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The Erie Canal . The ditch that changed America. By Luciano D’Orazio CS 150 Charles James Fox School Bronx, NY. New York State Learning Standards.

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the erie canal

The Erie Canal

The ditch that changed America

By LucianoD’Orazio

CS 150 Charles James Fox School

Bronx, NY

new york state learning standards
New York State Learning Standards
  • Standard 1: History of the United States and New York students will use a variety of intellectual skills to demonstrate their understanding of major ideas, eras, themes, developments, and turning points in the history of the United States and New York.
  • Key Idea 3: Study about the major social, political, economic, cultural, and religious developments in New York State and United States history involves learning about the important roles and contributions of individuals and groups.
  • Key Idea 4: The skills of historical analysis include the ability to: explain the significance of historical evidence; weigh the importance, reliability, and validity of evidence; understand the concept of multiple causation; understand the importance of changing and competing interpretations of different historical developments.
learning objectives
Learning Objectives
  • Students will understand the importance of the Erie Canal in the economic, social and political development of New York and the United States.
  • Students will complete a differentiated project based on the content in the presentation as well as independent research through various media.
“As yet…we can only crawl along the outer shell of our country. The interior excels the part we inhabit in soil, in climate, in everything.”

Gouverneur Morris

what was the erie canal
What was the Erie Canal?
  • The Erie Canal was a manmade waterway that connected Lake Erie and the Hudson River.
  • It ran 363 miles, was 40 feet wide and 4 feet deep, although the canal was often enlarged later.
  • New York and the United States would be changed forever by the canal.
what was the situation before the canal
What was the situation before the canal?
  • Since the end of the Revolutionary War, New York City nearly doubled in population, reaching 63,000 in 1800.
  • New York City was already the United States’ largest city, surpassing Philadelphia in 1790.
  • The city’s port made it an important connection between the United States and Europe.
  • As more people immigrated into the city, New York would spread north along Manhattan island.
why build a canal anyway
Why build a canal anyway?
  • As early as the 1720s, New York politicians have searched for a way to get at the interior of the United States.
  • Merchants in New York wanted a fast, cheap way to move goods from the Northwest territories (Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin) to the Hudson River and out to Manhattan.
  • Crowding in Manhattan and along the Hudson valley required a way to move potential settlers into the continent.
  • Some New Yorkers, including politician DeWitt Clinton, thought a canal would help New York grow into the most powerful state in the United States.
dewitt clinton
DeWitt Clinton
  • Born 1769, died 1828
  • Went to Columbia University to study law.
  • Served as secretary to his uncle, Governor George Clinton.
  • US Senator, 1802-1803
  • Mayor of New York City, 1803-1815
  • Governor of New York, 1817-1822, 1825-1828
  • Federalist Party candidate for President, 1812
  • New York State Canal Commissioner, 1811-1825
  • Regent, University of New York, 1808-1825
why is dewitt clinton important
Why is DeWitt Clinton important?
  • DeWitt Clinton was one of the most important politicians in New York’s history.
  • As Mayor of New York City, he promoted public education, city planning, public sanitation and help for the poor.
  • In 1811, he helped promote the Commissioners’ Plan, a new grid plan for Manhattan that would lay out the city streets as we know them today.
  • As Governor, he saw a canal as vital to the continuing growth of the city and the state.
“If it be important that the inhabitants of the same country should be bound together by a community of interests…that agriculture should find a sale for its commodities; manufacturers a vent for their fabrics; and commerce a market for its commodities; it is your incumbent duty, to open, facilitate and improve internal navigation.”

DeWitt Clinton, in an address to supporters at the City Hotel, New York City - 1815

how did the canal get started
How did the canal get started?
  • In 1807, an imprisoned flour trader named Jesse Hawley wrote a series of articles promoting a canal in New York State connecting Lake Erie to the Mohawk River.
  • The New York State Legislature appointed a commission in 1808 to explore canal possibilities. DeWitt Clinton was appointed commissioner.
  • By 1816, Clinton pushed for laws to begin funding for the canal project.
  • Work began on July 4, 1817.
what were some obstacles to the canal
What were some obstacles to the canal?
  • The Appalachian Mountains were a tough barrier to overcome.
  • The only break in the mountains was in north-central New York state, along a horizontal line between Albany and Buffalo.
  • The Hudson River was lower in elevation than Lake Erie – a difference of 600 feet. This required at least 50 locks on the canal.
  • The entire project would cost at least $7 million – almost half the cost of the entire Louisiana territory purchased in 1803.
  • Opponents of the canal began calling the project “Clinton’s big ditch.”
what were the arguments for and against the canal
What were the arguments for and against the canal?



Such a large canal has never been attempted before.

