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Much of upstate New York is still rural, but the majority of cities and towns there have one thing in common: they are located within 25 miles of the Erie Canal. When originally completed in 1825, the canal ran 363 miles between the Hudson River in Albany to the Niagara River and Lake Erie in Buffalo, New York. The canal was originally 40 feet wide and only 4 feet deep, with a wide towpath flanking the canal. Most of the barges used for transportation on the canal were pulled by teams of horses along this path. The Erie was and remains an engineering marvel and is still the longest man-made waterway ever built in the United States. Its completion brought an influx of new settlers to the areas through which it traveled and, thanks to a restoration that was completed on 3 September 1999, it is still in use by New York State residents today.
The “Mother of Cities” in the Empire State
The Erie Canal is still considered a triumph of engineering, traveling as it does through forests, cities, and over mountains. The canal lifts its boats over 600 feet between Lake Erie and the Hudson River, which required the design and construction of over fifty locks. Its success is even more notable considering that, at the time of its construction, the United States did not have a single school of engineering in the country. The project was conceived, planned, and carried out by amateur Americans, as no trained European engineers were willing to take the job. Ultimately, the eight years of canal design and construction created what was, in effect, the nation’s first professional engineering training program. By the end of its construction both the engineers and laborers on the canal had become world-class experts in their field.
The idea for the canal was first proposed in a series of pamphlets written from debtor’s prison. John Hawley was a flour merchant who had gone bankrupt trying to facilitate the sale of upstate New York grain and flour to coastal buyers. Wheat was a high-yield, low-price commodity whose minimal profit margin was erased by the exorbitant cost of getting the product to market across the rugged terrain. Extolling the financial benefits to western New York State, Hawley and other supporters (mostly land developers in western New York) lobbied New York Governor DeWitt Clinton, who liked the idea and made the canal central to his next political campaign.
Most people thought it could never be done. Referred to as “Clinton’s Folly” in the press and “little short of madness” by Thomas Jefferson, Clinton persisted and, after reelection, came up with a plan to cover the $7 million cost of construction. Utilizing a relatively rare business structure at the time, the corporation, the New York State Legislature approved the incorporation of the Inland Lock Navigation Companies and their ability to sell public bonds to finance the canal.
The chief engineer was Judge Benjamin Wright, known today as the “Father of American Civil Engineering.” 46 years old at the time, he assembled a group of the most experienced men he could find. He hired the 26-year-old Canvass Wright, a New York native who traveled to England to study their state-of-the-art canal system. Wright returned to the United States with firsthand knowledge of England’s lock construction, as well as with specialized tools and surveying instruments. Wright had also learned that the English lined their canals with concrete and stone. The exact formulation could only be replicated in the United States at a punitive cost, so Wright then set about trying to create a substitute. In the meantime, in 1817, workers began digging a channel.
Ultimately Wright’s research led him to the discovery of New York limestone that, after some development, resulted in the world’s first waterproof cement (still known today at Rosendale cement, after the site in New York State where it was first created). Wright’s cement was not only cheaper than the British materials but also much stronger. This innovation made the Erie Canal possible; 500,000 bushels of the material were used in the construction.
As with so many significant achievements in American history, the work of immigrants and Black Americans made the Erie Canal possible. The influx of Irish and, to a lesser extent, German immigrants in the mid-1800s, along with native-born Black Americans, provided a workforce willing to perform the hard labor and accept the low pay that established White Americans would not do. For around $14 a month the laborers felled trees, removed stumps and boulders, dug the canal bed by hand, and utilized dangerous black powder explosive (dynamite was not invented until 1869) to get the job done.
On 26 October 1825, the Erie Canal was officially opened for business. Governor Clinton poured a ceremonial barrel of Lake Erie water into the Hudson River to christen the new waterway, marking the “Wedding of the Waters.” The canal was an instant success. Suddenly the cost of shipping dropped by 90 percent compared to ox-driven wagon transport and the time to ship products from Albany to Buffalo fell from two weeks to five days. Yet the canal was not only used for shipping. Tourism became a legitimate industry along the route and the northmost sections of the canal were sometimes utilized as one of the final legs of the Underground Railroad as it aimed towards Canada. Users of the canal paid tolls at each lock and the revenue from these fees repaid the cost of construction before the first year was over.
