This presentation was designed for New York state students in grades three through eight who learn about the Erie Canal as part their study of local history, but teachers and students in any classroom can use it. It will help students look back in time to understand the work invested in building the Erie Canal, the barriers that were overcome to accomplish its construction, and the importance of the Erie Canal for trade and transportation throughout our nation.
Jacques-Gérard Milbert, 1829, Lithograph, ht. 7 1/2" x w. 11 3/4", Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase, 1944.22.13
French geographer and engineer Jacques-Gérard Milbert toured the Hudson Valley in 1815 and made drawings that are the most complete and accurate depictions of the northeast at the time. This drawing of the city of Albany’s harbor on the Hudson River shows the sailboats, steamboats, and rowboats that would have traveled the river in the first years of the nineteenth century. The boats would have been used to transport both people and goods.
Artist Unknown, August 10, 1831, Albany Institute of History & Art Library, PB 266
In the early nineteenth century, people could travel on land by foot, on horseback, and by carriage. By the 1830s, carriages were carefully timed to meet steamboats at ports along the rivers and lakes to carry travelers and packages on their journeys by water routes.
E. L. Henry (1841–1919), 1910, Oil on canvas, ht. 20 ½ in., w. 38 ¾ in., Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase, 1985.15
Fulton’s second boat, the Clermont, revolutionized travel by providing regularly scheduled service and greater speed. Although it was now easier to travel up and down the Hudson River, the route inland to the West was still difficult and travel was restricted to horse and manpower.
Simeon DeWitt (1756–1834), Engraving and etching on paper with applied watercolor and ink, dissected and laid on linen, 1804, Albany Institute of History & Art Library, MAP 172
This map shows the geography of New York state—its rivers, lakes, and major settlements—at the beginning of the nineteenth century. You can see how it would be difficult to get from New York City to Niagara Falls over land and impossible to travel this route by water. The proposed solution that gained the most support was an artificial waterway or canal to connect the Hudson River with Lake Erie.
The Erie Canal was proposed as early as 1724 by New York’s Surveyor General and Governor Cadwallader Colden, and for many years was talked about among people and politicians all over the country. An engineer named Christopher Colles delivered a speech to the New York state legislature in 1784 recommending the building of the Erie Canal and explaining how it would improve our nation. In January of 1784 the Continental Congress ratified the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War with Great Britain and officially established the United States as an independent nation. The building of the Erie Canal became entwined with the future of our country.
by R. Fulton, Civil Engineer, Published by I. and J. Taylor, London, 1796, Albany Institute of History & Art Library, 655.6_202
By the end of the eighteenth century, inventors and engineers began to think about how to build the canal and move boats along the 363 miles between Buffalo and Albany. Robert Fulton, an American artist-turned-technologist and engineer, took steamboat inventions he studied in London and created the first viable commercial steamboat service on the Hudson River. He also experimented with ideas about how to move boats along canals through locks.
Ezra Ames (1768–1836)
Oil on canvas
Permanent deposit by the City of Albany, 1971.12.5
In 1825 the Erie Canal opened with much fanfare. Governor DeWitt Clinton, a staunch supporter and canal commissioner, presided over festivities in New York City during the month of October. As part of the ceremonies, Clinton dumped a barrel of water from Lake Erie into New York harbor, symbolically uniting the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean, which the Erie Canal had accomplished.
Painted during his first term as New York state governor, this three-quarter-length portrait of DeWitt Clinton accompanies several other portraits of New York governors placed on permanent deposit with the Albany Institute. Six are currently on exhibition in the Hall of Governors at the New York State Capitol.
Albany, March 16, 1824, Erie Canal Papers, Albany Institute of History & Art Library, EJ56_28_198
Stock certificates and bonds were issued by the state to finance the canal. Stock and bold holders were promised that they would be paid back by tolls collected on the canal.
Henry Inman (1801–1846), oil on canvas, 1821–1822, Albany Institute of History & Art, Bequest of Sarah Walsh DeWitt, 1924.1.17
Following the Revolution, Americans surveyed and mapped the lands to the west to find ways to travel and link western products with east coast markets. In 1784, a young surveyor named Simeon DeWitt, DeWitt Clinton’s cousin, accepted the appointment of surveyor general for New York state, a position he held through 1834. Surveyors accurately determine the position of points on the Earth’s surface and the distances and angles between them. These points are used to establish land maps and boundaries. DeWitt had surveyed much of New York by the late 1790s and began preparing a map of the state.
