Are you curious about the impact and effects of one of America’s most iconic and ambitious engineering feats? The Erie Canal, built in the early 19th century, was a game-changer for the nation’s economy, connecting the eastern seaboard with the interior of the continent.
In this article, we explore the canal’s economic effects and how it revolutionized transportation and commerce in the United States. From the struggles of early construction to the unprecedented growth that followed, we examine its lasting legacy on American industry and how it transformed the nation.
Prior to the Erie Canal, the only outlet for the Midwest to trade goods was down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. This journey was cumbersome for farmers and merchants, but it was the best available route aside from using roads on foot.
In 1817, New York Governor DeWitt Clinton championed the canal and provided funding for its construction. The state of New York would provide the estimated $7 million in funding via bonds, then the canal tolls would later pay the construction costs back.
This came after the federal government denied sending federal funds due to opposition to Henry Clay’s American System. Congress actually approved the funds, though president James Madison vetoed it.
The Effects of the Erie Canal on the U.S. Economy
The construction of the Erie Canal was a resounding success. The effects on the U.S. economy were felt immediately as the Erie Canal reduced shipping costs by as much as 90%, reduced transportation times, allowed for rapid population of the frontier, and spurred economic development in agriculture, timber, and other commercial ventures.
After 8 years of building the canal in 3 sections, the Erie Canal was finally completed in 1825. Its impact was immediately felt. Even with the tolls, the cost of transporting goods dropped from almost $100/ton via road to $10/ton, and later to $3/ton via the canal. Not only did the cost drop, but the time it took to get goods to port cities for trade with Europe shortened by almost 50%. The Midwest finally had a more viable trading outlet.1
The Erie Canal essentially transformed New York City into the premier economic hub that it is today. Prior to the canal other cities such as New Orleans, Philadelphia and even Baltimore had larger commercial ports. The canal gave NYC unfettered access to the vast resources of the US interior, and boomed as a result. The population of NYC more than quadrupled from 1820 to 1850.2
The canal also served as a gateway to settling the Midwestern territories. The ease of travel allowed the huge influx of new immigrants to more easily access the lands further west.
Over the years, the success of the Erie Canal drew further investment into expanding and deepening it. It continued to be a major economic force until the late 19th century. The removal of tolls in 1882 further signaled the success after the reimbursement of construction costs.
As technology improved, the infrastructure was also being laid for a superior form of transport: railroads. Railroad transport was even faster than the canal, and also could operate year round (the canal was closed for 5 months in the winter). Eventually, the Erie Canal became obsolete.
Despite this, the profound impact of the Erie Canal and transformational effects on the nation throughout the 19th century are undeniable.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) North, Edward P. “The Erie Canal and Transportation.” The North American Review, vol. 170, no. 518, 1900, pp. 121–33. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25104942.
2) Bahret, James L. “Growth of New York and Suburbs Since 1790.” The Scientific Monthly, vol. 11, no. 5, 1920, pp. 404–18. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/6415.