Traveling in this country during the 16th and 17th centuries was difficult in the extreme. Roads were few and most were unimproved; rough, rutty and ankle deep in dust when dry, or muddy, slippery and virtually impassable in wet weather.
As a result, most folks didn’t stray far; many never traveled more than twenty miles from home during their lifetimes.
Native Americans had for centuries relied on the rivers and streams for transportation and early settlers quickly adopted the practice. There were problems however: often water falls or rapids impeded progress, streams would dry up during droughts, or spring floods would make travel hazardous. For a couple of people in a canoe with just a few hundred pounds of cargo these problems could be managed by portaging, or carrying, the stuff around such blockages.
The river current was another concern — it was easy to float downstream but coming back was work!
Few if any watercourses ran from east to west or vice-versa, so a lot of portaging and zig-zagging was needed to travel cross country. All these reasons made the transportation of large amounts of merchandise slow, difficult and expensive.
The push west
When the United States population was concentrated along the Atlantic coast, which was the case until after the Revolutionary War, sailing ships could carry stuff along the coast from seaport to seaport with no problem.
By the end of the 18th century though, the western frontier — New York and Pennsylvania west of the Allegheny Mountains — had begun to be settled.
The mountains were a huge barrier and there was no good way to ship goods east to population centers like New England, Philadelphia and New York City. People from the western parts of Pennsylvania and Virginia, present day West Virginia, began to use the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers to ship products down the Ohio and Mississippi to New Orleans, then a Spanish possession.
New Yorkers sent their stuff across Lake Ontario and east via the St. Lawrence River, which benefited Canada, who at the time was considered an enemy.
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other American statesmen considered it likely that the western part of the new United States would break away from the eastern seaboard if some reliable means of transportation weren’t established between east and west to tie the two regions together.
Of course, being Virginians, these worthies felt that this east-west artery had to be the Potomac River, which flowed through their state. Besides, George Washington owned thousands of acres of land “out west” that he hoped to profit from.
The western portion of the river had many rapids and falls and General Washington spent much time, energy and money on exploring the river and planning and building short canals around the worst of these impediments to boat traffic.
Being the two most populous states at the time, New York and Virginia competed for this elusive water highway which, besides the lofty goal of bringing the eastern and western parts of the country together, promised to bring huge monetary benefits to the state and its people, not to mention the promoters.
New York tried bypassing the falls and rapids on the Mohawk River in eastern New York and joining various lakes and rivers to reach Lake Ontario. The problem with rivers as part of these systems was not enough water during droughts, bringing boats to a halt, and way too much from spring floods that made navigation dangerous and that carried away docks and other facilities.
Neither the Potomac nor the Mohawk schemes ever solved these problems. As early as 1807, a series of essays were published anonymously by Jesse Hawley advocating a canal across the whole length of New York State, linking the Hudson River, which flowed into the Atlantic Ocean at New York City, to the Mississippi River basin and the Great Lakes via Lake Erie.
Folks called these essays “The effusions of a maniac.” However, De Witte Clinton, a powerful New York politician, adopted the idea with enthusiasm and pulled strings and pushed buttons to get this gigantically expensive, and to most people totally insane, idea underway.
As a result of his untiring efforts on its behalf, the Erie Canal was known at the time as “Clinton’s Ditch,” or worse, “Clinton’s Folly.”
That the 363-mile long canal was ever completed was a miracle. There wasn’t a single canal engineer in the country, and few engineers of any kind for that matter, and nothing of such a huge scope had ever been attempted either here or in Europe.
Earth moving equipment, other than picks, shovels, wheelbarrows and ox carts, was non-existent. Huge swaths of virgin forest had to be chopped down and cleared of stumps, and many wide rivers and thousands of smaller streams crossing the canal’s path had to be contended with.
Then there was the difference in elevation; from the Hudson River the canal had to surmount a rise of about 556 feet to Lake Erie. To keep the canal level, 83 different locks were built along its path, with a double “staircase” of two sets of five connected locks at the appropriately named town of Lockport to raise the level the necessary 60 feet to surmount the so-called “Niagara Escarpment.”
When completed in 1825, the Erie had cost the then astronomical sum of more than $7 million, but it reduced the cost per-ton of goods shipped from Buffalo to NYC from $100 to $10.
Passengers could make the trip in about four days, as opposed to 10 to 14 for overland travel.
The ease of trade spurred migration to the western states and hundreds of thousands of the migrants traveled via the Erie. The canal was a huge financial success as well; tolls totaled half a million dollars the first year and 12 year later enough had been collected to cover the original building costs.
Railroads, airlines, automobiles and interstate trucking put the Erie out of business by 1960, although many portions of it are still open for recreational boating.
If you get a chance, visit Lockport and take a ride on a canal boat that will take you through a double lock that replaced one flight of the original five, although the other original flight still exists beside the newer one.
A visit to the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse is well worth the time as well.
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