Unidentified maker; likely English 1790–1830, Simeon Dewitt-Owner, Silver mounted green snakeskin case, Albany Institute of History & Art, Bequest of Sarah Walsh DeWitt, 1922.214.171.124
These are tools that Simeon DeWitt used to draw maps. In 1808 he surveyed the land where the Erie Canal was to be built and calculated the angle of descent from Lake Erie to the Hudson River. This was something that the canal builders needed to find a way to overcome. They decided to use a system of eighty-three locks to move boats to different elevations along the canal. A lock is an enclosure with gates at each end used in raising or lowering boats as they pass from level to level.
Marco Paul's Voyages & Travels, Erie Canal, 1852, By Jacob Abbott, Albany Institute of History & Art Library, SpC, 917.47_ABB_MAR_1852_Special Collections_437
A lock is a device used to lift or lower boats from one water level to another. Locks are used in most canals to bypass waterfalls, rapids, dams, and other obstacles to navigation. A typical lock consists of a chamber with gates at both ends. A boat enters through the gates at one end of the lock; the gates are closed; water is added to or released from the chamber until it reaches the level at the other end of the lock; the gates at that end are opened; and the boat continues on its way at the new water level.
Edward Lamson Henry (1841–1919), 1899, Watercolor and egg white, ht. 11 1/2" x w. 20 1/4", Albany Institute of History & Art, Gift of the estate of Catherine Gansevoort Lansing, 1919.4.15
This painting by E. L. Henry shows a canal boat entering a lock on the D & H Canal. The Erie Canal locks looked very similar and operated the same way.
After years of public debate, legislation, and land surveys, the Erie Canal that Stephen Van Rensselaer III supported was approved. Construction began in 1817. The canal eventually linked the Hudson River at Albany with Lake Erie near Buffalo. The canal opened trade between the rich farmlands of the west and the growing commercial port of New York City. The hand-drawn map dated 1817 shows the proposed route of the canal and the multitude of locks needed to overcome differences in elevation. The mysterious E. Brinckerhoff who drew and colored the map most likely copied an engraved map that accompanied the official reports of the Canal Commission.
Canal Society of New York State, ht. 8 1/2" x w. 11", Albany Institute of History & Art Library, Ephemera Collection_457
Mule- or horse-drawn canal boats opened towns throughout western New York to commerce, tourism, and immigrants. Communities such as Syracuse and Rochester prospered, while the falls at Niagara received thousands of tourists each year. This document lists the villages along the canal and the distances from each village to Albany, Utica, Rochester, and Buffalo. Canal boats typically traveled four miles an hour. How long would it have taken to get from Syracuse to Rochester? The distance of 100 miles would have taken twenty-five hours.
Albany Institute of History & Art Library, SpC, 386.48, COL MEM
Horses, mules, wagons, wheelbarrows, and hand tools were used to build the canal. Mountains and hills in the path of the canal were blasted out of the way and swamps were filled. Immigrants and people who lived along the canal were recruited and paid to dig the canal. At one point so many workers died from illness contracted by working in the swamps that the canal commissioners found replacements by placing advertisements in New York City newspapers. Tools were invented to deal with specific problems. A stump-puller was invented that allowed six men and a team of horses to remove thirty to forty stumps a day. It was soon replaced by the faster method of using dynamite.
May 6, 1819, Albany Institute of History & Art Library, ms-2358_EJ656_447a
Resources needed for canal construction such as lumber and stone were purchased from as close to the canal as possible. Farmers and landowners were paid for the trees and stone on their land. This agreement between the Canal Commissioners and William Cozzens, who lived in the town of Aurelius in Cayuga County, sold the state of New York the stone in Cozzens’ quarry and granted them access to his land for three years. Cozzens was paid $105 ($65,000 in 2011 dollars) and was allowed to take the fragments of stone that remained behind.
November 4, 1825, Albany Institute of History & Art Library, ms-2358_EJ656_446
Construction was completed on October 26, 1825, and on November 4th the first canal boat, The Seneca Chief carrying Governor Clinton, reached New York City from Lake Erie. The Seneca Chief was accompanied by a flotilla of boats and to celebrate the opening, communities along the canal held festivities. In New York City the celebrations included fireworks and a parade. Clinton emptied a barrel of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic Ocean at Sandy Hook, a symbolic mingling of the waters.
