Erie Canal Opens

Designed and built by a team of beginners with almost no Civil Engineering experience, the Erie Canal was a huge gamble that completely revolutionized transport in America. The Erie Canal was the railroad before railroads were cool.

Today is October 26, 2017, and on this date, 192 years back, in 1825 the Erie Canal opened, forming a navigable and direct water route from New York City to the Great Lakes.

The idea for a canal through the state of New York goes back to the 1780’s, but took decades to become reality due to political opposition and engineering challenges. The biggest challenge was the fact that Lake Erie, the western end of the canal, sits at almost 600 feet above sea level, meaning locks would be necessary to compensate, 36 of them to be precise.

In 1817, New York Governor DeWitt Clinton’s legislature approved the construction of the canal, running from Buffalo on Lake Erie to Albany on the Hudson River, with a budget of $7 million. This route was selected since the Mohawk River Valley cuts a natural passage between the Catskills and Adirondack Mountains, easing the construction.

Though ridiculed at the time, nicknames “Clinon’s Folly”, the canal was completed and instantly became a success. Tolls collected for the use of the canal paid for the entire project within its first year of operation. Goods that took a month to travel from Detroit to New York overland could get there significantly via steamers and canal boats. This meant that grains and other Midwest crops and food could reach the east coast without worry of spoilage or loss, and industrial machinery necessary for westward expansion could reach the frontier faster and cheaper than ever before.

The success of the canal immediate drove competition in other states as well. Pennsylvania opened a hybrid canal/railroad system linking the Atlantic port of Philadelphia to Pittsburgh on the Ohio River, which allowed access all the way to the Mississippi River and New Orleans. Indiana’s ill-fated Mammoth Works Project would have connected the Great Lakes to the Ohio river by canal through Indianapolis, but instead bankrupted the state. This period is known as the canal craze, with everyone hoping to replicate the success New York enjoyed.

As a side note, the Erie Canal was also popular with tourists, and made Niagara Falls a premier sightseeing destination for East Coast residents. Immigrants entering America through New York City also frequently used the canal to access the Midwest’s available farmland and burgeoning cities like Chicago and St. Louis. This influx contributed in part to the rapid westward expansion fueled by the California Gold Rush and Oregon Trail in the years before the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Thanks for reading, and be sure to check back tomorrow for a religious epiphany experienced by one of the most powerful men ever to reign.

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