Two hundred years ago, it took two weeks to travel from Albany to Buffalo. Terrain was rough, shipping costs were high, and merchants had to contend with ox-drawn wagons. But on July 4, 1817, construction began on something that would change that long trip—and American commerce—forever. When the Erie Canal opened eight years later, it took only five days to travel between the two cities, and freight rates fell 90 percent.
To celebrate the canal, the thousands of workers who labored over it, and the millions of people that traveled along it, we revisit its history. From a corridor for ideas to a hotspot for disease transmission, the canal left a profound mark on American history.
The canal was mockingly known as “Clinton’s ditch”
The project was a brainchild of DeWitt Clinton, who served as mayor of New York City (where he established the public school system) and governor of the state. It was in this second role that Clinton secured funding for the canal, since the federal government repeatedly refused. The canal was seen as an absurd, expensive gamble, derisively called “Clinton’s ditch.” In fact, Thomas Jefferson said, “Talk of making a canal 350 miles through wilderness is little short of madness.”
But thanks to the New York legislature, the $7 million project (over $140 billion today) was funded—and was repaid within a decade by tolls.
It was the most ambitious engineering project of its day
The new waterway was dug 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide through forests and fields, rocks and swamps. A series of 83 locks helped level terrain that had once been passable only to slow-moving wagons. After eight long years of construction, the Erie Canal stretched 363 miles across the interior of New York, connecting the Great Lakes to the Hudson River—the longest artificial waterway ever completed in North America.