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The Erie Canal: a tour

By Kate Pais


Before Bill and Hilary, DeWitt Clinton was one of the most famous Clintons that New York could lay claim to. His legacy, mocked at the time as “DeWitt’s ditch”, is the famous Erie Canal. Connecting New York City to the Great Lakes through Lake Erie, this notable trade route cost seven million dollars and cut the expense of shipping to the Midwest significantly. The path to the canal was not always easy though, as explained in this passage from Evan Cornog’s The Birth of Empire:

A final argument was the role the canal could play in moderating sectionalism, although the sectionalism Clinton had in mind was not between North and South but rather between Atlantic America and the trans-Appalachian country… the future would indeed show, well after DeWitt Clinton was gone, that opening the way west would not only make any East-West sectional rupture unlikely but would firmly bind these states of the Midwest to New York City and other commercial centers of the Northeast, with significant consequences for the Civil War.

The memorial [to petition for the canal] was Clinton’s work, and it made the canal Clinton’s project. The part he took would ultimately bring him considerable distinction, though in the short term it hurt the canal. With Daniel Tompkin’s in the governor’s chair, and James Madison in the White House, Clinton—and with him the canal—had powerful enemies. New York City’s Martling Men were discovering a new and highly effective form of leadership in state politics under the hand of Martin Van Buren. While Clinton and his allies were successful in arousing public enthusiasm for the canal, the political situation in Albany remained less favorable. Tompkins knew that any canal plan would reflect favorably on Clinton; but he also knew that the canal was becoming very popular. Moreover, if Tompkins supported the Ontario route, he would lose support in the west. He did what he could to dodge the dilemma. “It will rest with the Legislature,” he said in his annual address to that body, “whether the prospect of connecting the waters of the Hudson with those of the western lakes and of Champlain is not sufficiently important to demand the appropriation of some part of the revenues of the State to its accomplishment, without imposing too great a burden upon our constitution.” There were also, apart from Tompkins’s waffling and the reluctance of Clinton’s enemies to hand him a victory, some sections of the state that still saw the canal as a threat to their interests…

By the following year, the way was clear for the passage of an act authorizing work on the canal to begin. Daniel Tompkins had been elected vice president and resigned the governorship to take up his duties in Washington. Clinton’s advocacy of the canal had revived his political fortunes and he was soon to win election as Tompkins’s successor.

Clearly, Clinton won his battle and was sworn in as governor of New York in July of 1817 despite the challenges up against him. He was able to oversee the construction of the canal, which opened on this day, 26 December, in 1825.  The lore is that Clinton carried two barrels of water from Lake Erie with him on a ride down to the New York and dumped them in the harbor, not touching land in between. But now that you know the history behind the Erie Canal, it’s only fair if you see it!

I'm from that way, but the fun stuff to see is in the other direction.
I’m from that way, but the fun stuff to see is in the other direction.

On a mini-Thanksgiving road trip, I started about 19 miles west from the most notable pivot point, Albany, with a long way to the other end in Buffalo. The canal as a whole runs 524 miles (843 km) between these two points, linking up with the Hudson to run south to the ocean.

Lucky number 7.
Lucky number 7.

Tricked you by pointing the wrong way- I went west instead to Lock 7. I spent a few moments standing on top of the doors and looking at the dam on the Mohawk River, adjacent to it. The lock is here because the boats can’t handle the drop of the rapids.

Canal Upstream Lock
To the right of the station, you can see if the small falls on the Mohawk next to the comparably quiet water of the lock.

The longest man-made waterway in North America, the Erie Canal has 36 locks to handle the varying heights along the route. While it runs along part of the river, the boats can travel smoothly on the varying terrain by moving in the locks and letting the water rise or drop to bring them to the proper elevation. Lock 7 has a 27 foot height difference.

Canal Lock Doors 2
With water almost to the top of the doors, you can see why the locks are so vital.

In its heyday, the canal was the main form of cargo transportation and lead to a boom of towns in central and western New York, many of which are still the largest centers in New York today. With some twentieth century reconstruction, the canal’s life has been sustained. The canal now draws more recreational traffic, both on the water and in its surrounding parks and annual festivals.

Kate Pais joined Oxford University Press in April 2013. She works as a marketing assistant for the history, religion and theology, and bibles lists.

Evan Cornog was educated at Harvard and Columbia, and has taught American history at Columbia, LaGuardia Community College (CUNY), and Lafayette College. He also worked as Press Secretary for former Mayor Edward I. Koch of New York City. Currently, he is Associate Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. He is the author of The Birth of Empire: DeWitt Clinton and the American Experience, 1769-1828.

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Image credit: All photos by Kate Pais and Jason Brennan, used with permission, 2013.

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