Boom and Bust: Bicentennial of the Erie Canal
BY DAN WARD
We are conducting the Heartland Passage tour this year to celebrate the beginning of essentially eight years of Erie Canal related anniversaries, culminating in the bicentennials of the completion and opening of the 363-mile-long Erie Canal and the intermingling of the waters Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes in New York Harbor on November 4, 1825 and in Buffalo on November 23, 1825.
After years of often-heated debate and more than a bit of political intrigue, on April 15, 1817 the New York State legislature finally voted to build the Erie and Champlain canals. On July 4th of that year, dignitaries gathered in Rome to ceremonially turn the first shovels of earth on the Erie Canal and, within less than a week, the digging of the first long level was underway. Rome was selected as a starting point because it was along the least challenging section of the chosen route. Essentially a ditch digging project, construction of this first section gave the builders time to figure out how to overcome a wide range of engineering problems throughout the remainder of the route. In 1817 there were no formally-trained engineers in America but there were a number of men who were willing to train themselves – often having only trial and error as resources – while tackling major impediments to construction. The canal opened in segments as they were completed. Within three years a canal of sorts was intermittently navigable from Utica to the Seneca River. By July of 1822 regular and dependable travel was available from New York City to Rochester. A little over three years later the canal was complete from Albany to Buffalo.
The Erie Canal was an immediate success. Although it was the single largest public works project in the United States when it opened, the canal was still little more than a four-foot deep and 40-foot wide ditch crossing the countryside. From day one, it was clearly inadequate to its own success. So, beginning in 1836 New York State initiated a series of improvements and enlargements, ultimately opening the present-day Erie Barge Canal 100 years ago in 2018.