The canal is too expensive and would not be profitable.

The government should not fund projects meant for private businesses.

The canal would increase New York’s power at the expense of the rest of the country.

  • Internal improvements will help extend our reach into the American continent.
  • The canal would improve the lives of farmers, merchants and future settlers.
  • The canal would make transportation faster and cheaper.
  • The canal’s connections will decrease New York’s reliance on foreign trade.
“Why sir, here is a canal for a few miles, projected by George Washington, which if completed, would render this a fine commercial city, which has languished for many years because the small sum of 200,000 dollars necessary to complete it, cannot be obtained from the general government, the state government, or from individuals--and you talk of making a canal 350 miles through the wilderness--it is a little short of madness to think of it at this day."

--Thomas Jefferson, replying to New York Assemblyman Joshua Foreman’s request for federal money for the Erie Canal project. 1808

“It is rather supposed that they mean to open a road to the Presidency than a Canal from the lakes.”

James A. Bayard, US Senator from Delaware, writing to Caesar Rodney, December 12, 1811

“(This canal is) so visionary and absurd that no rational man for one moment could seriously entertain it.”

Martin van Buren, New York politician, leader of Tammany Hall and bitter enemy of DeWitt Clinton, circa 1812.

how was the canal built
How was the canal built?
  • The canal was built between 1817 and 1825.
  • By the end of construction, over 9,000 workers were busy digging, building locks and aqueducts, and clearing land.
  • Most of the workers were either new settlers to the area or Irish immigrants.
  • As the canal progressed, more workers, immigrants and settlers would fill the towns that sprung along the canal route.
pay scale for the canal workers
Pay Scale for the Canal workers

How much would a laborer make in a year?

How much would a Principal Engineer make in a day?

what happened when the canal was finished
What happened when the canal was finished?
  • On October 26, 1825, the Erie Canal was officially completed.
  • Clinton boarded the Seneca Chief as it headed down the canal, down the Hudson towards New York Harbor.
  • In an elaborate ceremony known as the “Wedding of the Waters,” Clinton poured a keg of water from Lake Erie into New York Harbor, symbolizing the new connection.
what was the final cost of the erie canal
What was the final cost of the Erie Canal?
  • The Erie Canal required over 2000 boats, 9000 horses and 8000 workers over eight years.
  • The final cost was $7,143,789.
  • The canal was paying for itself even before completion, as tolls were collected for sections of the canal during construction.
  • By the end of toll collecting in 1882, the canal collected $121,461,871 in funds.
what were some features of the erie canal
What were some features of the Erie Canal?
  • LOCKS – these devices are designed to help boats cross high elevations across the canal. In each lock, a series of doors raise and lower the water level to allow boats to cross. There are 83 locks on the canal.
  • AQUEDUCTS – these “water bridges” date from Roman times. They were used to extend the canal across large rivers and deep canyons. There are numerous aqueducts on the canal.
These are two examples of locks at the town of Lockport.

How do you think they were used to move boats over high areas?

These are pictures of the Schoharie Aqueduct (left) and the Rexford Aqueduct (below).

What kinds of structures does each aqueduct have in common?

what were the effects of the canal
What were the effects of the canal?
  • The canal made transportation of goods and people faster and cheaper.
  • Before the canal, the trip from Buffalo to New York City took three weeks. With the canal, that same trip would take nine days.
  • Before the canal, the cost of shipping a ton of wheat was $100. With the canal, that same ton of wheat would cost less than $6 to ship from Buffalo to New York City.
effects continued
Effects, continued
  • The canal brought thousands of new settlers into western New York. Today, 80% of New York’s population lives within 25 miles of the canal route.
  • The canal also helped new settlers enter the midwestern United States. The population of the west will explode in the decades after the canal completion.
  • The canal made New York State a major manufacturing center thanks to the many factory towns that grew along the canal route, such as Buffalo and Rochester.
  • Finally, the canal would make New York City the greatest commercial and financial center in America.
“(New Yorkers) have built the longest canal, in the least time, with the least experience, for the least money, and for the greatest public benefit.”

William Stone

“The canal is the greatest thing this country has done; it’s the greatest thing it will ever do.”

Walter D. Edmonds, 1929

assignment projects
  • Write a journal entry as a worker on the Erie Canal, describing your experiences working on the canal.
  • Create a diorama of a piece of the Erie Canal, such as a lock or an aqueduct.
  • Write a biography of one of the important people involved in the canal’s development.
  • You are a speechwriter for DeWitt Clinton. Write a speech the governor will give to the New York State Legislature, persuading the lawmakers to approve funds for the Erie Canal.
  • Pretend you are a state assemblyman opposed to the canal. Write a speech persuading your fellow lawmakers that the canal is a bad idea.