Box attributed to Duncan Phyfe, New York City, 1825, Wood and metal with engraved paper label, Gift of Albert B. Roberts, 2006.49.10
This commemorative token was made after the opening of the canal. The inscription across the top reads “Union of the Erie with Atlantic.” The furniture maker Duncan Phyfe made the box from wood taken from the boat The Seneca Chief.
James Eights, 1823, ink, wash, pencil on paper, Albany Institute of History & Art, Gift of James Eights, 1836.1.5
James Eights was an engineer, explorer, and scientific artist for the Erie Canal geological survey. This 1823 drawing depicts the packet boat S. Van Rensselaer, a freight canal boat, a warehouse on the canal, and the two homes of the Van Rensselaers, who were canal advocates. The canal’s entrance to the Hudson River is in the middle distance between the Van Rensselaer homes and the warehouse.
James Eights, 1823, pencil, ink, and wash, ht. 3 3/4" x w. 6", Albany Institute of History & Art, Gift of James Eights, 1836.1.3
An aqueduct is a bridge-like structure that carries water or a canal across a valley or over a river. Now known as the Broad Street Aqueduct or the Broad Street Bridge, this aqueduct originally carried the Erie Canal over the Genesee River. In 1927, a roadbed was added to carry surface traffic. Although it once carried the Rochester subway, it is now used only for cars and trucks.
James Eights, 1823, pencil, ink, and, wash, ht. 3 1/3" x w. 6", Albany Institute of History & Art, Gift of James Eights, 1836.1.4
Eights’ view of the Aqueduct Bridge at Little Falls depicts the three-arched granite bridge that crossed the Mohawk River at Little Falls in Herkimer County, New York. The bridge, regarded as one of the engineering marvels of the nineteenth century, spanned a series of cascades and rapids that proved to be some of the most formidable barriers in the construction of the Erie Canal.
William Rickerby Miller (1818–1893), Watercolor on paper, 1852, Albany Institute of History & Art, 1946.69
“The passage of the Canal, under the lofty bluff which, springs at this place from the edge of the Mohawk, is one of the most beautiful of the many beautiful features disclosed to the voyager on this great outlet of the West. No traveler sees a greater variety of fine objects within the same distance than the follower of the Canal from Schenectady to Buffalo; and certainly none sees them with more ease and comfort to himself.”—N.P. Willis, 1853
E. L. Henry (1841–1919), c. 1900, Pencil and watercolor, ht. 13 3/4' x w. 34 3/4", Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase, 1976.7.2
Packet boats on the Erie Canal were usually sixty to eighty feet long and fourteen feet wide. The central cabin room served as lounge, dining room, sleeping room, and a kitchen. The average charge for traveling on packet boats was four cents per mile ($26 in 2011 dollars), and included meals and sleeping accommodations.
Jacob Abbott,New York: Harper & Brothers, 1852, Albany Institute of History & Art Library, SpC 917.47_ABB_MAR_1852_Special Collections_439
Passengers sat on the boat deck or on the roof. The distance between the top of the boat and the bottom of the bridges over the canal was usually quite small and passengers had to duck their heads as the boats traveled under the low bridges.
c. 1825, Caldwell Family Papers, Manuscript Collection, Albany Institute of History & Art Library, GQ78-14/1/24_461a
In its first year of operation more than 40,000 people rode canal boats as travelers, immigrants, and sightseers. One August between 1825 and 1835, a member of the Caldwell family recorded his expenses on an Erie Canal trip from Albany to Niagara Falls and back. He traveled with Mr. William Wilson and his daughters Anna and Mary, and Mr. John S. Walsh and his sisters Catherine and Sarah. They left Albany on August 6 and returned on August 26, taking twenty days for the round-trip journey. They stopped along the way for tea, luncheons, and dinner and slept in lodgings on land at night. The document records where they stopped, and the amounts they paid for passage.
Published by Charles W. Hughes, Mechanicville, NY, Gelatin silver print, ht. 3 1/2" x w. 5 1/2", Albany Institute of History & Art Library, Post Card Collection, 455a
Companies such as General Electric situated factories alongside the canal to help move raw materials into the factories and products east and west along the canal. In this photograph you can also see how the train and trolley lines met the canal at strategic points.
