The Erie Canal opened on October 26, 1825, providing overland water transportation between the Hudson River on the east and Lake Erie at the western end. Popularly known as “Clinton’s Folly,” the eight-year construction project was the vision of New York Governor DeWitt Clinton. He convinced the New York State legislature to commit seven million dollars to the construction of a 363-mile ditch, forty feet wide and four feet deep.
On October 26, Governor Clinton and his party boarded the packet boat Seneca Chief , with two wooden barrels of Lake Erie water, to begin the journey from Buffalo to New York City. Eight days later, Clinton ceremoniously emptied the water into the Atlantic Ocean to marry the waters as a symbol of the importance of this canal.
A tremendous success, the waterway accelerated settlement of western New York, Ohio, Indiana, and the upper Midwest including the founding of hundreds of towns such as Clinton, in DeWitt County, Illinois, and DeWitt, in Clinton County, Iowa.
Mr. and Mrs. Barre Stoen were among those who traveled west, via the Erie Canal, to settle in the vicinity of Holmen, Wisconsin. Nearly a century later, fourteen-year-old Melvina Casberg recounted the Stoens’ experience:
I[n] the spring of 1849 Mr. and Mrs. Barre Stoen of Ringsaker a province near Christiania Norway immigrated to America the “Promised Land.”
After a perilous journey of 14 weeks they landed in New York. By means of the Erie Canal and Great Lakes they immediately proceeded to Wisconsin lured by the amazing tales told by those who had journeyed before them. They landed at Milwaukee.
Mr. Stoen purchased a team of oxen and a wagon as the family was to travel farther west. During the day they made slow progress and at night would find a sheltered nook to camp. After travelling in this manner for six weeks they arrived at their destination, weary from fatigue that the rude methods of transportation brought them.
Completion of the Erie Canal also stimulated the growth of New York City. Canal boats facilitated exchange of manufactured goods from the city with agricultural products from the Midwest. A 1903 actuality film from the Thomas Edison film company, Panorama Water Front and Brooklyn Bridge from East River, begins with footage of canal boats from the Erie Canal demonstrating the canal’s continuing commercial importance to the port of New York at the turn of the century.
In fact, the Erie Canal remained vital well into the twentieth century. The New York State Barge Canal, completed between 1903 and 1918, incorporated the canal into a larger system of waterways that included extensions to Lake Ontario, Lake Champlain, Lake Cayuga, and Lake Seneca. Commercial use of the Barge Canal had declined by the 1980s. Since then, it has become a popular venue for pleasure boaters.
- Read more about the Wisconsin village settled by the Stoen family. Search the collection American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 -1940 on the term Long Coulee. This collection includes several narratives recounting the experiences of immigrants who settled in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana in the nineteenth century. To find their stories, browse the title lists for these states, or search the collection on pioneer.
- American Memory has hundreds of pages of text and photographs of man-made waterways in this country and abroad. For example, a search on canal in Detroit Publishing Company yields 333 photographs from this period. Also search the collections with photographs on canal for even more images.
- Numerous broadsides listing toll rates, speeches, newspaper articles, and other ephemeral material is available in An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera.
- An original ink and watercolor drawing of a canal lock between 1852 and 1856 is one of many images of the Erie Canal in the pictorial collections.