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How The Erie Canal, About To Turn 200, Helped Build The Empire State11:07Download

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Lift Bridge at Adams Basin on the Erie Canal. (Jean Mackay)MoreCloseclosemore
Lift Bridge at Adams Basin on the Erie Canal. (Jean Mackay)

July 2017 marks the 200th anniversary of the start of construction on the Erie Canal. It was completed in 1825 and linked Lake Erie in Buffalo with the Hudson River in Albany, making it possible to move materials and goods from the Midwest to New York City.

The canal was a feat of engineering in its day, and it transformed upstate New York and turned New York City into the biggest port in the country and one of the most important centers for commerce, trade and finance in the world.

Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson talks with Duncan Hay, historian of the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, about the history and impact of the Erie Canal.

Interview Highlights

On the engineering, geographical and political planning that went into the Erie Canal

"People had been talking about it for years. There had been early improvements to the Mohawk River navigation and across the drainage divide at Rome in the 1790s. But the dream of building a canal that went all the way from tide water, from the Atlantic, to the upper Great Lakes, had been percolating, again, since those first efforts in the 1790s. And they came to fruition, there were some explorations examining different routes around 1805, a lot of debate and then finally the New York legislature authorized construction in the spring of 1817.

"It was [the route] that involved the least change in elevation. Lake Erie is about 570 feet higher than the Atlantic. And New York is uniquely positioned, it has the only gap in the Appalachian Mountains between Georgia and Newfoundland, and so it was the only place where you could get through by going up the tidal Hudson, which actually is what goes through the Appalachian Mountain chain. And then from there up the Mohawk and west across western New York, until you get to Lockport, where you have to climb what is essentially Niagara Falls."

An eastbound tanker, in foreground, prepares to pass a westbound one, background, after being released from a lock in the Erie Canal, N.Y., Sept. 4, 1947. (AP Photo)
An eastbound tanker, in foreground, prepares to pass a westbound one, background, after being released from a lock in the Erie Canal, N.Y., Sept. 4, 1947. (AP Photo)

On the evolution of the canal in construction

"It was a very modest-appearing ditch across the state, and yet it was the biggest and longest public works project that had been attempted in the U.S. up until that point. The challenges were dealing with, of course, lots of excavation, rock and crossing the marshes. The center part of the state is very marshy, and so dealing with that was a problem. But it was the best alternative because anywhere else you're going up over mountains."

On the canal's popularity

"It was an immediate success. They started in 1817, they opened segments as they were completed, much the way you would with a modern highway project, and as each segment opened, there was immediate traffic. And when they finally opened it end to end in 1825, there were traffic jams from the very beginning. So, in 1836, they started enlarging it, and they deepened it to 7 feet, they lengthened the lock chambers and made them wider, and most important, they put two chambers side by side at each location so that east- and westbound traffic could flow on interrupted."

"It was a very modest-appearing ditch across the state, and yet it was the biggest and longest public works project that had been attempted in the U.S. up until that point."

Duncan Hay

On what kinds of things were being transported along the canal

"The biggest thing was grain. Wheat and other grains from the Midwest. The canal was originally promoted as a way of opening upstate New York, and it actually facilitated the opening of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, all those Great Lake states that could ship their product by lake freighter to Buffalo where it was transshipped to canal boats, went through the canal, was towed down the Hudson River in large rafts by steam boats and then loaded onto ocean-going freighters in New York Harbor."

Lockport Flight, 1907. (New York State Archive)
Lockport Flight, 1907. (New York State Archive)

On the importance of the canal for Midwestern cities

"Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Duluth are all canal ports, and they were all places where the produce of the hinterland was brought to the lakefront, and they all had canals of their own. I mean, the Erie was so successful that most Midwestern states imitated it immediately following its completion."

On the canal's importance for New York

"When they started canal construction, New York was just one of probably a dozen Atlantic coast ports that were more or less equal. But the opening of the canal and the connection, the bringing of Midwestern produce made that natural harbor in New York City just boom. And it also brought with it all the sorts of business enterprises that are needed to support shipping, both inland commerce and maritime commerce. Things like banking and insurance, and so the rise of New York as a financial center is a direct result of the construction, or completion, of the Erie Canal."

Tugboat and lift bridge on the Erie Canal in Albion, N.Y. (Stephen Drew)
Tugboat and lift bridge on the Erie Canal in Albion, N.Y. (Stephen Drew)

This segment aired on June 27, 2017.

From The Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor:

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