How the Erie Canal Shaped the Valley

On the 200th anniversary of the Erie Canal, a brief history of the 350-mile “ditch” changing the Hudson Valley.


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photo courtesy of wikimedia commons

Water Transport: A stone aqueduct of the Erie Canal crosses the Mohawk River in Rexford

The Erie Canal is firmly, uniquely rooted in American folklore, cited as a historical turning point, and referenced accordingly in stories and anecdotes. The canal garners the distinction of being celebrated in a famous song of the same name (I’ve got a mule and her name is Sal). The American songbook is filled with odes to railroads and cities — not canals and other manmade structures. But the Erie Canal occupies its own exclusive, primary slot. All of us, at one time or another, became acquainted with the canal song and the story of Sal the intrepid mule.  

The Erie Canal is actually still in existence, persisting, in the words of Dana Spiotta, “in a complex overlap of nostalgia and utility, obsolete but still operating.” Its legacy lives on in one way after another. Besides the simple visual wonder of a complicated canal system, the Erie Canal permanently altered the economic and social composition of New York State. It had far-reaching importance that transcended the regional, with a significance felt on a national scale. The many, many New York State towns and cities that have streets bearing the names Erie, Water, or Canal are an enduring legacy of the Erie Canal’s ubiquity. (And the Erie Canal was — just for the record — the prime, but not the only, New York state canal).

Construction on the Erie Canal began — fittingly — on the star-spangled Fourth of July, 1817 and officially opened in 1825. This year, on its 200th anniversary, there will be much in the way of commemorative activity.

 

A LITTLE SHORT OF MADNESS

The idea of a massive, extremely complicated canal that would pass through what was then inhospitable wilderness was not, to say the least, universally hailed. The canal was the brainchild of New York’s governor and seminal political figure DeWitt Clinton—“Clinton’s ditch,” as the canal’s detractors dubbed it. No less than the august Thomas Jefferson expressed doubt as to the technological feasibility of such a canal. “Talk of making a canal 350 miles through wilderness,” he opined, “is little short of madness.” Detractors existed even when the canal was up and running. Nathaniel Hawthorne, taking a tour of the canal in 1835, pronounced it “tiresome.” 

But the Erie Canal passed into folklore very quickly. Many of its attributes were wrapped in purple prose, hailed as an advance of American civilization and a triumph of the United States’ can-do spirit, know-how, and grit.  This tends to blur the Erie Canal’s very real significance, which needs no embellishing. Believe the hype, in this case. 

Photo courtesy of erie canal museum

Building a canal lock in the mid-1800s in Boonville.

It was a marvel of ingenious construction. And it was a behemoth: at 363 miles, the longest such canal in the Western world. At the same time — paradoxically — it was a marvel of simplicity. The Erie Canal, in essence, was a network of locks. Akin to a water elevator, they manipulated the water level, allowing an individual boat to fall or rise and proceed on its way. 

Yet this marvel of simplicity set dramatic, immediate changes into motion. A trip from Albany to Buffalo, for example, necessitated an arduous two-week journey via stagecoach. With the canal, that journey took five days by boat. Now, for the first time, trade could flow to and from the Midwest. The transformations were exponential. In 1820, pre-canal Albany was a city of just over 12,000. A scant 10 years later — post-canal — the city’s population had doubled to around 24,000. By 1850 there were some 50,000 inhabitants. And it is directly because of the Erie Canal that New York City became the nation’s preeminent port, occupying a position of primacy that continues to this day.

Photo courtesy of erie canal museum

Hard at Work: Early 20th-century barge canal surveyors/laborers

The Erie Canal also functioned as a true information superhighway, facilitating not just commerce but the spread of social movements, helping to disseminate ideas such as abolition and women’s rights. And in that double-edged sword known as progress, it also helped to spread cholera and smallpox. 

 

ON THE HUDSON

The Hudson River, of course, was a primary waterway with an enshrined nautical tradition of its own. Robert Fulton’s steamboat was launched on the Hudson River in 1807 and the river abounded with sloops and schooners. There was no way the Hudson Valley, in such direct proximity to the mighty Erie Canal, could fail to be affected.

In the general rejiggering of New York’s commercial and social structure brought on by the canal, there were some sectors in the Valley that actually did suffer: New trade routes and opportunities could also mean increased competition. But the Hudson Valley, by and large, expanded greatly because of the Erie Canal, with land increasing in value over wide swaths of the region. 

A postcard of a dock for ‘packet,’ or passenger, boats in Syracuse. This section of the canal was filled in 1925 and now comprises Erie Boulevard and Clinton Square.

It was an expansive age. The United States had, via the Louisiana Purchase, dramatically increased its size. And, as Vernon Benjamin writes in The History of the Hudson River Valley: “From 1819 to 1846, the New York State Legislature created 378 turnpikes, 240 banks, 212 bridge companies, 316 insurance firms, 136 manufacturing concerns, and 285 railroads.” (Government assistance, quite obviously, long predates the New Deal.) The Hudson Valley, New York State, and the country itself began breaking out of its geographic confines. Accordingly, the Valley had its own, closer-to-home canal: the Delaware and Hudson Canal, popularly known as the D&H.

 

The Other Canal

The D&H Canal can be viewed as an offshoot of the Erie Canal, but that canal certainly had its own varied legacy and shouldn’t be completely overshadowed by its more famous sibling. The D&H Canal Historical Society and Museum in High Falls, Ulster County, is a fascinating resource and wonderfully concise museum, housed in a historical 19th-century church. The society also offers an impressively detailed series of lectures and educational programs.  For anyone with the remotest interest in canal history, there is the easily traversable Five Lock Walk, a preserved portion of the D&H Canal’s original locks.
Photo by Bill Merchant 

THE D&H

The D&H Canal was built as a result of the Erie Canal, although on a smaller, more Hudson River-centric scale. The links to the Erie Canal were explicit, including some of the personnel: Benjamin Wright, one of the Erie Canal’s chief engineers, oversaw the original 1823 plans for the D&H. 

