I’ve got an old mule and her name is Sal
Fifteen years on the Erie Canal
She’s a good old worker and a good old pal
Fifteen years on the Erie Canal
We’ve hauled some barges in our day
Filled with lumber, coal, and hay
And every inch of the way we know
From Albany to Buffalo
Low bridge, everybody down
Low bridge for we’re coming to a town
And you’ll always know your neighbor
And you’ll always know your pal
If you’ve ever navigated on the Erie Canal.
—Thomas S. Allen, 1905. Original lyrics written to commemorate the 15 years of construction on the Erie Canal.
The original sheet music for Thomas Allen's song. It is often mistaken for a 19th Century folk song.
The Erie Canal opened October 26, 1825. Few innovations in American history had such immediate and far reaching consequences as the public works project once derided as Clinton’s Folly.
A canal linking Lake Erie with the Hudson River at the New York capital of Albany was first proposed by Thomas Eddy, a businessman with interests in a failing canal digging company and sponsored in the New York State Assembly by Jonas Platt, leader of the Federalists in the Senate. To gain bi-partisan support for the ambitious project, Platt proposed a commission carefully balanced between leading figures in both his party and the Democratic-Republicans.
On March 13, 1810 the Erie Canal Commission was created with the assignment to do preliminary feasibility studies, explore possible routes, and come up with plans to finance what would be by far the biggest engineering project yet undertaken in North America. Gouverneur Morris, a distinguished former Federalist Senator and one of the principal authors of the Constitution, was named as President. The other commissioners were Federalists Eddy, Stephen Van Rensselaer, and William North plus Democratic Republicans DeWitt Clinton, Simeon DeWitt, and Peter Buell Porter.DeWitt Clinton. the man most responsible for guiding the Erie Canal to reality, in a portrait by George Catlin.
The driving force on the Commission quickly became Clinton with strong support, despite their different political connections of Van Rensselaer, the heir of the greatest of the Patroon dynasties of semi-feudal landowners in Up State. The Commissioners quickly went to work and several of them explored the route as far as possible by water and on an arduous cross-country trek via unimproved roads and trails. Clinton kept a detailed diary of his adventures on this trip.
The following March the Commission issued a report that dismissed competing plans for a possible canal to Lake Ontario and proposed that a totally manmade channel be dug straight west from Albany to Lake Erie at Buffalo. Morris dissented proposing instead a physically impossible scheme to deepen existing rivers and have Lake Erie “empty into them to fill them.” Little wonder that his leadership on the Commission was by-passed. Perhaps most importantly, the commission acknowledged that the project was too big to be financed by private capital and recommended public financing by the State.
In April 1811 the Legislature responded by authorizing the Commission to take all necessary steps to finance the entire project and granted $15,000 to begin its work. It also added Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston to the body. Fulton had launched a commercially viable steamboat service between New York City and Albany with Livingston, a member of a powerful political family, as his partner in 1807 which had spurred interest in a western canal. Both men were Democratic-Republicans, giving Clinton extra clout in addition to lending their enormous prestige to the project. Fulton would actively work with Clinton on engineering aspects of the project until his death in 1815.
The War of 1812 ground progress to a halt. Van Rensselaer was appointed General in command of the New York Militia. The frontier with Canada around Buffalo became a major theater of operations in the war and was a jumping-off point for attempted invasions by both sides. The lack of reliable transportation to bring artillery, arms, powder, and supplies to the front crippled American efforts and provided a national defense justification for a canal.
Meanwhile Clinton, then serving as Mayor of New York City and Lt. Governor, was reluctantly drafted by a dissident Democratic-Republican rump and backed by the Federalists to run for President against James Madison in 1812. It was a close-fought election and Clinton took 47% of the popular vote while losing by a wide margin in the Electoral College. The run strained his relations with loyal Democratic-Republicans, notably the powerful Livngstons.
At the conclusion of the war, Clinton revived interest in the project by holding a large public meeting in the New York City. He promised residents that the project would bring about a boom:
The city will, in the course of time, become the granary of the world, the emporium of commerce, the seat of manufactures, the focus of great moneyed operations. And before the revolution of a century, the whole island of Manhattan, covered with inhabitants and replenished with a dense population, will constitute one vast city.
