A large flotilla of boats, led by New York’s governor, DeWitt Clinton, made the ten day trip from Buffalo, across the Erie Canal, and down the Hudson River to New York City, in October of 1825. When they reached New York’s harbor, Governor Clinton ceremoniously poured a bucket of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic Ocean. This “Wedding of the Waters,” marked not only the end of eight years of arduous construction, but the beginning of the state of New York’s rise as the “Empire State.” Historians have argued that along with the Louisiana Purchase, the building of the Erie Canal was the most important event to shape the nation in the 19th century, in the years preceding the Civil War. The canal connected New York City to the Great Lakes, opening up the new nation to settlement in its interior and westward; to the growth of the state’s cities and towns along its path, and to vast amounts of commerce. The Erie Canal assured that New York City and the City of Brooklyn became the premier port cities of the United States.
A short history of the Erie Canal was presented in our last Walkabout, and that remarkable story can be found here. In today’s shipping world of roadways, railroads and airways, it’s easy to forget that overland and water transport were the only means of moving goods from place to place in our nation’s early days. These methods date back to the earliest days of civilization, and not much had changed in the centuries since. Many roads were glorified trails, wagons were bulky and slow, and crossing the wilderness of a country that had just won its independence and was settled mostly along its coastline was hard work, expensive and dangerous. Today, it takes a little less than four hours to drive from lower Manhattan to Albany; in 1800, it took days.
New York State in the first decade of the 19th century was most densely settled in the Hudson and Mohawk River valleys, the Catskills, and the New York City and western Long Island areas, which of course includes Brooklyn. The far interior and western parts of the state were still considered “frontier.” Buffalo was a small trading post at the edge of Lake Erie, and Syracuse, Rochester and Utica were themselves small towns on the Mohawk and other rivers, but far from each other and from the geographic advantages of the southern part of the state. Manhattan and Brooklyn were growing as commercial and trading centers due to their excellent harbors, but they had stiff competition from Boston, Philadelphia and New Orleans. The Erie Canal would change all of that forever.
The ability to move goods and people cheaply was the game changer. Overland transportation was expensive and depended on roads that were only slowly being cut through the state. Imagine the thick virgin forest of the Catskills or Adirondacks; beautiful to look at, especially this time of year. Imagine much of the state covered in this dense forest, and you are trying to cut roads, or establish towns. Now imagine having only axes, horses and mules, and manpower to do it. No wonder the canal was such an amazing and transforming feat.
By the same token, water travel was much cheaper and easier. The depth and width of the Hudson River explains why the Hudson Valley was settled from New York to Albany and points north so quickly. Points along the Mohawk and other state rivers were settled early in the state’s history as well. The problem was not New York’s many excellent rivers; it was the portage between them. The Erie Canal joined western, central and northeastern New York to New York City in a continuous path of water. It was time for the state to grow.
After the canal was built, Rochester and Buffalo saw population explosions of huge proportions. In 1815, Buffalo was a village struggling to become a town, and had almost been wiped out by the British in the War of 1812. Before the canal began construction in 1817, Rochester had only built its first frame houses a couple of years before. The canal was in full operation in 1825, and between 1820 and 1850, Rochester saw its population grow from 1,502 people to 36,503. Buffalo grew from 2,000 hardy souls to over 42,000 in the same time period. Their respective counties also saw huge growth, expanding by 145 percent.
The Canal brought not only people, but industry. The states of today’s Midwest, such as Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio were then called the Northwestern States, as the real Northwest had barely been imagined, let alone settled. Travel and settlement along the Great Lakes region had opened up these states to farmers, mostly immigrants, who soon made the fertile ground the breadbasket of the country. Wheat, flour and grains were being shipped along the Lakes eastward. The Erie Canal made it easier to move these valuable commodities to market in New York City. Rochester soon became known as the “Flour City,” a holding facility and clearinghouse for goods on their way to the warehouses of Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Before the canal, New Orleans had been the port of call for these “Northwestern” states. The goods were shipped down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, a much longer journey, but one of the reasons why that city was also an important and mighty port. The Erie Canal took much of that business away, and historians have also postulated that the ties between these states and the north were made firmer through this trade, so that when the Civil War erupted, there was not as much dependency on Southern ports, and these states had no problem aligning themselves with the North. That was not the only reason, of course, but certainly an unintended benefit of the canal.
