A few days after the first shovel was thrust into the central New York state dirt on July 4, 1817, to ceremoniously begin the building of the Erie Canal, the real work got started.
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A few dozen workers supplied with nothing more than shovels and draft animals started digging in both directions in Rome. One crew headed west toward Buffalo, and another started digging east toward Albany. By the time the 363-mile waterway was fully opened in the fall of 1825, thousands of people had labored on what was considered the greatest engineering feat of the era — and one that would change history.
"It opens America to the Midwest, all the natural resources out there and in western New York as well," said Brad Utter, a senior historian and curator at the New York State Museum in Albany. "You now have the ability to migrate to those areas fairly cheaply. And the canal really opened up markets and avenues of commerce and everything that followed."
Talk of building a canal linking the Hudson River to the Great Lakes had been around since the 18th century. It wasn't until the early 1800s that a serious effort was made in Albany to raise the money for the project. With their request for federal funding rejected by then-President Thomas Jefferson, the plan's backers found an influential supporter in DeWitt Clinton, a former New York City mayor who had served in the New York Legislature and U.S. Senate.
In April 1817, two years after the end of the War of 1812, the Legislature approved $7.1 million for the construction of the Erie Canal. Three months later Clinton became New York governor. By then detractors of the canal idea were already calling the plan Clinton's Ditch.
Surveyors sent into the New York wilderness to plot a route for the waterway faced a daunting task: miles and miles of virgin forest and rattlesnake-infested swamps, plus countless untamed rivers and streams to cross. The work of clearing a path and digging a 4-foot-deep-by-40-foot-wide ditch hundreds of miles long would be done by unskilled workers, many of them Irish or German immigrants, as well as blacks and local farmers.
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"No bulldozers, no excavators. You're basically looking at oxen, horses, shovels and pick axes," said Andrew Wolfe, an interim dean and associate professor of engineering at a New York college.
The canal was started in Rome where the terrain is flat and the soil is sandy. As soon as a section of the canal was finished, it was opened and put to use. The short stretch between Rome and nearby Utica opened first, on Oct. 22, 1819. By the third anniversary of the start of construction, a section from Utica to the Seneca River west of Syracuse was completed.
Other sections followed until the full length of the canal was declared completed on Oct. 26, 1825, when Clinton led a flotilla of boats eastward from the canal's western terminus on Lake Erie at Buffalo to the eastern end at Albany, then south to New York City via the Hudson River.
Nine days later in Manhattan, Clinton poured a keg of Lake Erie water into New York Harbor to symbolize "the wedding of the waters."
The canal's impact was felt nearly immediately. A cross-state journey that could take weeks was now cut to as short as six days. The expense of hauling goods from one end of New York to the other by horse-drawn wagon was cut to a fraction of its earlier cost. The canal connected the crowded Eastern Seaboard to the Midwest, creating markets for various goods and products and opening upstate New York and points farther west for settlement.
New York City grew into the nation's busiest seaport thanks to the canal, while canalside villages in Utica, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo became industrialized cities from the commerce the waterway provided.
The original canal was deepened and widened before the Civil War and enlarged again a century ago, when the Erie and more recently built canals became part of the state's Barge Canal System. The development of railroads in the 19th century and the rise of the automobile industry and the nation's improving road system in the 20th century eventually made the Erie Canal obsolete for hauling all but the largest loads.
Today, the waterway is mostly used by recreational boaters and by tourists who can hike and bicycle along the paved trails running along the canal corridor, where mules plodding along canalside dirt paths once towed cargo- and people-laden boats.