The central players in the creation of this particular canal were two Philadelphia businessmen, the brothers William and Maurice Wurts. The original impetus for the D&H was to help transport Pennsylvania coal — from the Wurts brothers’ own mines — through the Valley to New York City. The canal ran throughout Ulster County. Its eastern terminus was at Kingston.  

The D&H, which began operating in 1828, ceased almost all function in 1898. Although not on the scale of the Erie, its length was a still impressive 108 miles. The confluence of two such dramatic waterways — the Erie and the D&H — signaled a tectonic shift in the Hudson Valley, which underwent the mixed blessing of becoming a thriving place of industry and commerce. The lumberyards of Poughkeepsie operated at full tilt, on the receiving end of wood shipped from the forests of Oregon and California — which, before the 1820s, would have been a technological impossibility. 

Amazingly, the Rondout became the Hudson’s third-busiest port, following New York and Albany, meriting its own extensive mention in an 1889 New York Times article, lauded as an integral part of “the harbor of the thriving and busy city of Kingston”— a thriving port in which “every evening” could be glimpsed: “huge rafts of canal boats, tall-masted down-Easters [a large ship with crews of 30 to 40 and equipped to operate in large ports], and barges of various sorts, laden with coal, ice, hay, lumber, lime... and country produce.” 

Photo courtesy of the ERIE CANAL MUSEUM

Excavation at Lockport

Coal transport, as per the D&H’s original intent, did indeed make the water voyage from Pennsylvania to New York, and a rising demand for building materials also facilitated the Hudson Valley’s role in the production of bluestone, cement, and limestone.

Along with the Erie and D&H, the railroads came to the Hudson Valley. A contemporaneous, almost breathless account mentions Rosendale and the “famous iron bridge” for the railroad, “one of the most imposing iron bridges in the United States.” But the advent of the railroads brought on its own complications as well — again, in the form of competition with the waterways. Inevitably, the railroads also spawned business skullduggery, some of it reaching the Hudson Valley, including a scheme featuring robber baron par excellence Jay Gould. 

 

A DAY’S DISHONEST WAGES 

The Erie Canal was truly a magnificent feat of engineering. It dovetailed with the idea of American expansiveness and other equally high-minded concepts. The quotidian, though, could be less savory. That famous Erie Canal song certainly conveys the idea of endless, arduous tasks — a man trudging along with his faithful mule doesn’t, to say the least, seem like a lot of fun. Somebody, of course, actually had to build the canal. And those somebodies, as was so often the case, were poor, exploited — mostly immigrant — laborers.

Perpetually turbulent Europe had defeated Napoleon for good by 1815, and with the cessation of war there was some breathing space, and with that breathing space came an opening to the New World. Immigrants began coming to the United States in great numbers — and in a horribly familiar scenario, proved to be ripe for exploitation, selected for the most laborious, low-paying jobs, and lacking any sort of mechanisms to push for safe working conditions and adequate pay.

CLINTON PORTRAIT BY REMBRANDT PEALE

(L to R) Thomas Jefferson called the canal idea ‘madness.’Gov. DeWitt Clinton, mastermind of the Erie Canal. 

The Irish immigrants provided the backbone for canal construction and, in general, were a ready pool of manual labor, victimized by difficult working conditions, disease, and exploitive “contracts” that rendered the worker little more than chattel. Living conditions were cramped and unsanitary. There was also the rampant anti-Irish bigotry to contend with. The Erie Canal endeavor was cast as a triumph of “Yankee ingenuity and Hibernian brawn” — offensive enough, but even more jaw-dropping considering the outsized Irish literary tradition. 

The recounting of great historical events often tend to slight the vast contributions made by the general populace. The Erie Canal’s bicentennial can be, and should be, commemorated as a great historical development. But we shouldn’t lose sight of who actually did the labor.

The Erie Canal was transformative in just about every way — for good and ill. It is a rarity: tangible history that still exists in physical form, which means it can be viewed and explored. The Erie Canal bicentennial is a unique chance to see what, all those decades and decades ago, the hoopla was about. 

PHOTO courtesy of ERIE CANAL MUSEUM

The evolution of transportation, from canal to train to automobile


Bicentennial Activities

Bike It!

Not surprisingly, New York State will be offering a plethora of Erie Canal-oriented activities during this bicentennial year. Along with following the Albany Symphony’s barge, there is the option to Cycle the Erie Canal, a bike tour from July 9–16 that covers the 400 miles from Buffalo to Albany — surely more pleasant and probably less arduous than that pre-canal two-week stagecoach trip. The Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s Lois McClure Legacy Tour makes stops along the canal from July 5 to October 12.

A clearinghouse of information on these events and more can be found via the Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor website. Also not surprisingly, the canal itself warrants its own museum, the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse.

Barge Music

One of the more intriguing commemorative events is under the aegis of the Albany Symphony and its conductor, David Allan Miller. Water Music NY launches the symphony on a traveling barge that, beginning in Albany on July 2, stops at canal sites and traces a partial path through the Erie Canal to Lockport. Water Music NY also inaugurates seven new, specially commissioned original compositions by emerging composers in residence at a local arts organization. Each composition, in the words of conductor Miller, is “inspired by a different community, performed on or at the canal by the orchestra and performing groups from the community.” It promises to be an innovative, sitespecific way to celebrate. 

For more bicentennial events go to www.albany.org