An Artificial River: The Erie Canal

In the early 1800s, most Americans moved themselves and their goods by water, rather than on the nation’s rough, limited roads. To extend the water’s reach into the nation’s interior, they began decades of canal building.

The Erie Canal was the nation’s most successful example. Built between 1817 and 1825 to link Lake Erie to the Hudson River and New York City, the canal brought together goods and people from across New York State and from the far reaches of the Great Lakes. Area farms and industries benefited from the traffic on the canal. And New York City thrived in the 1800s in part because it was the leading market for the canal’s commerce.



Reproduction of watercolor by John William Hill

Courtesy of the I. N. Phelps Stokes Collection, The New York Public Library

View on the Erie Canal, 1829

The Erie Canal provided an easy way for farms in upstate New York to transport their products to market. It also carried the farm products of the American and Canadian west from the Great Lakes to the port of New York. On return trips from the city, the canal brought consumer goods to growing communities.


Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Canal Builders

The Erie Canal’s labor force numbered 3,000 men in 1818 and 9,000 in 1821. The men dug the 4-foot-deep by 40-foot-wide canal largely by hand, aided by draft animals, explosives, and tree-stump-pulling machines. Their wages of 50 cents a day or about $12 a month sometimes included food and a bunk. Local residents and new immigrants all found work on the project.


Lithograph by J. H. Bufford after W. Wilson, 1836

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

View of the Upper Village of Lockport, Niagara County, New York

Along the Erie Canal, small towns like Utica, Syracuse, and Rochester grew into cities. And between 1823 and 1825, canal construction transformed a three-family settlement at Lockport into a town of 3,000 residents, not counting almost 2,000 canal workers.


Courtesy of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of Rochester Libraries

The Erie Canal in downtown Rochester, N.Y., about 1900

The canal connected the cities of upstate New York to markets across the Atlantic and justified the expense of expanding manufacturing. Rochester dominated flour milling in the region until mid-century, then grew into a national leader in making men’s clothing.


Passenger list from canal boat Montezuma, 1828

Many immigrants traveled on the canal. In 1839, Johann Pritzlaff of Germany described how “we went from New York by steamship to Albany and from there, partly by train, partly by canal boats that were pulled by horses, we finally arrived in Buffalo...and from there, again by steamship (across Lake Erie, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan) to Milwaukee.” Capt. William Rogers Jr., compiled this list of his passengers for ten days in October 1828.


Pennsylvania Main Line Canal

Business leaders and lawmakers in other states rushed to compete with the Erie Canal. Few of their projects met with the same success. In 1826, Pennsylvania began a canal to link Pittsburgh to the port city of Philadelphia. The Allegheny Mountains blocked the route, forcing engineers to design a railroad to lift freight from one part of the canal to another. The canal opened in 1833, and was for sale 10 years later. It was largely abandoned by the 1870s, and closed in 1903, having never paid off its investors.


Courtesy of the New York State Library, Manuscripts and Special Collections

The Erie Canal, 1820s

The 363-mile canal was a technological achievement. It was also a commercial success, generating $121 million in tolls from 1825 to 1882, four times what it cost to operate. It carried so much traffic that it was enlarged only ten years after it opened and twice more by 1918.


Invitation, 1825

Erie Canal Celebration, New York, 1825

The official completion of the Erie Canal was marked with a celebration in New York City. Some 20,000 people gathered to watch a fleet of vessels greet the Seneca Chief, the first canal boat to travel the entire distance of the new canal.


Erie Canal Medals, 1825

At the canal’s opening celebration in October 1825, New York governor DeWitt Clinton poured a keg of fresh Lake Erie water into salty New York Harbor. This “Wedding of the Waters” symbolized his confidence that “the great ditch” would enrich America. The invitation and medals here celebrate the promise of the canal.


Canal Carriers

Canal boats needed jars, jugs, crocks, and pots for the food, drink, and other perishable cargo they carried. Almost overnight, potteries sprang up in canal towns to turn out practical stoneware. Each piece was made distinctive by its glaze, decoration, and shape, and proudly stamped with the name and city of the potter, some of whom were immigrants. These examples date from the early years of the Erie Canal.

Fish and beehive cooler

Moses Tyler, Albany, New York, pottery, 1822

Flower jar

David Roberts, Utica, New York, pottery, 1829

Goddess water cooler

A. Drown, Troy, New York, pottery, 1832

View object record

Butter crock

John Burger, Rochester, New York, pottery, 1850s

View object record

Sailing ship jar

Calvin Boynton, Troy, New York, pottery, 1826

Bird jug

Israel Seymour, Troy, New York, pottery, 1829


Seymour advertisement and price list, 1827

Courtesy of the McLallen Family Papers, Helen M. McLallen