“So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” —Genesis 1:27
The Erie Canal Completed, October 26, 1825
he Appalachian Mountain range extends more than 1,500 miles north and south, and up to four hundred miles inland from the Atlantic coast. The only cut-across, north of Alabama, is the Hudson River/Mohawk River Valleys in upstate New York, which separate the Adirondacks and Catskills. As early as the eighteenth century, traders and engineers proposed building a canal that would follow the Mohawk Valley into the Hudson River. The New York Legislature authorized and funded a survey which launched on the July 4, 1808. Construction began ten years later and was completed on October 26, 1825. The Erie Canal became the second longest man-made canal in the world, and made New York City the most important and wealthiest city in the United States. The effects of that engineering feat affected the entire country and transformed the social and commercial enterprises, even after it became secondary to the railroads.
An 1840 map showing the route of the Erie Canal from Lake Erie in Buffalo cutting east to the Hudson River in New York City
As Americans moved westward and the Ohio Valley, Great Lakes region and Midwest became more and more productive of agricultural products, the need to transport those grains and produce to the coast and to the world increased with every passing year. The Great Lakes Region promised great wealth to those who could transport to coastal and ocean traffic the fastest. Shipping down the Mississippi already boosted New Orleans as the largest city in the South, and prosperous to a high degree.
The bustling, prosperous port of New Orleans on the Mississippi River in the 1840s
In 1800 it still took about four weeks to travel from New York City to Detroit, Michigan. The roads, such as they were, made passengers and freight crawl at the pace of oxen. A navigable canal through the Mohawk Valley presented some difficult problems, like a rise of six hundred feet in elevation and limestone barriers left in the wake of the ice age. Since there were no civil engineers in the United States at the time, amateur surveyors and other sorts of engineers would design and build the Erie Canal, and do so with trial and error, innovation and creativity.
An 1832 graph showing the rise in elevation needed along the route of the Erie Canal
Since most of the work required men with shovels, more than five thousand immigrants, mostly Irish and German, came to America to work on the canal. Nativists resisted and resented the newcomers, primarily for their Roman Catholicism. The violence was not widespread and the canal proceeded steadily toward its terminus at both ends—Albany, the capitol on the Hudson, and Buffalo, the up-and-coming city on Lake Erie—about 360 miles apart. Rochester, Syracuse, and Tonawanda would become watershed cities along the route, along with smaller towns which served as loci for the thirty-four locks that raised the canal over the Niagara Escarpment. In the end, the channel would cut forty feet wide and four feet deep, later expanded and modified to be both wider and deeper.
A portion of the canal today—Gateway Harbor along the Erie Canal in North Tonawanda, NY—near its connection to the Niagara River