In 1816 the Legislature reformed the Commission with explicit authorization to supervise acquisition of land and the actual construction of the project. Clinton was named the new President and Van Rensselaer, who now abandoned the dying Federalists to become a Clintonian Republican, were held over. Joseph Ellicott, an agent for the powerful Holland Land Company which donated 10,000 acres of land to the project; Myron Holley, a state Assemblyman and political ally; and Samuel Young, who had written the influential book A Treatise on Internal Navigation: A Comprehensive Study of Canals in Great Britain and Holland.
In 1816 outgoing President James Madison vetoed a bill that would have contributed Federal funds to the construction. Madison supported using Federal funds for internal improvements but doubted that barring an authorizing amendment to the Constitution that the government had the authority. But there must also have been satisfaction to slapping back at Clinton.
1817 proved to be a big, break-out year for the canal. Clinton became the beneficiary when Daniel D. Tompkins was elected as James Monroe’s Vice President. Despite the bitter opposition of the growing Tammany organization in New York City, Clinton was easily elected to serve out Tompkins’s term as Governor. With his support in April Legislature created a Canal Fund which was authorized to spend $7 million for construction of a canal 363 miles long, 40 feet wide, and four feet deep. Commissioners of the Canal Fund was made up of the state Constitutional officers.The route of the Canal across Upstate New York from the Hudson River to Lake Erie.
Construction began on July 4 at Rome. The first 15 miles to Utica took two years to build due to the difficulty in felling trees through the virgin forest, excavating and removing earth by hand. An innovative stump puller was used, but at best three man crews with mules could only build a mile of canal and adjacent tow path in a year of arduous labor.
Also holding up construction was the fact that in the entire United States there was not one trained civil engineer. The surveyors who had laid out the route, James Geddes and Benjamin Wright were in over-all charge of construction and learned by doing. They were aided by Canvass White, a 27-year-old amateur engineer who traveled to England at his own expense to study canal construction there and Nathan Roberts, a mathematics teacher. Despite the inexperience they laid out an impressive record of achievement, carrying the “Canal up the Niagara escarpment at Lockport, maneuvered it onto a towering embankment to cross over Irondequoit Creek, spanned the Genesee River on an awesome aqueduct, and carved a route for it out of the solid rock between Little Falls and Schenectady...” according to Canal historian Peter L. Bernstein.
The eventual arrival of thousands of Scotch-Irish laborers greatly speeded construction. These navies, although Ulster Presbyterians, were the first of a wave of hundreds of thousand Irish laborers who dug the canals and built the turnpikes and railroads of their new country. Conditions were brutal. Over a thousand men died of swamp fever at Montezuma Marsh, the outlet of Cayuga Lake west of Syracuse. Work there ground to a halt until winter when the marsh froze over. But work in the frigid weather by men without adequate coats was almost as lethal. Soon Catholic Irishmen were replacing the Ulstermen. In 1825 Father John Raho wrote to his bishop that “so many die that there is hardly any time to give Extreme Unction to everybody. We run night and day to assist the sick.”
Despite the hardships, year after year the work pressed on. The middle section from Utica to Salina (now Syracuse) was completed in 1820 and traffic on that section started up immediately. The eastern section, 250 miles from Brockport to Albany, opened in 1823 to great fanfare as did another 64 mile section from Watervliet on the Hudson to Lake Champlain.Construction a Lockport where the canal needed to raise boats up the Niagara Escarpment was the most significant engineering feat. Powder was used to blast through the rock and cranes used to hoist blocks but most of the labor was still dangerous pick and shovel work. The mostly Irish canal diggers suffered and died on the job.
Next, climbing the Niagara Escarpment up though an 80 foot wall of hard limestone was the great challenge. Generally following the course of a “wild” stream pouring over the cliff, a series of five locks were carved out so that barges could be lifted to the level of Lake Erie. This is the only section where wide-spread use of blasting powder occurred, predictably with fatal consequences for many workers.The step locks at Lockport pictured in the early 20th Century post card have been preserved and still are operated for tourist exhibitions.
On the west end the village of Buffalo they dredged a channel of Buffalo Creek to make it navigable and built a port facility on Lake Erie. That secured the village as the terminus of the canal over neighboring, and much less enterprising, Black Rock on the Niagara River. In doing so Buffalo secured a future as an industrial powerhouse and the economic center of the region.
