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This Month in Business History

Opening of the Erie Canal

Detroit Publishing Co., photographer. Erie Canal at Little Falls. Between 1880 and 1897. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The Erie Canal played a major part in commerce in the history of the United States. Its creation helped to make New York City the chief port in the United States and opened the western part of the state and other western territories to increased settlement and trade. It connected the Hudson River to Lake Erie and many of New York state’s biggest cities – Albany, Utica, Syracuse, Buffalo – lie along its banks.

Its history began in the early years of the 18th century when Governor DeWitt Clinton proposed a canal to connect the Hudson River to Lake Erie. There were many in New York who didn’t support the development of a canal – hence the monikers Clinton’s Folly or Clinton’s Big Ditch – but it did have other big name supporters including Gideon Granger, Stephen Van Rensselaer, and Gouverneur Morris who helped to insure that it indeed did get built.

Construction on the Canal began on July 4, 1817 and lasted about 8 years. It finally opened October 26, 1825 with then Governor Clinton presiding over the official opening aboard the Seneca Chief External. The Canal was an engineering marvel of the day at four feet deep, 40 feet wide, and 363 miles long.

It was a major transportation line for all sorts of products like timber, agricultural goods, merchandise, manufactured goods, etc. You can see the Canal’s growing importance reflected in the numbers. In 1837 the tonnage of property moved was 667,151; it was over one million in 1845; over four million in 1880; and in 1897 it was just over 2.5 million. The only other New York canal that came close was the Champlain which often had less than half of that amount.1

Just looking at the annual publications provides an amazingly detailed account of commerce on the Canal. In the 1839 Annual Report of the Commissioners of the Canal Fund I found that revenue received from the tolls on the Erie Canal alone was over one million dollars. However, what was most fascinating were the many fold-out charts. One chart included the number of tolls paid and received at the various places of collection, the names of the collectors as well as what the salaries were for collectors, inspectors, and clerks – on each of the New York canals. Other charts showed the tonnage on each of the canals (by office) for the various products, value of the products, and provided a very detailed accounting of tolls per product.

The Annual Financial Report from 1872 shows even more detail with over 90 charts and tables covering various aspects of the state’s canals. This same detail and information could be found in the Annual Report of the Comptroller, of the Expenditures on the Canals.

Over time the use of the Canal diminished as railroads boomed and became the dominant mode of transportation and shipping. However, it was still in use in 1918. Traffic still declined rapidly and over time many parts were abandoned. While some parts of the Canal are still in use, most of the activity comes from tourists and other recreational users and it has become a National Heritage Corridor administered by the National Park Service and the Ohio & Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor Commission.

Featured Recording

This is an audio recording of Low bridge! Everybody down! recorded in 1912 and is part of the Library's National Jukebox. Thos. S. Allen composer/lyricist and Billy Murray vocalist.

Print Resources

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to digital content are provided when available.

Library of Congress Digital Resources

The following resources created and digitized by the Library of Congress can be used to find out more about the Canal as well as the events of the day.

Internet Resources

The links below are available generally on the internet.

Search the Library's Catalog

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  1. Canal Statistics. Bureau of Statistics, p. 1101. Back to text