Erie Canal: Definition, History & Facts

Instructor: Tamara Dean
The westward expansion of the early 19th century created a need to open up the transport of goods and people to the west. The Erie Canal started off with little popularity, but it ended up being one of the most lucrative transportation waterways to exist. Read more about the history of this engineering marvel.

The Erie Canal: Opening up a Sea Route

Proposed by New York City mayor Dewitt Clinton, the Erie Canal was a manmade waterway built to create a sea route from the Atlantic Ocean and New York City to the Great Lakes by linking the Hudson River at Albany, NY, to Lake Erie in Buffalo. It was completed in 1825. Much of the early industrialization and urbanization of the West can be attributed to the Erie Canal.

What is a Canal?

A canal is a manmade waterway generally used for transporting goods and people. Some people confuse canals for rivers, but it is important to remember that rivers are moving water and are natural occurrences, while canals are human-made and consist of standing water. Before steamboats came along, horses had the charge of pulling cargo along the canals.

Horses, walking on paths, were used to pull boats through the canal
Horse Drawn Canal Boat

The Erie Canal History

After the American Revolution, the United States gained land east of the Mississippi river. Settlers looking to settle west needed access to cheap travel and trade. During the early 1800's, there was no major waterway that linked the east to the west. In 1808, the Erie Canal was proposed to create a waterway that linked the Atlantic Ocean and New York City to the Great Lakes, via the Hudson River. Construction of the canal began in 1817, and it cost over $7 million to build. The canal was 363 miles long, 40 feet wide and 4 feet deep.

The Erie Canal was 363 miles long when it was first built in 1825
Erie Canal

The Erie Canal did not receive a lot of support in the beginning, because many people did not believe that a canal that big could be built. But Dewitt Clinton, who was mayor of New York City at that time, saw a vision for a canal and supported its construction wholeheartedly; so much so that the canal became known as 'Clinton's Big Ditch'.

Dewitt Clinton, NYC mayor who proposed the canal
Dewitt Clinton

The Erie Canal's Contribution to Industrialization

The building of the Erie Canal reduced the cost of shipping goods tremendously. Before the canal was built, it cost around $100 to ship a ton of goods from Buffalo to New York City. After the canal was built, the cost for the same ton of goods was only $10. The amount of time it took to transport goods reduced significantly as well. It has been reported that before the canal was constructed, it could take an entire day for four horses to carry a ton of goods over a 12-mile span. However, by water, those same 4 horses could pull 100 tons of goods over a span of 24 miles in the same amount of time.

Now that the lines of transportation were open, agricultural products and raw materials could be shipped from the west to east, and manufactured goods could now be shipped from the eastern states to the western territories, ultimately leading to urbanization in the west. Additionally, it helped urbanize cities throughout New York. Some of the towns that were settled along the canal route east of Buffalo include Syracuse, Oswego, Rome, Utica, Schenectady, and Albany.

Map of the Erie Canal, through New York State from the Hudson to Lake Erie
Map of the Erie Canal

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