History of the Erie Canal from
The Erie Canal: Exploring New York’s Great Canals
Deborah Williams

October 26, 1825: The moment had arrived at last. It took just a little more than two hours for the successive canon booms to travel from Buffalo to New York City and back again. It was “a grand salute 500 miles long, announcing to the people of the state the completion of the most stupendous undertaking of their time,” wrote state engineer and surveyor Roy G. Finch in a 1925 pamphlet marking the Erie Canal’s 100th anniversary. It took nearly a month for the inaugural flotilla to make the same round-trip passage. Boats and dignitaries were slowed on their incredible journey by elaborate and rousing celebrations all along the route.

    October 26 was the date of the long-awaited ceremony marking the opening of the Erie Canal. An engineering marvel of its time and of all times, the canal was called by some the Eighth Wonder of the World. The 363-mile-long artificial waterway transformed not only New York State but also the young nation. It was the longest canal in the world, passing through rugged wilderness. Its construction posed seemingly impossible engineering challenges but was accomplished largely without professional engineers. Canals deal with changes in elevation by means of a succession of lift locks: the builders of the Erie Canal had to account for the fact that Lake Erie is 568 feet higher than the Hudson River at Albany. Thus the project served as the nation’s first practical school of civil engineering.

    American ingenuity overcame countless other problems—workers had to cut through 300 miles of primeval forest; dig through the Montezuma Swamp in slime up to their chests; construct 83 locks; erect numerous stone aqueducts, including a 1,137-foot-long stone bridge that was the longest stone-arch bridge in the world; and, in the days before dynamite, cut a 30-foot-deep channel through 3 miles of solid rock. All this was accomplished in just 8 years.

    The original canal was a ditch 40 feet wide at the top, 28 feet wide at the bottom, and 4 feet deep. On one side there was a 5-foot-wide berm and on the other side a 12-foot-wide towpath to accommodate mules and horses. These animals were guided by hogges (Scottish for “worker”), typically boys, sometimes as young as 8, and together the teams pulled the boats along the canal’s route.

excerpt from

The Erie Canal: Exploring New York’s Great Canals

Countryman Press


Deborah Williams



© Deborah Williams