Now it was New York City, not Philadelphia, that became the country’s preeminent transport hub between the Atlantic Ocean and the new territories opening up in the west. The era of the Erie Canal’s greatest use was the 1850s. By the 1890s the proliferation of railroads across the country bumped the canal from its power position, but it remained in regular use until World War II. A period of sharp decline followed.
In the 1990s a movement to restore the Erie Canal gained momentum. Promoting it as a tourist and recreation attraction, in 1999 the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor was created by an act of the U.S. Congress, opening 524 miles of restored waterways and towpaths (now walkways and bike paths) between Buffalo, Albany, and Whitehall. Over 200 communities line the banks of the canal, reflecting its nickname as the “Mother of Cities.”
Although it was designed and built by untrained laborers, the Erie Canal remains a modern marvel responsible for creating the empire behind the “Empire State.” In continuous operation since 1825, the Erie Canal is still the longest constructed transportation system in the United States.
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Canal Records at the New York State Archives
The Erie Canal opened up the opportunity to connect and settle rural central and western New York and beyond and played a large role in expanding the world for our ancestors of the time.
Often, researchers first want to know if there are passenger lists for the Erie Canal, and the answer is very few. Each month for three years between 1827 and 1829 masters of the boats traversing the canal were required to submit passenger lists for the purpose of taxation. These lists provided the name of the boat, passenger names, date of travel and distance travelled. These lists can be viewed at the New York State Archives, as part of the records of the Comptroller’s Office – Other Canal Records, A1057. Within the New York State Archives collection are also a few account books of individual steamboats, such as the Red Jacket, which contain lists of passengers travelling between Buffalo and Niagara Falls between June and September 1838 (Comptroller’s Office – Other Canal Records, A1079). Passengers, according to an 1817 law, were levied a tax of one dollar for trips over 100 miles and of fifty cents for trips between 30 and 100 miles, which were then deposited into the Canal Fund, but passengers were primarily recorded in quantities and not by name.
So what canal records are available? The New York State Archives has a large collection, which holds all of the State of New York’s records for the building of the canal which include the original surveys and maps, correspondence, account books and ledgers. This rich collection has been compiled into a 123-page guide entitledThe Mighty Chain: A Guide to Canal Records in the New York State Archives.
Records of genealogical pertinence may include some of the following microfilms:
Workers – You may find the names of ancestors who were later laborers on the canal on the microfilm entitled “Abstracts, check rolls, and vouchers for canal expenditures, 1827-1880” (Comptroller’s Office – Other Canal Records, microfilm A0013). Check rolls were submitted monthly or bi-monthly by the foreman of a particular project and included the name of the laborer, the days worked and their wage information as well as a description of the work of the project. Similar records may be found on Microfilm A1267, “Accounts of monies paid to contractors and others for construction, repair, and enlargement of Erie and Champlain canals, 1817-1871.” Additionally, microfilm A1143 contains the “Lists of appointments of assistant engineers and other employees, 1851-1900.”
Land Records – Aside from records for canal workers, one of the most important record sets are the land records for lands appropriated for canal use and eventual expansion. Additionally, land within 25 miles of the canal was taxed with the money going into the Canal Fund (operating expenses). While you may see evidence of how the canal affected your ancestors through land deeds or tax records in the town or county in which they lived, there are also specific state records which could provide more information including microfilm 1277, “Notices of service upon owners of lands appropriated for the Barge Canal, 1909-1916,” or microfilm B0293, “Index to canal structure maps and plan books, ca. 1834-1905,” which contains cards with the name of the person from whom land was appropriated, the number of acres and location.
