Necessity is the mother of invention. There is no better way to describe the evolution of the Erie Canal. New York State was no stranger to canal systems, but no waterway was available to alleviate the high cost of shipping goods west from Albany. Tran sshipment of freight between Buffalo and Albany during the first few years of the 1800's was a very dangerous and costly affair. The primitive water systems that existed were usually dry for the most part, and shipping goods over land was almost an imposs ibility. There were no roads as we know them today.
An enterprising man by the name of Jesse Hawley, in the fall of 1807, published a number of communications in which he advocated with great ability and force the construction of a canal from Buffalo to Utica, and proposed very nearly the route occupied by the Erie Canal once it was finally completed. In the New York State Legislative session of 1808, Joshua Forman, and Assemblyman from Onondaga County, proposed that a survey be made "of the most eligible and direct route of the canal, to open a commu nication between the tidewaters of the Hudson River and Lake Erie."
The resolution was adopted, and $600 appropriated to make the survey. In the summer of 1810, the surveyors made their first report to the legislature. On its receipt, Governor Dewitt Clinton brought in a bill, which was passed on April 8, 1811. This wa s the first law passed on the subject of the great canals which would make the State of New York an empire.
By 1815, petitions from all over New York State were being collected by the Legislature to begin work on this canal as soon as possible. The actual digging process began on July 4, 1817 on the section between Rome and Utica, and on October 29, 1819, th e first boat moved on the canal and the state began collecting tolls.
To Dewitt Clinton, more than any other man, belongs the credit of having brought the subject forward, and of having pushed it to completion. In 1810 he seems to have grasped the whole subject of the Erie Canal, and immediately began the advocacy of th ose political doctrines which were afterward known as the "canal policy." Clinton's intense involvement with the Erie Canal led to it being given several nicknames including "Clinton's Folly", and "Clinton's Ditch". On August 9, 1823, the digging of the Erie Canal began at Buffalo.
The diggers, most Irish immigrants, had to rely on primitive tools and muddy working conditions that constantly hampered their progress. Teams of oxen were used to plow the ground, but for the most part the digging was done by shovels and "Irish Backs" . All along the line of diggers, barrels of whiskey were placed as encouragement for the workers. The average pay for each of the men was ten dollars a month plus plenty of drink.
As the work progressed, problems arose concerning how to keep the canal filled with water once it was completed. If we go back a bit, you can remember the bitter struggle that Buffalo had with Black Rock over which of the two villages would have the ca nal terminate within their gates. Contrary to legend, Buffalo was always considered for that distinction due to its proximity to Lake Erie. Buffalo was on higher ground than Black Rock and therefore would have a much better advantage for keeping the water flowing into the canal. Black Rock had a problem with a natural land bank that kept the water from flowing as freely as the canal developers would have wanted.
To help with the problem of keeping the canal filled, a system of feeders were developed that brought water from neighboring creeks and lakes. In order to make these feeders even more useful, they were made wide enough to serve as branch canals and acc ommodate the width of canal boats. When completed, the entire Erie Canal system was well over a thousand miles in overall length.
After more than two years of digging, on October 26, 1825 -- the most important date in Buffalo's history -- the Erie Canal opened.
Governor Dewitt Clinton led a parade of almost everyone in Buffalo to the head of the Canal, where a flotilla of canal boats waited. After the obligatory long speeches, Clinton and Judge Samuel Wilkeson boarded the SENECA CHIEF, and four gray horses st arted pulling it along the towpath.
Suddenly, the roar of 1812 canons was heard reverberating across the land. The canons were placed along the banks of the canal from Buffalo to New York City and within earshot of each other. When the SENECA CHIEF got underway, a signal was sent to th e first canon that, when fired, was heard by the second canon and so on. This form of telegraphy relayed the word that Erie Canal was officially opened to New York City in just 81 minutes and was the fastest communication of news the world had ever known .
Dewitt Clinton carried with him on board the SENECA CHIEF two symbolic kegs of Lake Erie water that he planned to pour into the Atlantic Ocean. The same would happen when the SENECA CHIEF sailed back to Buffalo -- kegs of Atlantic Ocean water would be poured into Lake Erie. As he poured the ceremonial water into the Atlantic, Clinton spoke these words, "This solemnity, at this place, on the first arrival of vessels from Lake Erie, is intended to indicate and commemorate the navigable communication, whi ch has been accomplished between our Mediterranean Seas and the Atlantic Ocean, in about eight years, to the extent of more than 425 miles, by the wisdom, public spirit, and energy of the people of the State of New York; and may the God of the Heavens and the Earth smile most propitiously on this work, and render it subservient to the best interests of the human race."
The Erie Canal, when completed, was 425 miles long, 40 feet wide, and only 4 feet deep on the average. This meant that any craft that traversed the canal had to be of special construction. Canal boats were small craft when the canal first opened, havin g a capacity of only 90 tons. They were of two kinds, the regular "packets" for passengers, and the "line boats" for freight and passengers.
Companies were formed which owned horses and mules, and the owners of the boats in most cases paid the owners of the animals for towing them from station to station, at each of which a tired team was exchang ed for a fresh one.
The packet-boat was usually pulled by three horses which, when towing the boat, were invariably on a trot except when approaching or leaving a lock. Flour was the principle article of freight carried by the line-boats, the capacity of each boat being roughly 150 barrels. The passenger fare was four cents a mile, for which good provisions and comfortable lodgings were provided. First-class passage from New York to Albany was four dollars, and from Albany to Buffalo fourteen dollars. A passenger taking the best steamboat on the Hudson, and the regular packet on the Erie Canal, accomplished the journey in about six days. Slow, you may think, by today's standards. But compared to the same journey taking over two weeks by stage coach, the Erie Canal was a vast improvement in time and comfort.
On the day the Erie Canal opened, commerce on the canal began almost immediately after the opening ceremonies. Lumber shipments would head east and grain would soon follow. A tide of immigration would follow the canal westward, opening new settlements and new markets that would increase the trade by leaps and bounds; wheat shipments from the west would go up to 3,640 barrels in 1829 to over a million by 1841. Buffalo would go from a small village of 2,492 people to 8,653 people in five years. By 1840, the population of Buffalo was 18,213.
On November 25, 1825, the SENECA CHIEF arrived back in Buffalo and was towed into the new Buffalo Harbor by Samuel Wilkeson. There were more festivities and more cannon salutes across an area that at one time had been a vast wasteland of swamps and fla t lands. Very soon, this entire landscape would be transformed into an area unlike any other in the world. No one could guess back in 1825 that an entire community would develop on the city's waterfront that would be as infamous as the one that sprang up as a result of the canal trade. Buffalo was at the brink of destiny. The city would never be the same.