Exhibition - Introduction

Constructed in an era when roads were little more than ruts and dirt pathways, the Erie Canal opened up East-West trade in the newly developing United States, providing an all water connection between the interior U. S. and the Atlantic coast seaports. At times known as "Clinton's Ditch," the Erie Canal was called the Eighth Wonder of the World at the time it officially opened on November 4, 1825. During the celebration DeWitt Clinton poured five gallons of Lake Erie water into New York Bay with a ceremonial "mixing of the waters." Allowing travel from New York City to Buffalo in ten days, the Erie Canal helped make New York City the new nation's most important port. Although the canal's chief mission was to carry freight, it was also the route for tens of thousands of settlers to "the frontier." Canal towns such as Rochester and Utica along its route would eventually grow into important cities.

In 1724 Cadwallader Colden, the first Surveyor-General of New York Province, proposed the building of a canal connecting the Hudson River to the Great Lakes, possibly in anticipation of capitalizing on the then very profitable North American fur trade. In the 1790s, Elkanah Watson suggested that a canal be built from the Hudson River to Lake Ontario, rather than Lake Erie. The engineer James Geddes, in 1808, conducted a survey to build a canal at Albany, and in 1810 a Board of Canal Commissioners was appointed. Thomas Jefferson, at the end of his second term, turned down the proposal for federal aid to New York State as "making a canal 350 miles through a wilderness is little short of madness."

Built almost entirely by man and horsepower, construction began on the canal on July 4, 1817 with little public support and no government funding. Plans for the canal were halted during the war with Britain in 1812, and public opinion was divided as to the wisdom of its completion. In 1815, the New York State Legislature was flooded with petitions to begin construction. With the urging of DeWitt Clinton, two time governor of New York State, who envisioned the Erie Canal as a means to make New York the greatest commercial city in the world, plans for building on the canal were resumed and construction began. On October 29, 1818, the first boat moved along a portion of the canal, and New York State began its collection of tolls.

The Erie Canal, with 83 locks, is 363 miles in length, 40 feet wide at the water line, 28 feet wide at the bottom and 4 feet deep. It took 8 years to complete construction at a cost of approximately $7,000.000. The canal made enormous contributions to the economic and social development of both New York and the rest of the United States in the first half of the 19th century. Its success encouraged other canal projects in New York and other states.