Canal Appraisers, later called the Board of Claims and the Court of Claims, were authorized to determine if property owners were to be financially compensated for property damage due to construction of the canal. Some of these records may be found in microfilm A1439, “Lists of awards made by the Board of Claims, 1892-1894,” as well as microfilms A1440 and A1441 which contain correspondence and documentation of claims from 1830 to 1880.
Photographs and Scrapbooks – The New York State Archives’ Digital Collections contains nearly 1,400 photographs of various locations along the canal. These are viewable by entering “Erie Canal” into the search bar of the digital collections page. The microfilm collection also contains scrapbooks of newspaper clippings, articles, programs and photographs. These include microfilms B0208, “Scrapbook regarding the Barge Canal, 1929-1932,” and A1272, “Scrapbook of photographs and diagrams of canal, highway, and watershed construction, 1898-1907.” These photographs and ephemera of the time can help to bring wonderful context to the record of your family history.
If you are looking for a place to visit for a more hands-on experience,The Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse, New York is filled with the history and artifacts of the building, expansion and maintenance of the canal system. The museum also has their own collections of Canal records available to view onsite with an appointment or through their digitization efforts atNew York Heritage Digital Collections.
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New York State Canal Commissioners, “The official reports of the Canal Commissioners of the state of New York, and the acts of the Legislature respecting navigable communications between the great western and northern lakes and the Atlantic ocean; with perspicuous maps and profiles. Published at the request of the Board of Canal Commissioners,” (New York: T W Mercein, printers, 1817), 12; digital images, Linda Hall Library, History of Science Collection (https://catalog.lindahall.org : accessed 1 September 2021).
Sam Roberts, The New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/ : accessed 1 September 2021), “200 Years Ago, Erie Canal Got Its Start as Just a ‘Ditch.’”
Joseph Berger, The New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/ : accessed 1 September 2021), “Major Restoration Is Planned for Erie Canal.”
W.B. Langbein, USGS (https://pubs.usgs.gov/] : accessed 1 September 2021), digital image file, Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper 2038, “Hydrology and Environmental Aspects of Erie Canal (1817-99).”
Erie Canal National Heritage Center (https://eriecanalway.org/l : accessed 1 September 2021), “A National Treasure.”
Dan McCain, Wabash & Erie Canal, Delphi Indiana (https://wabashanderiecanal.org/ : accessed 1 September 2021), “Restoring the Canal.”
National Park Service (https://www.nps.gov/ : accessed 1 September 2021), “Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor.”
Richard G. Weingardt, ASCE Library (https://ascelibrary.org/ : accessed 1 September 2021), “Canvass White: Pioneering Canal Engineer and Originator of American Cement.”
Greg Rosalsky NPR (https://www.npr.org/ : accessed 1 September 2021), “The Erie Canal As A Model Of How To Build Big Projects Again.”
Bill Merchant, The Erie Canal Museum (https://eriecanalmuseum.org/ : accessed 1 September 2021), “Immigrants and the D&H Canal.”
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, digital images, Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 1 September 2021), digital image from original b&w photographic print, “The first boat on the Erie Canal: [Gov. DeWitt Clinton and guests]” ca. 1905, Digital ID: cph.3b27587.
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, digital images, Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 1 September 2021), digital image from original b&w photographic print, “Erie Canal at Salina Street, Syracuse, N.Y.” 1904, Detroit Photographic Company, Digital ID: det.4a12105.
Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Erie-canal 1840 map.jpg : 1 September 2021), digital image of original ca. 1840 map, “File:Erie-canal 1840 map.jpg;” photograph uploaded by user Nconwaymicelli.
New York State Archives (http://archives.nysed.gov : accessed 1 September 2021), publication FA05 “The Mighty Chain: A Guide to Canal Records in the New York State Archives.”
The Erie Canal Museum (http://eriecanalmuseum.org : accessed 1 September 2021), “Erie Canal Museum Collections.”
FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org), "Erie Canal," rev. 19:10, 18 May 2020.