October 26, 2010

The Erie Canal Opens – 1825

On this day in 1825, transportation in the Northeastern U.S. (New England) changed forever.

For the first time, the Atlantic Ocean was connected to the Mid-West (the Great Lakes) by a waterway that didn't require portage. This means that there was no waterfall area that was impassable by boat and therefore required people to get out, unload, carry the boat and cargo over land, and then get back in the river. (You can see why river routes that require portage cannot be traversed by large boats with large cargos, right?)

Starting on this date, transport costs from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic fell by 95%!

And what made all of that possible? The completion of the Erie Canal.

A canal is like an artificial river, a waterway constructed for boat travel. Canals usually connect existing lakes, rivers, or oceans. One famous canal is the Panama Canal, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The Erie Canal is nearly as famous and was very important to the development of cities like Chicago and New York City.

Many canals feature locks, which are boat-sized chambers in which water level can be raised or lowered. (A lock is pictured here, right.) Locks are used in places where canals have to change altitude, because each lock acts almost like a stair step.

In the case of the Erie Canal, the land rises 600 feet (180 m) along the route of the canal, from the Hudson River at Albany, NY, to Lake Erie at Buffalo, NY. Apparently there are 36 “stair-steps” or locks along the length of the 363-mile (584 km) canal.

To celebrate the opening of the canal on this date in 1825, a flotilla of boats set off with a 90-minute cannonade. The boats carried passengers, including New York Governor Dewitt Clinton, from Buffalo to New York City in just ten days. In New York Harbor there was a ceremonial “wedding of the waters” as the governor poured some Lake Erie water into the harbor. On the return trip, a keg of Atlantic Ocean water was carried to Lake Erie to complete the ceremony.

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