Friday, October 26, 2012

October 26: Erie Canal

On this date in history .... 1825:

The Erie Canal opens, connecting the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean.  New York Governor DeWitt Clinton road the first ship thru the canal, pouring a container of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic Ocean to “marry” the two bodies of water. Most of the work was done by Irish immigrants who used primitive tools to dig the 425 mile canal nicknamed “Clinton’s Big Ditch”.  83 canal locks were built to deal with the 500 ft elevation. The canal was instrumental in getting the area settled since supplies could be shipped in 1/10 the time of using stagecoach or wagon. The canal was paid for in 9 short years by the tolls.
(Photo courtesy of
The canal project was proposed as a way to open the way to the west, through  the Appalachian Mountains.  An easy way for settlers to get to the west and for produce, grain and hunted game to the east was needed to enable the new country to grow.

The Ohio valley’s biggest product at the time was grain, a “high-volume, low-priced commodity”. Traditional transportation costs were prohibitive so farmers tended to convert the corn and grains to whiskey, which was easier to ship and brought about a higher price.  This pricing issue (and high profit) was a factor that led to the Whiskey Rebellion when Alexander Hamilton passed an excise tax on whiskey in 1794.  

The canal lowered food costs in the east and made shipping machinery and materials to the west more affordable. By 1852, the canal was carrying 13 times the freight tonnage than all the railroads in New York combined.

Since so many Irish immigrants were used as labor on the canal (they were paid $10 a month and barrels of whiskey lined the route for them as encouragement), many Irish communities and towns formed along the canal.  Hundreds of German masons were used to do the stonework.  Because of the high immigration traffic along the canal (both during construction and after completion), the rare passengers lists of the canal are considered valuable to genealogists.

One of the most ambitious projects of the 19th century, the canal was longer than any other canal previously built in Europe or America. The cost was $7 million (in 1825 dollars) and considered “an engineering marvel” that connected the west to the east and enabled New York to become the financial center of the new country. 

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