the east end of the canal connected to the Hudson River, which runs south to New York City; and second, the west end of the canal connected to Lake Erie, with coastlines touching western New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Canada.

Thanks to the Erie Canal, people and goods had a safe, reliable, and inexpensive waterway connecting to the western edges of the frontier with the most populated cities on the east coast, and everything in between. A dangerous journey that previously took several weeks could now be completed in a mere 6 days. Suddenly, trade in both directions was booming. Prior to the canal’s construction, ports at Boston, Philadelphia, and even New Orleans were all significantly larger than the port in New York. The canal changed that, and New York City was soon the nation’s commercial capital, attracting ships, businesses, and immigrants from all over the world.

Map of the Erie Canal.
SPUI, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Erie Canal likewise had an interesting effect on tourism in the United States. With the cost of inexpensive travel, people made vacations of floating down the canal to see Niagara Falls. Tourists, including British author Charles Dickens, came from as far away as Europe to see what was often called the 8th Wonder of the World—not the waterfalls but the canal!

Is the Erie Canal Still in Use Today?

With construction of the railroads, use of the canal slowly declined. It was retired as a commercial waterway in 1959 when the St. Lawrence Seaway was built. Since then, it has been mainly a tourist attraction and recreational hotspot. In 2000, the United States Congress established the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor as a national park.

Three people kayaking on the Erie Canal.

Long sections of the canal are lined with bike trails that connect one canal town or village to another. Cyclists can follow these paths for an afternoon or make a multi-day trip of it. Rumor has it you can find some pretty good treats along the way. Meanwhile, the canal itself is perfect for canoeing, kayaking, paddle boarding, taking a ride in a sight-seeing boat, or watching the wildlife.

Did Your Ancestors Travel on the Erie Canal?

If any of your ancestors immigrated to the United States between 1820 and 1850, there’s a good chance they travelled on the Erie Canal during its heyday—especially if they settled in places like Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, or Wisconsin. What would they have thought floating down a manmade river nearly 400 miles long? They probably had some pretty good stories to tell!

Whether your ancestors travelled the Erie Canal or not, you can discover their stories on FamilySearch. If you already have a FamilySearch account, our “Where Am I From?”—an interactive map with your ancestors’ birthplaces—is a great place to start. Click on an ancestor’s name, and you’ll go to a special profile page with links to time lines, photos, historical records, audio recordings, and—you guessed it—stories.

Of course, if you don’t have a FamilySearch account, you’ll have to set one up. But that’s easy (and free), and we have lots of tools to help you.

About the Author