Effect of the Erie Canal

You may not realize what new technology, method of transportation, invention or new social idea could have had a direct effect on any of your ancestors. An example would be the invention and expansion of the American railroad system. That could have served as the very reason an ancestor decided to travel to a new region in America because train travel became very good.

There is another earlier innovation that could have directly affected for decades your ancestors especially those in the northeast section of the nation. That was the construction of the Erie Canal.

It was started in July 1817 and would eventually make travel between Albany, NY and Buffalo, NY (alongside the Great Lakes) much easier, faster and less expensive. Travel for that distance using wagons and horses or stagecoach took 2 weeks. After the completion of the Erie Canal in October 1825 that same trip was done in 5 days and cost 90% less.

The proposed canal was the idea of the NY Governor then – DeWitt Clinton and many people saw it as a very foolish idea. Even Thomas Jefferson stated “Talk of making a canal 350 miles through wilderness is little short of madness.” Clinton had the NY legislature fund the project at a cost of $7 million and the money repaid with tolls paid to use the canal.

It was not an easy task, since it was not level terrain but over rough land, through forests and swamps and needed 83 locks to go across this interior of New York. Most of the work was done by manual labor, mainly immigrants. It became the longest artificial waterway in North America.

The Erie Canal proved to be a wonderful form of transportation not just for people but for all types of raw materials and finished products to travel from NYC to the developing mid-west territories and later states. The earlier boats on the canal were pulled by mules who walked along the outer banks of the canal. Once steam engines were added to boats, the mules were not needed.

If you had immigrant ancestors in the first half of the 1800s they may have gone to the mid-west region along the Great Lakes and traveled via the canal.

Those who lost their homelands were the Iroquois Indians of New York. They were forced to move during the ‘Indian removal’ policies of the early 1800s.

A new development was canal towns along the 363 miles of the canal. Here is where you can really check to see if you had ancestors from any such towns along the canal. Between 1836 and 1862 the canal was widened and made deeper.

With the Erie’s success other canals were constructed in needed locations.

However. with more travel on small boats on the canal and especially new immigrants, major epidemics could spread easier. There was the first cholera epidemic in North America after immigrants on ships from Europe in 1832 then traveled the canal and rapidly spread the disease. The smallpox epidemic happened the same way.

Yet, overall, the Erie Canal was a major success story and one that truly had an effort on thousands of Americans. What is even more interesting the canal is still used today, mostly for transport of products, not as much as was done in the 1800s, but quite a bit.

Check where your ancestor lived, if along that region, their lives were directly affected by this great canal.

Photos: Erie Canal boat pulled by animals in 1830s; Map of the Erie Canal and Erie steam canal boat towing barge-1880.

Related FamilyTree.com Blogs:

1850 Travel

Head West Young Man

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