Monday, October 8, 2018

A quick history of the Erie Canal by Kaye Spencer #westernfictioneers #ErieCanal #AmericanHistory

With the opening of the Erie Canal on October 26, 1825, the Great Lakes was connected with Atlantic Ocean via the Hudson River. This was an engineering marvel, a masterpiece often called the Eighth Wonder of the World.

The Erie Canal represented a transportation door opening for American westward expansion.  Hardy adventurers with hope in their hearts for a new and better life beyond the horizon sold their farms, packed up their belongings, and boarded the barges and boats. Some would make it to the west. Many wouldn't make it, because of illness, lack of funds to continue, or simply from the hardships encountered along the way.

The website, Erie Canal ( offers this basic information:

'Proposed in 1808, ground was broken for the Erie Canal at Rome, New York on July 4th, 1817. The Erie Canal links the waters of Lake Erie in the west to the Hudson River in the east.

The idea of the canal was to open the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains to settlers while also creating a better (safe and efficient) mode of transportation to deliver produce to markets. Two years into construction brought the first commercial traffic on the part that was completed between the towns of Rome and Utica. Doubters now saw the visions of the developers first hand and excitement increased.'

Erie Canal Map
By Rosemary Wardley (Unpublished. Provided by author for upload) [CC BY-SA 4.0  (], via Wikimedia Commons

Quick Stats:

Original Erie Canal (construction: 1817 to 1825)
  • 18 aqueducts
  • 83 locks
  • 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide
  • Boats carrying 30 tons of freight could float the canal
  • 10-foot-wide towpath along the bank provided room for horses and mules (and their drivers) to pull the boats and along.
  • Drivers were known as 'hoggees'.

Enlarged Eric Canal (construction: 1836 to 1862)
  • To keep up with increasing demands of traffic, the canal was enlarged to 70 feet wide and 7 feet deep with a 240-ton boat-weight
  • 72 locks

Barge Canal (construction: 1903 to 1918)
  • 1903 brought another enlargement with the development of the Champlain Canal, the Oswego Canal, and the Cayuga and Seneca Canal
  • 12 to 14 feet deep – 120 to 200 feet wide – 338 miles long
  • 36 locks
  • Accommodated a barge weight of up to 3,000 tons.
Little of the original Erie Canal exists as its identity has been lost in the reconstructions.

An aqueduct over the Mohawk River at Rexford, N.Y., in the early years of the Erie Canal. It was one of 32 navigable aqueducts on the Erie Canal. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Clifton Park Collection []
Erie Canal in Pittsford, New York
By kathryn from Boston (Erie Canal in Pittsford) [CC BY 2.0 
(], via Wikimedia Commons

You can read more about the Erie Canal at the Erie Canal Museum website HERE.

I was in elementary school in the 1960s, and I remember singing this folk song about the Erie Canal. The song is "Erie Canal Song: Low Bridge, Everybody Down". It was written by Thomas Allen in 1905.

The Erie Canal plays a part in the beginning of Louis L'Amour's book How the West was Won (c. 1963 Bantam Books).

Part 1 The Rivers: "The shining land lay open—ready for conquest, and the ways into it were the rivers. Slow and mighty, turbulent and frothing, the rivers were the roads the first settlers took, building rafts, and flatboats, floating down water that was green, brown, black, flecked with foam, but that led ever onward into the heart of that dangerous but unawakened land where riches waited for the bold and the strong."

Taken from Chapter Two:

Eve Prescott stood alone, a few feet back from her family, watching the boats that thronged the Hudson River and the Erie Canal. The shore was piled high with bales, barrels, and crates, merchandise and household goods, all awaiting shipment to the West. Nothing on the farm where she had lived until then, or in the tiny village nearby, had prepared her for this...

On the river there was the shrill piping of whistles, the clang of bells, and the sound of steam exhausts... She only knew vaguely where the Ohio River lay, or the lands to which they were going, those uncertain lands, theirs for the taking, which no one had seen... The Ohio country was the wild west, the wilderness. And that was where they were going... the Promised Land.

From the Hudson River at Albany to Lake Erie at Buffalo, a ditch four hundred and twenty-five miles long had been dug. The digging had been done by several thousand wild, bog-trotting Irishmen fresh from the old country, and they had been eight years in the digging... A canal boat had a crew of three to four persons. A boy or man, working for seven to ten dollars a month, drove the team along the towpath to haul the boat. 

The steersman might earn as much as thirty dollars a month, which was good pay for the time. The captain often did his own steering; otherwise, he sat on deck smoking his pipe and shouting insults at the other boats. Sometimes the cook was the captain's wife; more often she was one of the thousands of women who followed the canal, taking up with this boater or that, as jealous of her independence as any man on the ditch. Of all shapes and sizes, and of every color, the boats moved up or down the canal, fighting or racing for cargo...

The westward movement of which they were a part was more than a hundred years old... There were always men who went the Wilderness Road, the by the Natchez Trace...the Overland Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, the Oregon Trail, the Hastings Cut-off, the Applegate Road... But now there was a difference in their coming, for they brought their women along. They came to stay...

Now they went by the Erie Canal...

* * * * *

If you've not read How the West was Won AND watched the 1962 movie of the same name, you should remedy those most egregious oversights as soon as you can. You can thank me later. *wink*

Until next time,

Kaye Spencer

Writing through history one romance upon a time

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  1. A few years back, on a business trip to Rochester, NY, I stood on the banks of a muddy, unimpressive stretch of water running behind a grand old building that was now a popular restaurant ... the stretch of water, I was told, had once been part of the Erie Canal and the building had once been a thriving brothel ... The years pass, history stands forever as long as we hold it in our memories. Thanks for the very informative piece on the old canal, Kaye.

    1. Wayne,

      Thank you for commenting. I like your words "...history stands forever as long as we hold it in our memories."

  2. In researching Joe Ward, one of many criminal using that name in Colorado, I came across the building of the Ohio Canal in the 1830s. You are so correct when you say canal building helped open the West. Thank you for helping to keep the stories of our history and lives alive.

    Also, I agree the book and movie are so worth investigating. Loved them both. Doris

    1. Doris,

      *sigh* I see my reply to your comment has vanished, so I will re-reply. What struck me about the Erie Canal in Louis L'Amour's book 'How the West was Won' was the fact that it literally opened the way for people to travel with greater ease, so to speak. There is irony in his story in that the Prescott family traveled the Erie Canal in safety only to take the wrong fork and head down the rapids that took the lives of the parents before they reached their "Promised Land".