Daring to Do Mighty Things: New York and the Ideas that Changed the World
Governor Clinton Portrait-Courtesy of the New York State Museum

Many of the earliest explorers to the New World came here looking for an East-West water passage. Many viewed this as the key to expanded trade opportunities and economic growth. As we know today, there is no natural East-West water passage across North America. However, that did not stop a group of New Yorkers, including DeWitt Clinton, from imagining how important such a pathway would be to New York is one existed here.

Clinton realized that a canal connecting the Great Lakes to the Hudson River would drive trade higher, secure New York City as the international trading center in the United States, help spur development along the canal route and develop “frontier” areas like Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. While still Lieutenant Governor, Clinton actively campaigned the legislature to form a Canal Commission, whose mission would be to consider routes, costs and financing. After the federal government refused to help fund the project, then Governor Clinton pushed for the legislature to authorize the sale of bonds to finance the Canal’s construction. The bonds were especially successful on the international market, attracting millions of investment from Europe. English bankers felt so confident in the success of the project that the Times of London predicted that the Erie Canal would make New York City, “the London of the New World.”

Schenectady was a pre-colonial home to Native Americans. In the 19th century, Schenectady became one of America’s leading industrial cities. Old Mohawk Covered Bridge by W.H. Yates - Oil on Canvas, ca. 1870

By employing design-build principles, the 360 mile long canal was completed in eight years, two years ahead of schedule and under budget. The State’s daring investment began paying off immediately. Within a year, 42 barges a day were passing through Utica on their way to New York City. Within three years of the Canal’s opening the value of the freight passing through it to New York City was valued at $15 million a year. Tolls collected from the Canal during its first 15 years were enough to pay off the bonds and subsidize the construction of another 600 miles of canals. Finally, one of the most important benefits of the Canal, was the 90% drop in price for shipping freight.

The Erie Canal was not the first canal ever constructed. However, its size and ambitious scope captured the attention of the world. Clinton’s “big ditch” became a model government funded internal improvements that helped shape the American west, gave rise to the political party of Henry Clay, William Seward and Abraham Lincoln and, made New York the center of international finance.

Plan for the Erie Canal Locks in Lockport, Courtesy of the NYS Archives
General plan for Pier at the head of the locks, Courtesy of the NYS Archives
Grand Celebration-Geneva’s celebration of the opening of the Erie Canal, Courtesy of the New York State Archives
Valuable Lands-Advertisement for lands along the route of the Erie Canal, Courtesy of the New York State Archives

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