But you can’t talk about the importance of the Erie Canal without noting what it did for Manhattan and Brooklyn. Historian Ronald Shaw has postulated that “There can be little doubt that canal trade stimulated the growth of the city, and that it contributed to the supremacy of New York over rival Atlantic seaports.” In 1790, New York was only the fifth largest American city, in terms of population. The Erie Canal, thirty-five years later, caused an explosion in the city’s ports and in its population.
It was not only goods moving back and forth, it was people. Immigrants headed for the interior of the country started their journey here, and took the canal to Buffalo to head westward. Over 300,000 immigrants came to New York between 1840 and 1845, but the city’s population grew by only 80,000. Most of these people moved on out, and west. Before the canal, it took 50 days to reach Lake Erie, in an arduous combination of river and overland travel, and was expensive. With the canal in operation, the journey took less than two weeks, and cost much less.
These immigrants spent plenty of money here before they left, adding to the coffers of the city. Housing and food, for while they were here; plus provisions, dry goods, raw materials and other supplies for their new homes; all could be purchased in the stores and warehouses of New York or Brooklyn. But of course, the greatest profits were made from the goods coming the other way, as the warehouses of Brooklyn and Manhattan were stuffed with the bounty of the American frontier.
In Brooklyn, the Erie Basin, an artificial harbor upon which many of the Red Hook shipyards were built, was constructed in the 1850s. The name was not by chance; the Erie Canal was the lifeblood of the area. By the 1890s, the Erie Basin and adjoining Atlantic Basin were the most important shipyards in Brooklyn and, arguably, in all of New York City. By this time, the original Erie Canal had been expanded, with larger and more modern waterways and locks, allowing for more traffic along its route. Although competition with railroads had shortened journeys tremendously, it was still highly cost effective and expeditious for produce and goods to come from the Midwest, along the Great Lakes, and down the canal to market. The Red Hook shipyards were the terminus of the Erie Canal.
Grain, lumber, raw building materials such as Indiana limestone, livestock and produce, and their by-products such as glue and hides were just some of the products that came down the canal and were stored in Brooklyn before being shipped to other parts of the country, overseas, or used in local factories or local building and production. The iconic warehouses of Red Hook owe much of their successful history to Erie Canal traffic. Many a local fortune was made from these goods, as well as a wealth of jobs for Brooklynites in the form of dock, construction, factory and office workers, managers, warehouse and clearing house workers, and their managers and bosses.
By 1918, the Erie Canal went through its final configuration, and was widened, deepened and changed for engine, not mule power. Some of the original canal was abandoned, and much of it had been greatly expanded and modernized. The Erie Canal became part of New York State’s Canal System, which links 524 miles of waterways across the state, connecting New York’s harbor and the Hudson River with hundreds of miles of lakes and rivers throughout New York, and on to the Great Lakes and Canada. Much of that is now recreational, and parts of the old, abandoned parts of the canal have been opened up by their localities and restored as tourist attractions, where canal boats can offer a unique vacation experience.
In 2008, boats and barges began using the canal system for commercial shipping again, as fuel prices began to rise, making river travel once again cheaper than trucking or air. The New York Times noted, “The canal still remains the most fuel-efficient way to ship goods between the East Coast and the upper Midwest. One gallon of diesel pulls one ton of cargo 59 miles by truck, 202 miles by train and 514 miles by canal barge. A single barge can carry 3,000 tons, enough to replace 100 trucks.” Long live the Erie Canal!