At the turn of the 19th century, settlers were exploring options for connecting the Hudson River to the Great Lakes, in order to create a gateway from the coast to what was then central America. In 1808, NYS legislature funded a survey for this canal to map out its path and measure its feasibility. It wasn’t until July 4, 1817 that the Erie Canal was finally under construction. Infamously known as “Clinton’s Big Ditch,” after then-Governor Dewitt Clinton, the canal took eight years to complete, finally opening on October 26, 1825.
It quickly became known as the “engineering marvel of its day,” with 18 aqueducts carrying the canal over ravines and rivers, 83 locks to level out the 568 foot rise from the Hudson to Lake Erie. The canal was four feet deep and forty feet wide, allowing boats carrying up to 30 tons of freight to travel.
It was the first transportation system between the eastern seaboard (NYC) and the western interior (Great Lakes) of the United States, was faster than carts pulled by draft animals, and cut transport costs by about 95%. The canal fostered a population surge in Buffalo, opened regions farther west to settlement, and helped New York City become the chief U.S. port.
By 1836, there was already a need to expand the capacity of the Erie Canal, and it was enlarged to be seventy feet wide and seven feet deep – construction that was not completed until 1862. This allowed transportation for freight boats carrying up to 240 tons.
The canal was once again expanded from 1903 to 1918. This second expansion made the Erie Canal 12-14 feet deep and 120-200 feet wide, depending on location. Fifty-seven locks were added in order to accommodate for cargo up to 3,000 tons.
Many of my previous posts have highlighted the Erie Canal as a central functionality of industry in Buffalo. The Gas Light Company, located on Buffalo’s inner harbor, was built right along the Erie Canal. In fact, the canal was a mere 10 feet from the loading docks, allowing freight boats to unload raw materials right on the doorstep of the Gas Light Company. Read more about how that process worked here.
There were two Buffalo industries that were immensely impacted by the Erie Canal in a positive way – the grain and steel industries. The infamous grain elevators on Buffalo’s outer harbor benefited from raw materials being transported directly to them by means of the Erie Canal. The same was true of the Bethlehem Steel Company, also located on Buffalo’s outer harbor, which was built right along the waterway in order to receive supplies and send out goods efficiently. Follow these links to learn more about the Erie Canal’s influence on Buffalo’s Grain Elevators and the Bethlehem Steel Company.
With the expansion of the rail system, complementing the Erie Canal, Buffalo was viewed as a central transportation hub for both goods and people. This city was the gateway between the coast and the mid-West, leading to an immense growth in population and a boom in its economy. As the United States entered the 1900’s, Buffalo was at its peak.
Find out what the future held for The Erie Canal here.