THE ERIE CANAL
its day it was described as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” But what does
that have to do with Saugatuck and Douglas? The Erie Canal, when it opened
in 1825, provided easy access to the emerging Great Lakes Territories and
hope for thousands of immigrants who wanted to start a new life and a chance
to own land in the Michigan Territory and elsewhere. The Great Lakes were
rich in fertile lands, lumber, and the fur trade—but without transportation
these assets were not marketable.
A Waterway to the West
The idea of a canal
connecting the Hudson River with the Great Lakes surfaced as early as 1768.
George Washington believed that a western waterway would help bind America
together, and was one of the first men to propose a westward canal on the
Potomac River. But it wasn’t until 1808 that serious money and thought were
dedicated to the project.
The early 1800’s were a trying time for a young
nation experiencing growing pains. The western migration of settlers over
the Appalachian mountains was creating two Americas—an east coast and a
western America. War Puts Canal on Hold The planning and financing of the
Erie Canal was interrupted by the War of 1812 with England. The British
embargo of U.S. ships had drastically cut imports and exports to Europe. And
the war had not gone well. In August 1814, British forces captured the
nation’s capitol and set Washington ablaze.
Americans were divided on the
war, and delegates from New England had considered secession because of the
war. But after the war ended, support for financing and building the Erie
Canal grew. Finally construction began on the Fourth of July, 1817 as the
band played and people cheered.
The creation and completion of this canal is
a tribute to a young America’s strength, resolve, and “we’ll figure out how
to do it’’ spirit. The canal, when finished, would be 363 miles in
length—the longest in the world!
Although successful canals had been built
in France and England, there was not a single civil engineer in America to
design such a canal. A young 27-year old, Canvass White, paid his own way to
England where he spent months studying their canal, and returned to help
design the Erie Canal.
Immigrants Shoulder the Load
The challenge was
daunting—designers had to map and design a 363 mile canal through largely
virgin forests. Trees had to be felled and stumps wrenched from the earth to
clear a 40 foot wide path. Then laborers hand-shoveled a four-feet deep
channel using horse and oxen teams to remove debris.
The drop of 541 feet
from Lake Erie to the Hudson River required the building of 84 locks to
accommodate the raising and lowering of ferry boats.
A Michigan Land Rush
With the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, thousands of settlers poured
into Michigan. Fertile land was cheap and an 80-acre farm could be purchased
for $100. The Kalamazoo land office sold 1,634,000 acres in 1836 as settlers
overflowed the tiny community.
The final cost of the Erie Canal was
$7,000,000. Critics of the project opined that the canal would never pay for
its construction. They were wrong—an endless stream of boats and barges made
the trip to and from Lake Erie earning tolls to erase the debt. The canal
earned millions of dollars in revenue before the last toll was collected in
Financial success was important, but the greater effect of the canal
was to bring a divided nation together. This new waterway to the west
allowed agricultural products, beef, and lumber from the Midwest to reach
eastern markets faster and at a lower shipping cost.
Canal Boosts Cities
The canal changed the face of the nation as new cities arose and
prospered—Cleveland and Chicago boomed with the steady stream of ships,
produce, and settlers. The opening of the canal made New York city the young
nation’s center of commerce with shipping to and from Europe.
pictures of the canal’s early period look somewhat quaint and bucolic today.
But the determination, vision, and human grit that designed and built the
Erie Canal tell us a lot about early America. by Rob Carey