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Erie Canal

The Erie Canal is a canal that goes from the Hudson River to Lake Erie and was the first transportation route faster than carts pulled by draft animals between the Eastern Seaboard of the United States and the western interior.

The initial canal opened on December 26, 1825 and was 363 miles long, 40 feet wide, and 4 feet deep. There were 77 locks, each 90 feet by 15 feet. Maximum canal-boat displacement was 75 tons.


The canal was the idea of the entrepenurial Jessie Hawley, who imagined being able to grow huge quanitities of grain in the upstate New York plains (then largely unsettled) for sale on the Eastern Seaboard. However there was almost no infrastructure to support the shipping large quantities of anything, so he started pressing for the construction of a canal running along the Mohawk River[?] valley.

The Mohawk River runs in the channel between the Appalachians, separating them into the Catskills and Adirondacks. The gap was the only cut across the mountains north of Alabama, and pointed almost directly from the already widely used Hudson River to the east, to either Lake Ontario or Lake Erie on the west. From there much of the interior and many settlements would be accessible on the lakes.

The problem is that the land rises about 600 feet from the Hudson River at Albany, New York to Lake Erie. Locks at the time could handle a change of up to 12 feet, so at least 50 locks would be required along the 360 mile canal. Any such canal would cost a fortune even today, but in 1800 such an undertaking was barely feasible. Nevertheless Hawley managed to interest the govenor, DeWitt Clinton, and after surveying the plan went ahead.

Construction began July 4, 1817, at Rome, New York. The first 15 mile section between Rome and Utica opened two years later. Construction continued at an increased rate as new workers arrived, but halted completely when the canal reached the Montezuma Swamp near Syracuse, New York when over 1000 workers died of malaria. Construction on the "uphill" end started again in the winter, while work continued on the route to the Hudson. Leaks developed along the entire length of the canal, but these were sealed with a newly invented concrete. Erosion on the clay bottom proved to be a problem and the speed was limited to 4mph. Work was completed in 1825.

Additional canals soon added to the coverage, including the Cayuga-Seneca south to the Finger Lakes, the Oswego from Three Rivers north to Lake Ontario at Oswego, and the Champlain running north from Troy to Lake Champlain.

The original design planned for an annual tonnage of 1.5 million tones, but this was exceeded immediately. A program to enlarge the canal, notably the locks, started only a year later, and then again in the late 1800s. By 1883 the tolls on the canal had raised 121 million dollars, and all fees were waived for future use.

In 1918 the canal was replaced by the larger New York Barge Canal[?], running roughly the same route. Railway traffic largely replaced both, and today the original Erie Canal is being turned into a trail. However, the Erie Canal, during its construction, launched a canal boom which strengthened the infrastructure of the U.S., tying agricultural interests of the West to the industrial interests of the East.

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