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Erie Canal

Length: 360 miles (579 kilometers)

The Erie Canal is an artificial waterway from Tonawanda on Lake Erie to Cohoes on the Hudson River
in New York. Locks were built to overcome the 571 foot difference between the level of the river and that of Lake Erie. The New York State Barge Canal follows part of the Erie Canal’s course. After the American Revolution, the need for an all-American water route between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic coast was evident. Political unity, easy and inexpensive transportation, and increased trade (free from Canadain competition) were the anticipated benefits of such a route. Several land surveys for a canal followed, and by 1810, the issue was paramount in the New York state legislature, where De Witt Clinton lent his political support. A canal commission was formed by the legislature, recommended (1811) an Erie rather than an Ontario canal. The canal bill, drawn up by Clinton in 1815, was debated in the legislature (1816–1817), with New York City and the Lake Ontario interests opposing it vigorously. Although a presidential veto of a national waterway project forced the proposed canal’s financial burden onto New York State, the canal bill passed the state legislature in April 1817. Many of the workers on the canal were European immigrants. The canal’s course was entirely enclosed; streams and lakes were not incorporated into the waterway. The Erie Canal’s middle section (Utica to Salina) was completed 1820; its east section through the Mohawk River Valley was finished in 1823. The canal was opened in 1825 and was heralded as the “Eith Wonder of the World”; Clinton and other notables sailed from Buffalo to New York City, where Clinton emptied a barrel of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic Ocean. The canal was enlarged beginning in 1835; its most important branches, the Champlain (opened 1819), the Oswego (1828), and the Cayuga and Seneca (1829), were also enlarged. Railroad competition, beginning in the 1850s eventually destroyed the canal’s long-haul advantages; however, for many years the Erie Canal was a profitable route, amassing income from tolls. The tolls were abolished in 1882 because of the canal’s state of disrepair and in order to lure more traffic. Although some improvements in the canal were made (1884–1894), its inadequate navigability, the competition of Canadian routes, and the disclosure of fraudulent canal administration (the “Canal Ring”) brought about plans for its complete renovation and subsequent conversion (1904–1918) into a large, modern barge canal. By the 1970s a large amount of tonnage was still being shipped across the waterway. The Erie Canal contributed to New Your City's financial development, opened eastern markets to Midwest farm products and encouraged immigration to that region, and helped to create numerous large cities (including Buffalo, Rochester, Utica, and Syracuse), making New York a United States commercial center in mid–19th century. Its initial success started a wave of canal building in the United States. The present commercial usage of the canal is 500,000 tons per year, and all of that is between three rivers (named for the confluence of the canalized Oneida, Seneca, and Oswego rivers, north-northwest of Syracuse) and Albany. There are many problems with the canal, including high maintenance costs, antiquated systems, and the shortness of the season. To address these problems, New York State Thruway Authority’s Canal Recreation Commission was created in 1992 to control the management of the canal. A possible option is to turn it into a recreational waterway.