The Erie Canal — Connecting New York to the Great Lakes

1817–1825

The Erie Canal was built to connect Albany, New York to the Great Lakes Region. The canal played an important role in the Westward Expansion of the United States, the growth of the American Economy, and the establishment of New York City as a major economic center on the East Coast.

DeWitt Clinton, Portrait, Peale, 1823

DeWitt Clinton by Rembrandt Peale, 1823. Image Source: Christies.com.

Erie Canal Summary

The Erie Canal is a man-made waterway that stretches 363 miles across New York State. Built n the 19th Century, it helped connect the Atlantic Coast to America’s interior, transforming trade, growing the national economy, and encouraging sectional trade. The Erie Canal was an important piece of Henry Clay’s American System and one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects undertaken in the early history of the United States, during the Era of Good Feelings.

Erie Canal, Drawing, Hill, 1831
View on the Erie Canal, John William Hall, 1831. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Erie Canal Facts

  1. The Erie Canal connected the Hudson River at Albany to Lake Erie at Buffalo, spanning 363 miles across New York. 
  2. It was first proposed in the early 1800s, with advocates like Jesse Hawley arguing for its feasibility.
  3. The canal was approved and funded by New York State in 1817 after federal funding was denied. 
  4. Construction began in 1817 and was completed in 1825, taking 8 years. 
  5. The canal was 40 feet wide and 4 feet deep, with 83 locks and 18 aqueducts along its route.
  6. Engineers like Benjamin Wright pioneered innovations in cement, dredging, drilling, and blasting to construct it. 
  7. Most of the manual labor was done by immigrants, mainly Irish.
  8. It caused freight rates to plunge 90% compared to overland transport.
  9. It enabled the explosion of trade and migration west, transforming New York City into America’s commercial hub. 
  10. The Erie Canal was an important piece of Henry Clay’s American System.

Erie Canal History and Overview

Jesse Hawley’s Vision of an Artificial River

The idea of a canal that connected the Eastern seaboard with America’s interior — west of the Appalachian Mountains — through an extensive system of locks and aqueducts was developed as early as the late 1700s, after the American Revolutionary War. 

The first real plan was developed in 1807 and was the brainchild of a merchant, Jesse Hawley, who happened to be in debtor’s prison at the time. Hawley believed God had laid out the route for an “artificial river” between the Hudson River and the Great Lakes and was simply waiting for Americans to make it happen.

President Jefferson Rejects the Erie Canal

Hawley’s idea eventually caught the attention of New York businessmen and politicians. In 1808, New York Assemblyman Joshua Forman proposed the idea and even traveled to Washington, D.C. to gain support from the Federal Government. Unfortunately, President Thomas Jefferson said Forman’s proposal was “a little short of madness.”

Thomas Jefferson, Painting, Rembrandt Peale
President Thomas Jefferson. Image Source: Wikipedia.

DeWitt Clinton Supports the Erie Canal

Two years later, in 1810, Thomas Eddy, Treasurer of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, and State Senator Jonas Platt approached Senator DeWitt Clinton about the canal project. Clinton decided to support the project and a proposal was submitted to the New York Senate on March 13. The measure passed and a Canal Commission was established, along with a route for surveyors to follow.

Clinton firmly believed the Erie Canal would help transform New York City, saying: 

“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.”

Clinton’s Big Ditch

From then on, Clinton was tied to the project, which was jokingly referred to as “Clinton’s Folly” and “Clinton’s Ditch.” Progress was delayed by the events of the War of 1812 but Clinton and other supporters continued to lobby the state for support.

Erie Canal Construction

On July 4, 1817, workers broke ground on what would become a 363-mile-long canal stretching 40 feet wide and 4 feet deep across New York, complete with 83 locks and 18 aqueducts. 

It took eight years of backbreaking work by laborers to complete the project. Most of the hard work of digging, hauling, and blasting was done by immigrants, many of whom were young Irish men seeking opportunity in America.

