The One Minute Geographer: The Amazing Importance of the Erie Canal

Jim Fonseca
4 min readJul 15, 2022
Map of the Erie Canal from localsyr.com

This post is a continuation of the latest series about LINES in US geography. So think of the route of the Erie Canal as a line! I’m focusing this series of posts on the importance of the Erie Canal in US history, geography and even politics. I don’t want to focus on details about its length and depth and all that. You can see all that on Wiki. But we’ll begin with a few basic facts and maps. I’ll number what I think are some of the most important impacts of the construction of the canal. So, here’s the first:

1. The Erie Canal was the first navigable waterway connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes — the first navigable waterway cutting through the Appalachian barrier. If you’ve read earlier posts about the Fall Line and portages you can appreciate how amazing and how important this accomplishment was. It was like finding the Northwest Passage!

Completed in 1825, the Erie Canal runs east and west through upstate New York between the Hudson River and Lake Erie. When built, the 363-mile canal was the second-longest in the world after the Grand Canal in China. Think about that distance for a minute: that’s about the driving distance from Washington DC to Cleveland, OH or, with 20 more miles, the distance from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

The initial canal was 40 feet wide and four feet deep. It was widened and deepened many times, especially from 1905 to 1918 when the New York State Barge Canal was built and re-routed, abandoning more than half of the original route. The modern canal is 120 feet wide and 12 feet deep. It’s amazing to me that this much effort was put into the canal that late since everyone knew the railroads and highways were putting (and had put) canals out of business all over the country. Today the canal carries very little freight and almost all its use is recreational — private boating, tour boats going through the locks, and even some multi-day cruises on luxury barge boats.

2. The construction of the original canal with 34 locks was an engineering miracle in its time. It was kind of a trial-and-error effort. There were no civil engineers or mechanical engineers in those days. The leaders of the planning and construction were surveyors, a math teacher, and an amateur engineer who went to England at his…

--

--

Jim Fonseca

Geography professor (retired) writes The One Minute Geographer featuring This Fragile Earth. Top writer in Transportation and, in past months, Travel.