Erie Canal


The Erie Canal was an engineering marvel that altered the course of the early history of the United States. The Canal, once though an impossible task, changed the economic profile of the country and provided a major catalyst for American’s industrialization and growth. The Canal’s story is tapestry of backroom political dealings, surging boomtowns, and surveyors who had never worked a canal completing a once-in-a-generation project. Join Active Minds as we discuss one of the most influential and impressive feats of civil engineering in American history.

Key Lecture Points

  • Begun over 200 years ago, the construction of the Erie Canal was a crucial early step in the development of the United States.  In the aftermath of the War of 1812, the US consolidated control over the southern Great Lakes region, but lacked an efficient way to link the resources of the North West with the population centers of the Atlantic coast.
  • Once completed in 1825, the canal ran 363 miles from Buffalo in the west to Albany in the east, thus connecting Lake Erie with the Hudson River and thus to the Atlantic port of New York City.  Like canals built before it in England, the Erie Canal was particularly important in getting the bulk fuel of the machine age, coal, to the burgeoning industrial centers of the US.
  • Financed by the state of New York, rather than the skeptical federal government, the canal shot New York City to national prominence, adding millions of dollars to the city’s economy and making it an economic powerhouse.  Additionally, much of the industry and population centers of New York State developed along the canal route.  Cities like Rochester and Syracuse helped make New York the most populous state in the country for more than a century.
  • The Erie Canal was a stunning engineering achievement and was the longest transportation network in North American when it was completed. It crossed forests, swamps, and rock cliffs on its way from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. The Canal was such an ambitious project that many contemporaries thought it was an impossibility.
  • The Canal has long since ceased to be the economic engine it once was. Today, the Canal functions primarily as a tourist destination and a symbol of a bygone era.

Exploration Questions

  • What do you think was the most significant impact of the Erie Canal?
  • Where do you rank the Canal compared to other engineering accomplishments in American history, such as the Interstate System or the Transcontinental Railroad?

Reflective Questions

  • Have you seen or travelled on the Erie Canal? What was your experience?
  • Is there a contemporary infrastructure on the scale of the Erie Canal that you would like to see completed today?

More to Explore

  • Official Erie Canal website Click here
  • Historic overview of the Canal and its construction Click here
  • Erie Canal National Heritage corridor website Click here

Books For Further Reading

  • Bernstein, Peter L. Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation. August 2010. W.W. Norton and Co. 464 Pages. Best-selling author Peter Bernstein presents the story of the canal's construction against the larger tableau of America in the first quarter-century of the 1800s. Examining the social, political, and economic ramifications of this mammoth project, Bernstein demonstrates how the canal's creation helped prevent the dismemberment of the American empire and knit the sinews of the American industrial revolution.
    Click here to order
  • Stefoff, Rebecca. Building the Erie Canal. December 2017. Cavendish Square Publishing. 32 Pages. A brief description of the construction of the canal with a focus on the engineering aspect of the project. The author specializes in geography and biology, and the book provides one of the more extensive descriptions of the logistics of constructing the canal.
    Click here to order