Dibbles and Brown papers, Manuscript Collections, Albany Institute of History & Art Library, GJ 77-37/3/2_460
After the opening of the canal, trade drastically increased as merchants realized the savings in shipping rather than transporting goods overland. Freight included raw materials such as lumber and farm goods going east, and manufactured goods including iron stoves, shovels, nails, pottery, and imported goods such as cotton fabrics going west. Thousands of men were employed operating boats between Buffalo and New York City.
The April 30 account log for the canal boats A. C. Welsh and Joel Lee & Sons include in their cargo coffee, crockery, molasses, pipes, raisins, rice, rum, shot, snuff, soap, sugar, tea, teapots, and tobacco.
c. 1875, Unidentified Photographer, Albumen photographic print on card, Albany Institute of History & Art Library, PA 19/13
Freight boats were built to accommodate the types of materials they carried, but they all had to fit into the width and length of the standard lock. Frank A. Jagger built his boats to carry the tons of lumber being milled at his yards along the canal from trees felled in the Adirondack Mountains.
1871, Courtesy of New York State Archives, Canal Records
Throughout the nineteenth century, the Erie Canal underwent enormous changes in response to its overwhelming popularity. Ten years after its opening, an enlargement was begun in response to the almost immediate overcrowding of the original canal. The enlargement expanded the canal to seventy feet wide and seven feet deep. When the canal was widened, the size of the canal boats and the amount of freight they carried could be increased.
Unidentified photographer, Gelatin silver print, ht. 3 1/2" x w. 5 1/2", Albany Institute of History & Art Library, Post Card Collection, 453a
This photograph of the steam tug Lillian pulling a canal boat through the lock at Mechanicville illustrates how engines took the place of the horses and donkeys that previously trod the towpaths along the canal.
Unidentified photographer, 1893, Gelatin silver print, ht. 3" x w. 4", Albany Institute of History & Art Library, Ser_5_145_MPC_449
This 1893 photograph shows how the lock mechanisms were electrified and how the canal boats were still pulled through the first lock from the canal into the Hudson River at Albany.
Glenn S. Cook, c. 1914, Gelatin silver print, ht. 7 1/2" x w. 9 3/4", Albany Institute of History & Art Library, 145_PC1_450
The Erie Canal prospered as a transportation system until the late nineteenth century. Attempts were made to revitalize the waterway by eliminating tolls in 1882 and enlarging the canal. The first rebuilding was completed in 1862, but by the end of the century additional changes were needed to accommodate larger barges with deeper drafts. This photograph taken around 1914 shows the original canal as it passed through the north end of Albany.
Glenn S. Cook, n.d., Gelatin silver print, ht. 71/2" x w. 9 1/2", Albany Institute of History & Art Library, 156_PC1_452
In 1903 the third canal—the one we now know as the Barge Canal—was begun. This photograph, taken as the original Erie Canal in Albany was being filled to create Erie Boulevard, may prompt discussion of contemporary environmental issues and transportation.
Post Card Collection, Box 1, "Canals", Albany Institute of History & Art Library, PCC_B1_Canals
Completed in 1918, the new Barge Canal had a bottom width of seventy-five feet in the main channels and a depth of twelve feet. Locks were rebuilt and two reservoirs constructed to provide adequate water supply for the eastern section. Unfortunately, the Barge Canal could not compete with railroads and the highway system of the post-World War II era.
Unidentified photographer, Gelatin silver print, ht. 3 1/2" x w. 5 1/2", Albany Institute of History & Art Library, Post Card Collection, 454a
Today, the Erie Barge Canal serves mainly pleasure boaters and tourists. A 348-mile-long Canal Way Trail opens the historic waterway to hikers, bicyclists, cross-country skiers, and sightseers.
Education Programs at the Albany Institute of History & Art are supported, in part, by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation Education Endowment, Sydney and Beatrice Albert Foundation, Assemblyman Robert Reilly Salary Fund, Bank of America, Bender Family Foundation, Erie Canalway Heritage Program, Lucille A. Herold Charitable Trust, M&T Bank, NYSUT, Renaissance Corporation, Troy Savings Bank Foundation, an Anonymous Foundation, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.