The Rise of American Industry

25a. The Canal Era

The Georgetown
Tourist boats like the Georgetown still run on sections of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in Washington, D.C.

Ever since the days of Jamestown and Plymouth, America was moving West. Trail blazers had first hewn their way on foot and by horseback. Homesteaders followed by wagon and by either keelboat or bargeboat, bringing their possessions with them. Yet, real growth in the movement of people and goods west started with the canal.

For over a hundred years, people had dreamed of building a canal across New York that would connect the Great Lakes to the Hudson River to New York City and the Atlantic Ocean. After unsuccessfully seeking federal government assistance, DeWitt Clinton successfully petitioned the New York State legislature to build the canal and bring that dream to reality. "Clinton's Ditch," his critics called it.

Manayunk Canal
Canals like this one meandered across the Pennsylvania landscape in the 1800s. Some, like this one in the Manayunk section of Philadelphia, were operational into the 20th century.

Construction began in 1817 and was completed in 1825. The canal spanned 350 miles between the Great Lakes and the Hudson River and was an immediate success. Between its completion and its closure in 1882, it returned over $121 million in revenues on an original cost of $7 million. Its success led to the great Canal Age. By bringing the Great Lakes within reach of a metropolitan market, the Erie Canal opened up the unsettled northern regions of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. It also fostered the development of many small industrial companies, whose products were used in the construction and operation of the canal.

New York City became the principal gateway to the West and financial center for the nation. The Erie Canal was also in part responsible for the creation of strong bonds between the new western territories and the northern states. Soon the flat lands of the west would be converted into large-scale grain farming. The Canal enabled the farmers to send their goods to New England. Subsistence farmers in the north were now less necessary. Many farmers left for jobs in the factories. The Erie Canal transformed America.

Lockport, Erie Canal
American Studies, University of Virginia
Locks like this one on the Erie Canal made it possible to connect the Hudson River and Lake Erie despite their 571-foot difference in height.

Pennsylvanians were shocked to find that the cheapest route to Pittsburgh was by way of New York City, up the Hudson River, across New York by the Erie Canal to the Great Lakes — with a short overland trip to Pittsburgh. When it became evident that little help for state improvements could be expected from the federal government, other states followed New York in constructing canals. Ohio built a canal in 1834 to link the Great Lakes with the Mississippi Valley. As a result of Ohio's investment, Cleveland rose from a frontier village to a Great Lakes port by 1850. Cincinnati could now send food products down the Ohio and Mississippi by flatboat and steamboat and ship flour by canal boat to New York.

The state of Pennsylvania then put through a great portage canal system to Pittsburgh. It used a series of inclined planes and stationary steam engines to transport canal boats up and over the Alleghenies on rails. At its peak, Pennsylvania had almost a thousand miles of canals in operation. By the 1830s, the country had a complete water route from New York City to New Orleans. By 1840, over 3,000 miles of canals had been built. Yet, within twenty years a new mode of transportation, the railroad, would render most of them unprofitable.

On the Web
C&O Canal National Historical Park
George Washington himself supervised the construction of a canal on the Potomac River. He died before the project was completed, but eventually his dream came to life as the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal joined Washington, DC, to coal-rich Cumberland, MD. Today the entire 185-mile stretch is a National Historic Park. This website tells about the canal's history from Washington's early surveys through the 1900's.
Early American Canals
Filled with images of the canals and the personalities that surrounded their construction, this University of Virginia website is a treasure trove of infomation about America's first canals. This site answers questions about how the canals were built, who paid for them, and the lives of canal workers and travellers. This account of America's earliest canals is filled with the kind of details that make readers want more.
History of the Erie Canal
This history of the Erie Canal, prepared by the University of Rochester, offers a map of the canal system in 1868, a chart showing the "evolution" of boats, and a timeline. The website might not look like much, but click on "Bibliograhy" to find histories of U.S. canals written in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They include online copies of works on the Erie Canal and a collection of writings from DeWitt Clinton himself. This is a great research tool for students, although the pages are very plain and not illustrated.
Letter from Robert Fulton to George Washington
Robert Fulton, the steamboat inventor, sent George Washington a copy of his "Treatise on Canal Navigation." Then he followed up with this letter recommending a canal linking Lake Erie to Philadelphia.
Schuylkill Canal
Trace the rise and demise of Philadelphia's foremost canal. The Schuylkill Canal provided Philadelphia with access to the coal-mining regions of the Alleghenies.
New York State Canals
Thinking about a trip down the Erie Canal? How about one of the other three big canals in New York? Visit this New York State website to see how the canals operate today, and get information about business and tourism on the waterway.
Bumping ships so close to each other the passengers could shake hands... see one first-hand account of a steamboat race on the canals.
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