The 363-mile (584-km) Erie Canal was the biggest public works project of the first half of the nineteenth century. Built between 1817 and 1825, and enlarged between 1837 and 1862, the canal connected the Great Lakes to the Hudson River and, thence, to the Atlantic seaboard. It greatly accelerated the westward migration of European Americans and the displacement of Native Americans, spurred northeastern industrialization, and—as a result of technological innovation that overcame a combined ascent and descent of 680 feet (207 m)—symbolized American ingenuity and hard work.
After the Revolution settlers increasingly clamored for inexpensive and easy access to the nation's interior. With its head 150 miles (241 km) east of Lake Erie, New York's Mohawk River provided the only northern gap in the Appalachian Mountains. Jesse Hawley, a flour merchant, outlined a plan in 1807 for a canal that paralleled the Mohawk and then extended to Lake Erie; New York established a commission to study the situation shortly thereafter; and DeWitt Clinton, a prominent politician, became the waterway's most persistent advocate after the War of 1812. Yet the proposed canal seemed like mere fancy to even enlightened minds; the nation's longest existing canal ran only twenty-seven miles (43 km). Refused aid by the federal government, New York, after much political wrangling, authorized funding in 1817 and began construction on the Fourth of July. Thousands of workers dug the waterway largely by hand in often dangerous conditions.
The four-foot- (1-m-) deep, 40-foot- (12-m-) wide canal opened in stages, and tremendous fanfare marked its completion from Buffalo to Albany in 1825. Within a few years, the cost of transporting materials between the Midwest and New York City fell dramatically, up to ninety-five percent, and the population of the midwestern states grew markedly. The Erie's success spawned additional canal building in New York and other northern states, many of which verged on bankruptcy when their efforts met with limited success, largely owing to increasing competition from railroads.
Mixed reactions greeted the Erie Canal. Many white Americans celebrated it as a symbol of “progress,” a sign that “civilization” had triumphed over “savagery.” The waterway brought settlers, luxury goods, tourists, and ideas into the hinterlands. It seemed to compress distance and time. Yet it also distributed its benefits unevenly; created complex economic networks that fostered instability; relied on a semiskilled, ethnically diverse workforce (numbering in the tens of thousands by the 1840s) when such labor was considered a threat to republicanism; and seemed to foster vice in the nation's supposedly “pure” interior. Overall, though, the canal represented the success of “free labor” and contributed to some northerners' sense of regional superiority.
Although the Erie Canal carried more freight than rival railroads as late as the 1880s and remained in commercial operation until the 1990s, its importance diminished after the Civil War. While antebellum Americans viewed the canal as a sign of modernity (with its promises and its flaws), by the late nineteenth century the Erie Canal seemed a relic of a simpler era. That image, memorialized by Tin Pan Alley songs such as “Low Bridge, Everybody Down,” still lingers in American popular culture.
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