One-hundred and eighty-eight years ago, on October 26, 1825, the Erie Canal opened in upstate New York, passing through 363 miles of wilderness from Buffalo on the east coast of Lake Erie through the mountains near the Mohawk Valley west of Troy and terminating at the Hudson River at Albany, after eight years of construction.
The canal was 40 feet wide, four feet deep, had 18 aqueducts and 83 locks, and rose 568 feet. NY Governor DeWitt Clinton ensured that the state legislature provided $7 million to finance it.
Clinton broke ground on July 4, 1817, for the construction of the canal, which was often sarcastically referred to as "Clinton's Big Ditch." A 10-foot-wide towpath was built along the bank for horses, oxen and mules led by a boy boat driver.
Clinton rode the Seneca Chief canal boat from Buffalo to New York harbor in 1825 for the inauguration of the canal, which immediately facilitated trade between the Midwest and New York City, which soon became the chief U.S. port.
Manufactured goods were shipped from New York and farm products were returned from the Midwest on the canal, thus providing overland water transportation from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes.
The canal utilized light packet boats drawn by horses, and reduced the passenger schedule between Buffalo and Albany from the 10 days required by stage service to three and a half days.
As the canal became vital to trade, New York City flourished and settlers rapidly moved into the Midwest and founded hundreds of towns, like Clinton in DeWitt County, Illinois. The canal also brought millions of settlers to the Mohawk Valley.
A tremendous success, the Erie Canal was the engineering marvel of the 19th century and proved to be the key that unlocked a series of significant social and economic changes in the young nation.
To keep pace with the rising demands of traffic, the Erie Canal was enlarged between 1836 and 1862. The Enlarged Erie was 70 feet wide and seven feet deep, and could handle boats carrying 240 tons. The number of locks was reduced to 72.
Within 15 years of the canal's opening, New York City was the nation's busiest port, moving more freight than New Orleans, Baltimore and Boston combined.
In 1903, the state enlarged the canal by building the Barge Canal, consisting of the Erie Canal and the three main branches of the state system -- the Champlain, the Oswego, and the Cayuga and Seneca canals. This canal was completed in 1918, and is 12 to 14 feet deep, 120 to 200 feet wide, and 363 miles long.
Locks were built to handle barges carrying up to 3,000 tons of cargo, with lifts of six to 40 feet. This is the Erie Canal that today is used mostly by recreational boats rather than cargo-carrying barges.
With the exception of Binghamton and Elmira, every major city in New York falls along the canal route through Schenectady, Utica and Syracuse to Rochester and Buffalo. Nearly 80 percent of upstate New York's people live within 25 miles of the canal, now part of the New York State Canal System.