We Were Told to Go West! And This Was the Means to Do Just That

October 26, 1825

The Erie Canal was fully opened to boat traffic. The 363-mile (584-kilometer) inland waterway, connecting Lake Erie to New York City via the Hudson River, was built to provide a faster and more direct means of transportation between the Eastern seaboard and the vast areas of land west of the Appalachian Mountains.

Prior to the completion of the Erie Canal, there was only one viable option for transporting passengers and freight en masse to what lay west beyond the Appalachians. That option involved horse-drawn wagons traveling on rough and mostly undeveloped roads, something that resulted in overland journeys that were exceedingly difficult and time-consuming.

Throughout a good deal of the 18th century and the first few years of the 19th century, there were serious and extensive discussions about developing a canal to link the major coastal cities in the east with western settlements. It took someone named Jesse Hawley, a down-on-his-luck flour merchant from the village (now city) of Geneva in western New York, to finally transform all of that talk about a canal into meaningful action. By 1807, Hawley was serving a 20-month sentence in debtors’ prison due to his financial struggles while trying to transport his products to markets on the Eastern seaboard.

Hawley clearly saw the vital need for a canal to make it easier for him and others to deliver goods more expeditiously and efficiently. He therefore used his time behind bars to write a series of essays in which he advocated for the construction of a canal between the Hudson River and Lake Erie. Hawley wrote under the name “Hercules,” and his essays were published in the Genesee Messenger in his section of New York.

Hawley’s essays quickly received widespread attention. While some people dismissed these writings as the ravings of a lunatic, others found Hawley’s arguments in favor of a canal to be both compelling and well-researched. One of the more high-profile New York citizens won over by the essays was DeWitt Clinton, who served as mayor of New York City in 1803-07, 1808-10, and 1811-15. Clinton, realizing the potential economic benefits of the canal for the city as well as the rest of New York, enthusiastically championed the idea of such a transportation route. He became one of the first members of the Erie Canal Commission after it was established in 1810 to oversee funding for the construction of the canal.

Clinton took on an even bigger role in plans for the canal when he became governor of New York in 1817. In his new leadership role, he managed to quickly secure the necessary finances for the Erie Canal and finally make it a reality. He did so even as his political opponents and other skeptics sharply criticized the proposed waterway as “Clinton’s Big Ditch” or “Clinton’s Folly.”

Construction on the Erie Canal began in 1817 with a groundbreaking ceremony held near Utica on Independence Day. The grand debut of the entire canal more than eight years later was celebrated with cannons and cheering crowds in the vicinity of Buffalo. Among those on hand for the festivities was Hawley, who had been out of debtors’ prison for nearly two decades by that time and at one point even served as a member of the New York State Assembly. As a key part of the official dedication of the Erie Canal, Clinton (then serving the second of two non-consecutive terms as governor) sailed on board the vessel Seneca Chief and led a fleet of other boats on the waterway.

At the time of its completion, the Erie Canal – encompassing 18 aqueducts and 83 locks – measured 40 feet (12 meters) wide and four feet (1.2 meters) deep. Over the next several decades, the canal would be further improved upon and enlarged. The canal also lived up to the expectations of Clinton, Hawley, and others who had pushed for its development. As the first major manmade waterway in the United States, the Erie Canal expedited and expanded the trade of both raw materials and manufactured goods. It also facilitated the large-scale settlement of the regions west of the Appalachians and in particular the Great Lakes area. For more information on the Erie Canal, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erie_Canal and http://www.eriecanal.org/index.html.

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