Two Hundred Years on the Erie Canal

Two Hundred Years on the Erie Canal


This 1927 mural of the opening of the Erie Canal in October 1825 was painted by Raphael Beck of Lockport, New York. Courtesy of Niagara County Historical Society via Western New York Library Resources Council and Empire State Digital Network.

In This Exhibition

In estimating the benefits of those immense public works, that will change the internal relations of a great country, and create a new era in the history of her trade, agriculture and manufactures, much must be left for time and experience to reveal…

—New York Corresponding Association for the Promotion of Internal Improvements, 1821

The Erie Canal is one of the most famous man-made bodies of water in the world. Designed, financed, built, operated, and maintained by the people of New York, the canal was one of the largest public works projects ever attempted anywhere in the world when the first shovel of earth was turned near Rome, New York, on July 4, 1817. Men with talent and vision (but little training in engineering) charted the 363-mile course of the canal between Albany and Buffalo. They designed stone aqueducts to carry boats across rivers and locks to lift them over New York’s varied terrain. Thousands of laborers dug the ditch itself and built massive reservoirs to ensure the canal was constantly supplied with water. When it was completed in 1825, the Erie Canal connected the port of New York City on the Atlantic Ocean with the Great Lakes, dramatically transforming trade, industry, and communication in the region and across the country.

The Erie Canal was so successful that it was enlarged three times to accommodate more traffic and increasingly larger vessels. Great cities and commerce grew along the Erie Canal. Diverse people traveled east and west across its length, some spreading powerful ideas for social change. In the mid-twentieth century, canal traffic began to decline, and the famous waterway momentarily faded from public use, only to reemerge today as a vehicle for heritage tourism, recreation, and education.

Credit: This exhibition was curated by Heidi Ziemer and Dan Ward of Western New York Library Resources Council, in partnership with Empire State Digital Network with funding from Humanities New York. Exhibition materials contributed by Empire State Digital Network, The New York Public Library, David Rumsey, Digital Commonwealth, HathiTrust, Illinois Digital Heritage Hub, Indiana Memory, Library of Congress, Minnesota Digital Library, Missouri Hub, Mountain West Digital Library, Recollection Wisconsin, and Smithsonian Institution.