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September 20, 2017

Map of the proposed route of the Erie Canal

courtesy of eriecanal.org

Clinton’s Big Ditch


Eight years before the Declaration of Independence was signed by the men who comprised the Second Continental Congress, a proposal was made to dig a ditch across the width of what is now the State of New York.  This was two years prior to the Boston Massacre.  In 1770 the population of the colonies was 2.2 million people; the overwhelming majority of these people lived east of the Appalachian Mountains.  The proposal was made in order to open the country west of the Appalachian Mountains to settlers.  

This was not an original idea, as ditches of this nature had been previously dug in several European countries, including Britain, Denmark and France.  The idea was floated again in the 1780s to no avail.  Thomas Jefferson and his successor James Madison blocked federal funds for the project.  In 1807 the proposal to dig a ditch across the state was again presented.  The following year a survey was not only authorized by the state legislature but also funded.  DeWitt Clinton was the most determined and effective advocate for the ditch.  

Politicians and engineers deliberately designated an interior route from the Hudson River directly to Lake Erie, rather than a shorter route to Lake Ontario at Oswego. Two villages competed to be the western terminus of the ditch, Black Rock and Buffalo.  Buffalo won out and would become a large city that eventually incorporated its rival village.  The ditch would be 363 miles long.  This interior route helped guarantee that Midwestern timber and produce would flow through New York State to market.  It discouraged American products from being shipped down the St. Lawrence River through Canada, which was at that time part of the British Empire.  The route of the canal also diminished the risk of invasion from the north.

In July of 1817, ground was broken for the construction of the canal with New York Governor Clinton digging the first shovel of dirt.  The work had to be done manually, as this was prior to the age of mechanization.  There were no civil engineers in the new United States and this would be a learning project.  The surveyors were judges whose experience was gained from settling boundary disputes.  Many people derided Clinton’s project, sarcastically referring to it as the “big ditch”, or Clinton’s folly.  They asserted that it would never be completed.  The workers, many of whom were immigrants, slogged on for eight years.  One hundred and ninety-one years ago today, on October 26, 1825, the Erie Canal was completed.  

It included 18 aqueducts to lift the canal over ravines and rivers, and 83 locks.  It had a rise of 568 feet from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. ditchIt was 4 feet in depth and 40 feet in width.  The barges that floated in it could each carry up to 30 tons of freight. A ten foot wide towpath was built along the bank of the canal for the draft animals which hauled the barges, and their team master.

The canal provided the first method of transportation between New York City on the East Coast and the western interior of the country that did not require portage.  The canal ran from Albany on the Hudson River to Buffalo on Lake Erie.  Until the canal was opened, the only method of transporting merchandise was by utilizing draft animals that could carry a maximum of 250 pounds.  This was before railroads.  The canal reduced transportation expenses by a documented 95 percent and most likely by more than 99 percent.  

The Erie Canal enabled the population of western New York to burgeon.   It also facilitated the settlement of areas further west.  As the canal brought travelers to New York City, it reduced the business heading to other ports including Baltimore and Philadelphia.  The canal made an enormous contribution to the prosperity and prominence of New York City, Buffalo, and the entire State of New York.  

Today, the Erie Canal is a destination for tourists from all over the world.  There is an Erie Canal Cruise company that operates from mid-May until mid-October with daily cruises. The cruise explains the history of the canal and takes passengers through one of the locks.  

Doc Halliday can be contacted at w_halliday@yahoo.com

 

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