Sunday, April 8, 2018

Erie Canal Populates the Great Lakes Area

If you wanted to travel to the Northwest Territory from the East prior to 1825, your choices were limited to canoeing with portaging around sizable natural barriers, or a person could take a rugged land passage on horseback or a horsedrawn wagon over perilous dirt roads and Indian trails. Neither method was suitable for commercial success or serious westward expansion. There needed to be some way to open the interior of the continent west of the Appalachians to farming and settlement.

The driving force behind the Erie Canal was New York Governor DeWitt Clinton. His vision made Detroit a destination city in the nineteenth century and provided a water highway for many of our European ancestors--especially German, Irish, Italian, Polish, Scandinavian, and Greek. These settlers were not like the French who trapped and hunted wildlife establishing a lucrative fur trade with Canada and Europe. These new immigrants were land-hungry farmers and empire builders who wanted a fresh start in life, and they changed the face of the Great Lakes region forever.

Once Governor Clinton raised the seven million dollars for its construction, the groundbreaking for the Erie Canal began at a middle segment of the proposed route in Rome, New York, on July 4, 1817. When finished, the canal would stretch 363 miles from Albany, New York on the Hudson River to Buffalo, New York on the east end of Lake Erie, opening the Great Lakes to westward American expansion.

Untold numbers of Irish immigrants and draft animals provided most of the muscle power to dig out the canal. The excavated soil was piled on the north side and graded to form a towpath for horses to pull canal boats and barges along the route. Hundreds of migrant German masons were hired to build the stonework for thirty-four locks needed to raise the boats 565 feet--the elevation difference between the Hudson River and Lake Erie. Where the canal had to cross valleys and water barriers, the masons built eighteen aqueducts to carry the boats above them. 

Lockport, New York
In 1823, the builders reached the Niagara Escarpment at what came to be known as Lockport, New York. Canal engineers devised five locks along a three-mile stretch to carry the canal eighty feet over the dolomitic limestone barrier. The original Erie Canal profile was forty feet wide at the surface, twenty-eight feet wide at the bottom and four feet deep. In 1835, the State of New York enlarged the canal to seventy feet wide and seven feet deep, further encouraging westward expansion and making New York City the economic powerhouse of the Eastern Seaboard.

"Erie Canal Opening" by Charles Yardley Turner (1905).
The Erie Canal was completed in eight years, two years ahead of schedule at a cost of $7,143,000. In a grand ceremony, Governor Clinton and other dignitaries boarded the Seneca Chief steamer in Buffalo and traveled the length of the canal to the Hudson River and down to New York harbor. On October 26, 1825, amid patriotic fanfare and a brass band, Governor Clinton took a keg of Lake Erie water and poured it into the Atlantic calling it a "marriage of the waters." The keg was then refilled with ocean water for the return trip of the Seneca Chief to Lake Erie to consummate the exchange of water.

Erie Canal aqueduct
The Erie Canal became an instant commercial success and stimulated economic growth along its entire route. Before the canal, the only way west through the Appalachian Mountains was overland on rugged wagon roads. The trip to Detroit took five to six weeks. The Erie Canal cut that time in half.

Prior to the canal, bulk goods traveled on the backs of pack animals limited to no more than 250# per beast of burden. Canal boats could carry up to thirty tons of cargo. Shipping costs dropped 90% from $100/ton to less than $10/ton. Buffalo, New York became a major transhipment point for farm produce from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan going east while manufactured goods and European immigrants shipped west.

Historian Harvey C. Colburn wrote in The Story of Ypsilanti (1923) that "Immigration in Detroit from Europe was greatly facilitated by the Erie Canal. The first steamer on Lake Erie was the Walk-on-the-Water in 1819. By 1826, there were seven steamers on the lake, and by 1830, a daily service was established between Buffalo and Detroit." If your ancestors came to Detroit between 1825 and the 1850s, chances are they floated up the Erie Canal courtesy of the labor of thousands of skilled and unskilled immigrants who preceeded them.

The Erie Canal reconfigured the young United States' national religious and social dynamics by connecting the Hudson Valley with the Great Lakes region. By 1842, the New York Railroad had a continuous line linking the East with the continental interior. Passenger traffic on the canal tapered off in favor of the modern steam locomotives with their speed and relative comfort. The canal simply increased its commercial freight business. Water was still the most cost-effective way to move bulk goods, and the canal could ship thirteen times more tonnage than all the trains of New York Central Railroad.

By the end of the 1880s, railroads dominated passenger transportation, but it wasn't until competition from improved roadways and the trucking industry at the beginning of the twentieth century that the canal was rendered obsolete. Today, 200 miles of the old canal are used for public recreation like boating, biking, hiking, and cruising.