Canal History

A brief retrospective on how the Canals transformed the economic and social landscape of not only New York, but the entire United States. 
The image shows Governor Andrew M. Cuomo standing at a podium with a microphone. Behind him is a backdrop with the logos of the New York State of Opportunity and the Canal Corporation. Governor Cuomo appears to be giving a speech outdoors, with a body of water visible in the background. He is wearing a suit and glasses, and he has a thoughtful expression on his face.

Erie Canal History

The Dream of the Erie Canal 

Before a mere thought was given to breaking ground on the New York State Canals, there was a man with a dream. Four-term New York Governor DeWitt Clinton imagined a network of waterways that would “create the greatest inland trade ever witnessed,” and make New York, “the granary of the world.” 
Black and white sketch of a historic scene showing people on a boat traveling the Erie Canal. Trees and mountains line the background. The bottom of the image says "Traveling on the Erie Canal."

Setting the Stage 

The United States experienced rapid economic expansion during the 18th and 19th centuries, creating a need for a safe, reliable trade network linking coastal hubs. Turnpike roads served this purpose but were barely tenable, becoming unforgiving in the summer sun and practically melting away during winter precipitation. These rudimentary highways were dangerous, and travel upon them was slow, hurting the viability of perishable goods. 
The image shows a person standing in front of an informational sign at the Mohawk Valley Welcome Center. The sign is titled "The Erie Canal: The Canal That Changed America" and provides information about the historical significance of the Erie Canal, including its role as the "Gateway to the West" and its impact on the Industrial Revolution. In the background, there is a green bridge spanning over a waterway, likely part of the Erie Canal.

An Epiphany Behind Bars

A better solution would come from an unlikely place. Jesse Hawley, a flour merchant from Bridgeport, Connecticut, found himself in debtor’s prison after going bankrupt while attempting to ship his products west. While incarcerated, Hawley wrote fourteen essays, published in the Genesee Messenger in 1807, describing in detail the route, costs, and benefits of establishing a 400-mile canal linking Buffalo to Albany.
 The image shows a mural painted on the side of a building. The mural depicts a rural landscape with fields, a farm, and a river. In the foreground, there are three elderly individuals seated on a bench, likely representing those who worked on the Erie/Barge Canal. There are also various elements such as a boat, a crane, and trees. The American flag and a state flag fly above the mural. The text reads, "Honoring those who worked on the Erie/Barge Canal."

Advocates Arise

The letters were generally dismissed as the fantastical ramblings since Hawley was not a trained civil engineer. However, Joshua Forman, a New York State Assemblyman, recognized that Hawley had studied rigorously and had developed an intriguing thesis. In 1808, Forman would go on to submit the first State legislation to determine the practicality of Hawley’s proposed water route that would eventually become the Erie Canal.
The image shows a detailed map of the New York State Canal System. The map depicts various canal routes, including the Erie Canal, the Champlain Canal, and the Cayuga-Seneca Canal, among others. It shows cities and towns along each canal route, such as Lockport, Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany. Additionally, there are illustrations of kayakers and boaters on the canals, as well as informational panels about the canal system. The map celebrates the 200th anniversary of the New York State Canals and features the logo of the New York State Canal Corporation.

Enter DeWitt Clinton

In 1810, DeWitt Clinton was recruited to the proposed waterway’s cause by the Treasurer of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, Thomas Eddy and State Senator Jonas Platt. Clinton would put his rising political stature behind the project, beginning with passing a measure in the State Senate that would establish the Canal Commission and begin work on routing planning. Clinton would become the figurehead of the canal effort and be remembered as its most famous proponent.
The image shows an exhibit in New York’s Erie Canal exhibit at the NYS Museum in Albany, NY, titled "Clinton's Ditch: The Early Years." It features various artifacts and displays related to the historical construction of the Erie Canal. Wooden barrels, tools, models of buildings, and informational panels are visible in the exhibit.

Support for the Canal Spreads

Even after a significant delay caused by the War of 1812, Clinton was undeterred. In 1816, he submitted the New York Memorial, a document that spurred a series of meetings meant to generate public support and ultimately result in a petition with over one hundred thousand signatures in support of the canal’s construction.
The image shows a blue and yellow tugboat named "DeWitt Clinton" cruising along a river. The tugboat has a wooden deck and is towing something behind it. Surrounding the river are lush green trees, and the sky is clear with a few clouds visible.

