200 years ago the construction of the Erie Canal from Albany to Buffalo radically transformed New York State. Cities like Syracuse, Rochester, and Utica sprang up along its banks; the Great Lakes and New York City boomed thanks to their new linkage; and New York itself became known nationwide as the Empire State. Practically since the day the Canal opened, Americans have written volumes grappling with what the Erie Canal meant. Some saw the Canal as the fulfillment of America’s promise and a major step in achieving the nation’s manifest continental destiny. Others have seen a darker side in the Erie Canal’s history, one marked by the brutal displacement and disruption of Native Americans as far west as Minnesota, as well as the social turmoil created by the unfeeling rapidity of industrialization. Still others have concerned themselves more with the lives and interests of those who lived and worked along the waterway, rather than with the Canal’s broader geopolitical implications. All of these books have had an important impact on how we perceive the Erie Canal today, which continues to flow through the modern state it helped build. For those looking to learn more about the history of this fascinating and complex waterway, the Erie Canal Museum has assembled the following list of some of the finest books examining the Erie Canal.
A must read for anyone interested in learning more about the Erie Canal’s history, Koeppel’s work brings to life the reasons and individuals behind the United States’ first great public work. Bond of Union offers an engaging look at the problems facing both early settlers and politicians in New York before the Erie Canal’s construction, as well as a minute look at the many twists and turns that occurred during those eight years of transformative construction.
Another one of the Erie Canal’s finest introductory histories, this book has begun many canal enthusiasts’ journeys into exploring New York’s artificial waterways since it was published in 2006. Bernstein, in Wedding of the Waters, provides readers with an eye opening look at the early American republic and the immense struggle to build a canal that many thought was “little short of madness.” This book will keep any person, regardless of their prior historic knowledge, turning the page and enthralled by the Erie Canal’s early history.
Heaven’s Ditch is a fun and revealing look at the Upstate New York society created by the Erie Canal in the early 1800s, complete with prophets, alleged Masonic conspiracies, and even a man jumping off waterfalls before paying audiences. Kelly’s writing illuminates for the reader a world turned upside down by the coming of this revolutionary waterway and how average people dealt with these changes in ways that still resonate today.
Perhaps the premiere social history of the Erie Canal, The Artificial River examines how individuals of all stripes dealt with this newly constructed waterway. When it was released in 1996, Sheriff was awarded the New York State Historical Association’s Best Manuscript Award and for good reason. This book is incredibly well researched and critically examines a frequently overlooked bit of Erie Canal history. An excellent choice for the Erie Canal enthusiast who is serious about delving further into the Canal’s story.
- Conspiracy of Interests: Iroquois Dispossession and the Rise of New York State by Laurence M. Hauptman
For centuries the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, or Iroquois, have inhabited the land around the Erie Canal, which, when constructed, radically disrupted their traditional way of life. Conspiracy of Interests is an excellent examination of a topic that has rarely been studied: how the Erie Canal’s planning and construction saw New York State politicians and business interests systematically dispossess the Haudenosaunee of much of their ancestral lands, often illegally. Through this book, Hauptman offers a very different narrative of the Erie Canal from the traditional one of triumph, progress, and manifest destiny, which is equally important to understand.
In this comprehensive history, Ronald E. Shaw portrays the development of the canal as viewed by its contemporaries. He describes how it was rightly seen as an engineering marvel and an achievement of great economic and social significance not only for New York but also for the nation. If you are looking to get a deep and thorough understanding of the Erie Canal, this is the book for you.
The Erie Canal was viewed by many Americans in the early 1800s as a shining example of modern ingenuity and what the young nation could accomplish. Lockport’s impressive staircase of five locks overcoming the 70 foot tall Niagara Escarpment was seen as its crown jewel. In Stairway of Empire, McGreevy provides the reader with an artful telling of the construction of those famous locks, along with the less well known, though none the less important, Deep Cut. He also explores how Lockport helped shape a developing American identity and how perceptions of Lockport have changed over the years. This book is excellent for someone looking to do a deep dive into both the Canal’s physical construction and the ever changing construction of historic memory.
- Overcoming Niagara: Canals, Commerce, and Tourism in the Niagara-Great Lakes Borderland Region, 1792–1837 by Janet Dorothy Larkin
Erie Canal histories often ignore the relationship of the Erie Canal to the country located directly across the Great Lakes from it, Canada, or present an adversarial relationship. Larkin’s new book explores this borderland region, connected by the Erie, Oswego, and Welland Canals, more holistically, offering a view of a cooperative, interconnected, and mutually beneficial area transformed by the transportation revolution. An excellent read that offers a unique perspective on the history of the Canal.
Often overlooked in the story of the Erie Canal is the history of the modern New York State Barge Canal System, which opened in 1918 and still operates today. For anyone trying to gain a better understanding of the waterway that they now boat, bike, or hike on, or just fill in the gaps in their Erie Canal knowledge, A Long Haul is a terrific read.
For those who are interested in learning more about the Erie Canal’s history and life on the waterway, but don’t want to deal with the footnotes and figures of a more academic history, this is the book for you. Famed Erie Canal historic fiction author Walter D. Edmonds paints a vivid picture for the reader’s imaginations of life on the Erie Canal through 24 collected stories. This book offers an excellent for Edmonds well known Canal bibliography.
This list only scratches the surface of the many great books that have been written on the Erie Canal as well as the larger North American canal network. However, these books all offer a solid starting point for anyone interested in learning more about this amazing waterway. All of these books can be found in the Erie Canal Museum’s gift shop, which is open from 10am-4pm everyday and can also be visited online at eriecanalmuseum.org/store