Despite the apparent success of his great project, Clinton was in political trouble. Tammany politicians in New York City allied themselves with the Albany Regency, a masterfully assembled Up State political machine created by Martin Van Buren. Together they became known as the Bucktails faction of the Democratic Republican Party and declared war on Clinton and his supporters. Gaining control of a state Constitutional Convention in 1821, the Bucktails shortened the term of governor to two years and moved the term from a July 1 start to a January 1, thus shaving a year off Clinton’s term. They also passed a 2 million dollar appropriation for the canal attached to a measure that stacked the Canal Board with Clinton’s political opponents. The governor was forced to sign the measure or jeopardize funding of his pet project. In 1822 Clinton, despite huge personal popularity, was denied re-nomination by the Democratic-Republicans and he was out of office at the end of the year. In 1824 the Legislature ousted him as President and a member of the Canal Commission.
The last act proved a step too far for his opponents. With the Canal nearing completion, voter indignation over Clinton’s shabby treatment propelled him back into the Governor’s chair that fall.Gov. Clinton Mingling the Waters of Lake Erie with New York Harbor.
It was with understandable glee that Governor Clinton got to preside over the ceremonies opening the canal in October 1825. He sailed on the packet barge Seneca Chief along the Canal from Buffalo to Albany then transferred to a steam packet for the trip down the Hudson to New York City. He poured two casks of Lake Erie water into the harbor in the City making a symbolic Marriage of the Waters to officially open the whole waterway system.
The economic and social effects of the Canal quickly surpassed the most optimistic predictions. The vast resources of the Great Lakes basin were immediately accessible in the east as they had never been before when the Allegany and Appalachian Mountains presented a substantial barrier to commerce. Freight rates from Buffalo to New York went from $100 per ton by road to $10 per ton by Canal. In 1829 3,640 bushels of wheat were transported down the Canal. By 1837 this had increased to 500,000 bushels and four years later it reached one million. In nine years short years Canal tolls more than recouped the entire cost of construction.
Equally, if not more important, the Erie Canal became the great highway to the West for hundreds of thousands of settlers who were eager to claim land and begin to ship their crops east for good hard cash money. Previously growth of the trans-Appalachian West was limited to the heartiest pioneers who had to stay close to the great river systems to ship their produce to market via the long trip down to New Orleans. The younger sons of New England and New York farmers, craving land and with the resources to buy it flooded the Old Northwest transforming Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and even distant Minnesota from frontier wilderness to prosperous, populous states by 1850.A Canal passenger packet circa 1850.
Not only did the mostly farming settlers find easy access to market, others began to ship the endless lumber of the Great North Woods, iron ore to feed the smelters and furnaces of an industrializing nation, and other resources. Within 15 years New York City had fulfilled Clinton’s dazzling prediction. It had leapfrogged its competitors, Boston, Baltimore, and New Orleans and was handling more freight than all those cities combined. The Canal also spurred development in towns and cities along the route from Buffalo on down the Hudson. Many cities developed industries that fed manufactured goods into the interior. New York State communities along the path of the canal, the lateral canals built to feed it from the more remote interior of the state, and the Hudson River became boom towns.
The Canal was deepened and widened twice in the 19th Century to accommodate larger barges and greater traffic. Between 1905 and 1918, engineers decided to abandon much of the original man-made channel and use new techniques to “canalize” the rivers that the canal had been constructed to avoid—the Mohawk, Oswego, Seneca, and Clyde plus Oneida Lake. A uniform channel was dredged; dams were built to create long, navigable pools, and locks were built adjacent to the dams to allow the barges to pass from one pool to the next. When it opened in 1918, the whole system was renamed the New York State Barge Canal.Today most of the traffic on the New York State Barge Canal is private pleasure boats, canoes and kayaks, tour boats, and on some sections reproductions of mule drawn canal boats.. Here boat await entrance to the Canal at Buffalo during an annual Canal Fest.
The system remained an economic engine for New York State until the St. Lawrence Seaway was completed in 1959. Traffic then dropped to a trickle. In recent years the system has experienced a renaissance as recreational corridor. Abandon stretches of the original canal have been preserved in many places, including a 36 mile stretch in the Old Erie Canal State Historic Park from the town of DeWitt near Syracuse to Rome.