The Government Gets on Board

On April 15th, 1817, the New York State Legislature would at long last approve construction of the Erie Canal. The bill put forth by the legislature authorized an expenditure of $7 million to construct the 363-mile long, 40-foot wide waterway. Later that year, Clinton would use the momentum gained by the success of the project to land himself a seat in the Governor’s office.
The image shows an exhibit at the New York State Museum in Albany, NY, focusing on the Erie Canal. The exhibit is titled "Lockport: Conquering the Niagara Escarpment." A framed informational panel provides details about the Erie Canal's construction, while in the foreground, there is a circular wooden object with inscriptions related to the canal's history.

The Erie Canal Opens

The Erie Canal opened in 1825 after eight years of construction. Clinton helmed the inaugural voyage aboard the Seneca Chief, culminating in a symbolic “Wedding of the Waters”, which saw the Governor emptying two casks of water from Lake Erie into the Atlantic Ocean. Within the span of 15 years, New York would become the busiest port in America, moving tonnages greater than Boston, Baltimore, and New Orleans combined.
 The image depicts a historical scene with several people gathered in formal attire. At the center, a man is pouring liquid from a large vessel into a smaller one, symbolizing an event or ceremony. Other individuals in military uniforms and civilians attire are observing the scene. In the background, there are ships and flags, suggesting a maritime setting. The overall image has a painted or artistic appearance with muted colors.

Expanded Operations

The Erie Canal kicked off a canal-building boom that spanned most of the 1820s. During this time, several lateral canals were incorporated into the waterway network, including the Champlain, Oswego and Cayuga-Seneca canals. Between 1835 and 1918, the canals were enlarged several times because of heavier traffic. During later expansions, new channeling techniques were used, and locks were installed to safely accommodate the imposing barges that now traversed the waters.
Black in white old photo showing old working boats docked in a canal. Factories with smoke rising from their chimneys line the background.

Why the Erie Canal is Important to New York

Every major city in New York, with only two exceptions, falls along the trade route established by the Erie Canal; a fact that had an immediate and lasting impact on the developmental trajectory of the state. As it stands, nearly 80% of upstate New York’s population lives within 25 miles of the Erie Canal.
The image shows a harbor area with several large cranes and construction equipment. The cranes are of various sizes and colors, including red, white, and gray. Some cranes are mounted on barges while others are on land. The sky is overcast with clouds, indicating a cloudy day.

Current-Day Canals

Today, the network of canals, which encompasses the original Erie Canal, as well as the Champlain, Oswego, and Cayuga-Seneca canals, is known by its unified name; the New York State Canal System. Having served its purpose as a vital medium for commercial transportation, the Canals are being transformed into a recreational and historic destination, allowing visitors to relax and reflect upon the storied circumstances of the Canal System’s creation.
A motorboat cruises along a wide river surrounded by lush green trees. The water is calm with gentle ripples. In the distance, there's a hill with power lines and a red barn visible. The sky is partly cloudy, with patches of blue and white clouds.
200 New York State Canals logo with black text

The Erie Canal Turns 200

The theme for the Bicentennial, culminating in Fall 2025, is Raising More Voices. The Erie Canal, an engineering achievement, connected the Eastern Seaboard to the Great Lakes and the burgeoning American West. The Erie Canal story is not monolithic. By telling the diverse stories that comprise a fuller, more complete account of the Canal's past and present, we can better envision a vibrant and inclusive future.

THE HARRIET TUBMAN JOURNEY TO FREEDOM STATUE in The Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Auburn, NY. The statue shows a woman with a serious look on her face walking with a barefoot child behind her. The woman appears to be protecting the child and the child is holding on to the woman's arm.

Underground Railroad & Harriet Tubman

The Erie and Champlain canals played roles for enslaved people seeking freedom. We are committed to showcasing voices of prominent African Americans and their involvement in Canal history in the first installment in our series of More Voices brochures. More voices of underrepresented communities to come!