Throughout the course of the project, problems arose that required Benjamin Wright and his engineers to develop innovative solutions. During the project, they came up with new waterproof cement, machines to pull up trees and stumps, and methods for blasting through solid rock. The work helped Wright earn the nickname “Father of American Civil Engineering.”

Erie Canal, Clinton Mingling the Waters, Illustration, Stone
This 1825 illustration depicts Clinton pouring water from the Erie Canal into the Atlantic. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The Impact of the Erie Canal, the “Mother of Cities”

When it opened in 1825, shipping costs plunged 90%, helping open America’s interior to a flood of settlers, along with goods and products from merchants on the East Coast. The canal helped establish New York City as the nation’s busiest port and trading hub. Cities along the route, like Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo, flourished and grew. “Clinton’s Folly” became known as the “Mother of Cities.”

Erie Canal Expansion

The Erie Canal underwent several expansions and enhancements after its initial completion in 1825, including:

  • Canal Enlargement (1836–1862) — The first enlargement project began in 1836 to address congestion issues. Over 25 years, the canal was widened to 70 feet and deepened to 7 feet to accommodate larger barges. Locks were enlarged and moved stone lining was added.
  • Improved Water Sources — To provide adequate water sources, engineers built new reservoirs and feeder canals tapping into lakes and rivers along the route.
  • Canalization of Rivers (1905–1918) — Rather than enlarging the man-made canal further, engineers opted to “canalize” natural rivers by dredging and damming them to create navigable pools. This allowed larger barges to pass through the canal.
  • Barge Canal (1905) – New York approved the $101 million Barge Canal Act in 1903 to construct a greatly expanded system. The improved barge canal opened in 1918.
  • Lock Expansions — Locks were expanded multiple times to allow longer boats. In 1918, most locks allowed boats 300-350 feet long. Some locks were later expanded to 600 feet.
Erie Canal, Passengers on Boat, Henry, 1900
Before the Days of Rapid Transit, c 1900, Edward Lamson Henry. Image Source: Albany Institute of History & Art.

The Decline of the Erie Canal

The Erie Canal stayed important through the 1800s but faded as railroads offered faster shipping in the late 1800s. It remained in limited use into the 1900s but was made mostly obsolete after the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959.

Erie Canal Significance

The Erie Canal is important to United States history for the role it played in the expansion of the nation’s economy by connecting New York to the Western Frontier. It also encouraged Westward Expansion and helped America achieve its Manifest Destiny.

Erie Canal Frequently Asked Questions

Where is the Erie Canal?

The Erie Canal is located in upstate New York, cutting a 363-mile route across the state from the Hudson River in the east to Buffalo and Lake Erie in the west. Key cities along the route are Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo.

When was the Erie Canal built?

Construction on the Erie Canal began on July 4, 1817, after New York approved $7 million in funding for the massive project, and was completed in 1825 after just 8 years of ambitious building efforts led by engineers like Benjamin Wright and workers, primarily immigrants.

Where does the Erie Canal start and stop?

The Erie Canal starts in the city of Albany on the Hudson River in eastern New York and stretches 363 miles westward across the state before ending in Buffalo on the shores of Lake Erie.

Erie Canal APUSH Notes and Study Guide

Use the following links and videos to study the American System, Manifest Destiny, and the Era of Good Feelings for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Erie Canal APUSH Definition

The Erie Canal was an artificial waterway constructed between 1817–1825 to connect the Hudson River at Albany with Lake Erie at Buffalo, spanning over 350 miles across New York state. The canal’s completion was a major engineering feat of the early 19th century. As part of the American System, it drove down transportation costs, promoted western migration and trade, and established New York City as the premier port and commercial center of America.

American History Central Resources and Related Topics

Erie Canal Video for APUSH Notes

This video from the Daily Bellringer provides a quick overview of the Erie Canal.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title The Erie Canal — Connecting New York to the Great Lakes
  • Date 1817–1825
  • Author
  • Keywords Erie Canal, DeWitt Clinton, Jesse Hawley, Thomas Jefferson, Era of Good Feelings, Benjamin Wright, Manifest Destiny, Westward Expansion, American System
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date February 28, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update July 27, 2023

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