From the Atlantic to the Great Lakes: The Erie Canal
In order to open the country west of the Appalachian Mountains to settlers and to offer a cheap and safe way to carry produce to a market, the construction of a canal was proposed in 1807. In 1808 the state legislature funded a survey for a canal that would connect to Lake Erie. When the federal government concluded that the project was too ambitious to undertake, New York Governor Dewitt Clinton used political muscle to push the project forward and on July 4, 1817 ground was broken for the construction of the canal.
The canal was built using some of the most advanced engineering technology from Holland. To move earth, animals pulled a “slip scraper” (similar to a bulldozer). The sides of the canal were lined with stone set in clay, and the bottom was also lined with clay. The stonework required hundreds of German masons, who later built many of New York’s buildings. All labor on the canal depended upon human (and animal) power or the force of water. Engineering techniques developed during its construction included the building of aqueducts to redirect water.
When finally completed on October 26, 1825, it was the engineering marvel of its day. It included 18 aqueducts to carry the canal over ravines and rivers, and 83 locks, with a rise of 568 feet from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. It was 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide, and floated boats carrying 30 tons of freight.
Canal boats were pulled by horses or mules and traveled at about four miles per hour. The boats floated in the water in the canal and the horses and mules walked beside the canal on a 10 foot wide dirt towpath. Ropes were tied to the boat and to the horses or mules. The boat only went as fast as the horses and mules could walk. Boats on the Erie Canal carried settlers, business people, tourists, and products.
The completion of the Erie Canal spurred the first great westward movement of American settlers, gave access to the rich land and resources west of the Appalachians and made New York the preeminent commercial city in the United States. Within 15 years of the Canal’s opening, New York was the busiest port in America, moving tonnages greater than Boston, Baltimore and New Orleans combined.