The concept for a canal linking the Hudson River to the interior of the North American continent originated in the late eighteenth century. The opening of land in the trans-Appalachian west following the American Revolution created two needs: first, the need to survey and map western lands, and second, the need to build transportation infrastructure to bring western products to East Coast markets.

In 1825, after eight years of construction, the Erie Canal opened to great public acclaim. It was an engineering marvel that spanned New York State for 363 miles, stretching from the Hudson River at Albany to Lake Erie at Buffalo.

To commemorate the opening celebration in 1825, a special medal and box were created, illustrated here. The medal, struck in either gold, silver, or white metal, displayed the official seal of the Erie Canal, which included the ancient Greek and Roman gods Pan and Neptune who represented the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean respectively. The small circular wooden boxes designed to house the medals were made by New York City cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe. According to a label pasted inside the boxes, the wood used in their construction was cut in the Great Lakes region and shipped to New York City in the first boat to traverse the canal, the Seneca Chief. Symbolically and materially, the two great waters of Lake Erie and the Atlantic Ocean were united. 

At several times during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Erie Canal was enlarged to accommodate larger vessels. The Erie Barge Canal, the last expansion and the last effort to make the canal profitable, opened in 1915. Unfortunately, it could not compete with expanding railroads and the highway systems that began to be built in the 1930s. Today, the Erie Canal serves mainly pleasure boaters and tourists.

 

Magnifying Glass
Erie Canal Commemorative Medal and Presentation Box
Box made by Duncan Phyfe
1825
White metal and wood with printed paper label
Albany Institute of History & Art, gift of Albert B. Roberts, 2006.49.10
Magnifying Glass
View of Little Falls, New York
William Rickerby Miller
1852
Watercolor on paper
Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase, 1946.69