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Henningsen: Erie Canal Anniversary

In the early 19th century basic transportation hadn’t changed much since Roman times: things moved overland as quickly as a man could walk, a horse could ride, or a team pull a wagon. The fastest means of moving goods was by water, but once on land you were in trouble.It cost just as much to transport something thirty miles inland as it did to ship it three thousand miles from Europe to an American port.

American roads were a joke and, in the days before railroads, canals were all the rage. The first one in the U. S. was built at Bellows Falls in 1791; an 1823 canal, connecting Lake Champlain to the Hudson River, opened new markets for Vermont goods.

But the Erie Canal was on an altogether grander scale. First proposed in 1807, it would connect the Great Lakes to the eastern seaboard, running some 360 miles and rising more than 600 feet. So great were the obstacles that even President Thomas Jefferson – despite his enthusiasm for westward expansion, invention, and engineering – denied federal support to the project, calling it “little short of madness”.

But New York State persevered, beginning construction in 1817. New technology, new approaches to engineering, and an astounding amount of public money were all necessary to complete a project akin to the 20th century effort to put a man on the moon.

But it was worth it. When the Erie Canal opened in October 1825, shipping costs between the Great Lakes and New York City dropped 95% overnight. Settlers flocked to western New York and the old northwest. Cities like Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago became major commercial hubs as western and eastern markets – now connected - boomed. No transportation project in our history – not the transcontinental railroad, not the interstate highways – had more immediate economic impact.

But that impact went both ways. Vermonters welcomed access to larger markets opened by canals, but hated the flood of cheap goods coming back that undercut local production. And there was a bigger, longer-lasting cost. Attracted by cheap land and easier farming, thousands of Vermonters began to head west in a steady process of de-population that would last through the 20th century and continues to affect us even today.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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