The Erie Canal
Canals are constructed as artificial waterways which allow the passage of boats or ships inland, and may also be used for irrigation systems on farms. The Erie Canal allows the passage of boats with a 363-mile artificial waterway connecting Buffalo at Lake Erie to Albany, New York on the Hudson River. When completed, it was the second largest canal in the world following the Grand Canal in China.
The canal project was the biggest public works project prior to the Civil War and built by the state of New York between 1817 and 1825, and then later enlarged between 1836 and 1862. The Erie Canal, like all canals for ships and boats, increase commercial exchange in local and national economies. However, there were other effects related to its construction. The area's New York Iroquois Indians were forced out of the region and the waterway quickened the westward movement of Americans, plus increase northeastern and midwestern industrialization.
The original idea of the canal was motivated by the lack of a westward migration point for colonists. The construction of turnpikes and roads helped with the efforts to expand west, but the improvements were not dependable and were too costly. Many of the settlers wanted access to inexpensive and dependable transportation for trade and travel.
The person who supported the construction of the Erie Canal was a New York politician, DeWitt Clinton, but there were also many critics of the plan. The previous longest canal in the U.S. was just 27 miles long, but the plans for the Erie Canal was much longer, and some people called his proposal 'Clinton's Big Ditch.'
The work of the canal began on July 4, 1817 and most of the preparation and digging was done by hand and involved thousands of workers including farmers, New England migrants and foreign migrants. Initially it was four feet deep and forty feet wide, but was deepened to seven feet by seventy feet. The conditions for workers were often unsafe, tedious, and sometimes deadly. There were many accidents, and the workers suffered from diseases and accidents.
The completion of the canal in 1825 was a huge success leading to a decrease in the cost of transporting goods between the Midwest and New York City. It also led to eight more canals being built in New York connecting much of the rural areas of the state to the main waterway. Several other states began building canals as well in the late 1820s and 1830s. At the same time, though, railroad transportation was expanded and some of those canals were financial failures.
The New York canal system, however, did not fail, and led to New York becoming known as the Empire State. Farmers could easily move to the West, market goods in the Northeast and in Europe at much lower prices prior to the construction of the Erie Canal. Lower prices of all goods increased the northern industrial economy.
In summary, the Erie Canal links the Great Lakes to the Atlantic seaboard using locks, aqueducts (artificial channels), and man-made gorges. The canal represented hard work, and brought luxury goods, visitors, and tourists to new places; but there were also downsides to its construction and use.
In the early 20th century, the Erie Canal became a part of the New York State Barge Canal System until the 1990s, now the New York State Canal System. Today, it is mostly used for recreational traffic, although a small amount of cargo traffic still uses it.
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