The Divisive Ditch: Early Perceptions of the Erie Canal
The factors that led to the construction of the Erie Canal in Upstate New York.

By Ashley Maready, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, Erie Canal Museum

The idea of a canal to unite the East coast with the interior of the United States was not a new one. Before the Revolutionary War, George Washington expressed concerns about the loss of lands west of the Appalachian Mountains to the French or Canadians, or both, due to a lack of connection. After the war, Washington organized the Patowmack Company to turn the Potomac River into a canal running from the coast up to the mountains. This project was a financial disaster, and was still under construction by Washington’s death in 1799. It was an achievement in engineering, however.

At around the same time, talk had begun about a canal project through New York State, where the geography was more favorable than that of Virginia. But it took a few decades to get the project together. There were questions about the engineering problems of such a project, not to mention the question of funding something that wasn’t guaranteed to pay its own way. And there were questions about the route to be taken; while it would have been easier to make a shorter route to Lake Ontario, this plan wouldn’t gain as much access to the Midwest, and as relations with the British declined leading up to the War of 1812, this idea was abandoned, as they controlled Canada.

In 1809, Thomas Jefferson called the prospect of building a canal through New York “little short of madness.” He loved the idea, but didn’t think it was actually possible. This was the prevailing national opinion, and so the prospects for federal funding were unlikely.

Why did New York need a canal?

Why did New York need a canal? Overland travel across the state to the interior of the country was extremely difficult, and bordering on impossible during some times of the year. While the population of the young United States had rapidly increased (going from 3.9 million in 1790 to 6.3 million in 1805), the means of transportation were obsolete and a detriment to continued growth.

Roads consisted of old Indian trails, which had been widened and packed down with dirt. They could be extremely dusty in the summer heat and terribly swampy in cold and wet weather, especially spring thaw. Winters in New York were no less brutal at the start of our nation’s history than they are now! In very marshy areas, the roads had logs set across them with dirt in between, which was an attempt at smoothing the route; these were called “corduroy roads.”

Waterways across the state often lacked bridges to connect the roads from one side to the other, making cargo passage difficult! In 1800, it took a few weeks to travel overland from New York City to Cleveland. New York’s geography is favorable to a canal across the state. The Mohawk Valley forms a natural pathway through the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains, so it made sense that a canal should be constructed through the state this way.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Europe was also having a “canal mania,” and successful canals were built in France, Germany, and Britain. The War of 1812 also showed the lack of decent transportation means to connect Lake Erie to the rest of the state. The movement of equipment, men, and horses was dreadfully slow and expensive. And the war showed the importance of developing markets for American goods at home in America.

A canal’s advantages

So what concrete advantages would a canal give? Although canal technology seems very primitive to us, in this age of self-driving cars and supersonic jet travel, in the 19th century, canals were an incredible technological innovation. Canals were flat and calm, unlike rivers, and it was easy for a boat to carry large amounts of cargo over water as opposed to over land (especially considering the condition of roads at the time!). Canal boats were not yet motorized, and there was control over speed and steering by way of the captain on board, and the driver leading the animals (mules or horses) pulling the boat by way of the towpath.

The cost of shipping cargo on a canal as opposed to overland was also vastly less, and it would become incredibly profitable to move more and more items to market. Not to mention the advantage of moving people by way of the canal! The prevailing attitude among Americans of the 19th century was that their Creator had provided the tools, setting, and intelligence necessary to undertake such a project, so why not do it?