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					<p>The size, shape and nature of the United States, as it now exists, is due largely to the
political, social and economic landscape of the first half of the nineteenth century. In
what was, for many reasons, the most significant period in the nation’s history, the
construction of the Erie Canal ranks at the top of the list, along with the Louisiana
Purchase, of the most significant events of the antebellum period, impacting westward
expansion, and in turn, the development of the nation. The canal also had other important,
if unintended, consequences for the country, including promoting nationalism and
helping to preserve the Union, which further affirm its value to the nation. </p>

<p>The antebellum period witnessed the development of an inchoate union of eastern
states into a tested constitutional democracy that extended across a continent rich with
natural resources, fertile land and an extensive system of waterways. The age of
expansion, even while acknowledging some of its morally questionable aspects, was an
era of vision and opportunity that enabled the United States to acquire the territory and
resources without which it would not have been able to develop into the strongest and
most prosperous nation in the world. In the era that began with the shrewd purchase by
Thomas Jefferson of the Louisiana Territory from France (effectually doubling the land
holdings of the United States) the nation saw much change in its geography as it strove to
achieve its Manifest Destiny; Americans crossed the Mississippi River and began to settle
the great western frontier; westward expansion dictated the Indian removal policies of
Andrew Jackson; the United States annexed Texas and fought a war with Mexico,
through which it gained additional territory; gold was discovered in California and a vast
westward movement began; a northern border was established and new passages opened
the Great Northwest to settlement. But while the historical study of expansion focuses
primarily on national events (the acquisition of the southwest, the push to the opposite
coast and the increasing sectionalism that was a major factor in the Civil War), the
actions of New Yorkers and the impact of their unparalleled construction project go
largely unmentioned. </p>

<p>While it may upon first appearance seem to be a matter of local interest and
importance with limited consequence, the economics and demographics of the Erie Canal
prove otherwise. At the end of the first decade of the nineteenth century, the nation
consisted of seventeen states, thirteen of which were original colonies and lay on or along
the eastern seaboard; several largely unsettled territories surrounding the Great Lakes
(and the Mississippi Territory to their south); and the newly acquired vast expanse known
as the Louisiana Territory. The western part of the state of New York was considered
frontier land, and the city of New York was contending with the Boston and Baltimore to
be the principal port on the Atlantic (as well as Montreal and New Orleans for imports
and exports) and Philadelphia as the foremost commercial center of the east. </p>

<p>As towns emerged along the Erie Canal, bringing business, agriculture and industry
to the previously unsettled western New York the canal helped New York City establish
its trade position and develop into the world’s dominant commercial center. Additionally,
the canal brought people and products west and provided the fertile land of the Old
Northwest (what is now considered the Midwest) a burgeoning market for its produce.
The emigration from New England and the northeast and the development of America’s
breadbasket was at least as important to achieving Manifest Destiny as any other
expansion era movement. The economic value of the canal is immeasurable, extending
beyond its significance to the state and allowing the United States to compete in world
markets. Finally, an often-overlooked achievement of the Erie Canal, and one with
enormous national significance, is the role it played establishing a bond between the east
and the west and its impact on the preservation of the Union. The Erie Canal’s impact
when measured in the context of the national expansion that occurred directly prior to the
Civil War serves to vindicate the assertion that the canal……</p>

<p>Constructing New York</p>

<p>While one of the original thirteen colonies, in 1810 New York existed primarily in
the east—the Catskills, Lake George, and the Mohawk and Hudson River valleys—with
the western part of the state still largely unsettled. The six counties between the
Pennsylvania border and Lake Ontario were inhabited by only 23,148 people, and no
town had more than 6,000, while most were less than half that size.(footnote) The west
was served by several small, poor roads, which did not advance far into the wilderness,
and its development depended on improved transportation, particularly by water, which
had been shown to cost only one-eighth as much as by land transport. The canal, it was
thought, could cut shipping costs from Seneca Lake to Albany by two-thirds ($32/ton
versus $100/ton) and from Albany to the Niagara River by half. Perhaps more important,
the proposed canal would bring settlers to western New York (and beyond) who would
build towns, develop industry and agriculture, and increase land value. The canal’s
economic impact would be realized almost immediately. </p>

<p> [QB: The impact on the rest of the State can be seen by looking at a modern map.
With the exception of Binghamton and Elmira, every major city in New York falls along
the trade route established by the Erie Canal, from New York City to Albany, through
Schenectady, Utica and Syracuse, to Rochester and Buffalo. Nearly 80% of upstate New
York's population lives within a 25 miles of the Erie Canal.” Who said?] </p>

<p>Western New York grew exponentially due to the canal, which “spurred economic
diversification” and attracted new business and industry. Proximity to the canal reduced
costs and manufacturing in the western part of the state increased by 262% between 1820
and 1840. “Many of the cities mothered by the canal in western New York took places
near the top of the list of the most rapidly growing in the nation.” (Shaw, 263) By 1850,
the population of New York had reached three million. Cities like Rochester and Buffalo,
due in part to the natural advantages of farm land and waterways and social assets like
their industrious populations, gained prominence as commercial centers in their own
right. Rochester, which had built it’s first frame house only five years before canal
construction began, established itself as the Flour City and developed an industrial center.
Buffalo, previously a small trading post, became a western boomtown, attracting a branch
of the United States National Bank and becoming the final stop for individuals
emigrating to the Old Northwest as a part of the Big Push. “Three days after the first
canal boat arrived in Buffalo from the east…the Hiram arrived by canal to deposit 50
emigrants bound for Michigan.” (Shaw, 274) A year later 1200 emigrants “seeking west”
were delivered in one day. Waggoner notes that, as late as 1795, Buffalo was a “town” of
four or five houses, nearly wiped out by the British in 1813, and even in 1815, it was
considered “still a mere trading post, struggling hopelessly to become a village.” (43)
[census data for western ny] Between 1820 and 1850, the population of Rochester
exploded, from 1,502 to 36,403 and Buffalo ballooned from just over 2,000 to 42,261.
(U.S. Census Data) Their respective counties grew as well; Monroe’s population
increased 43% between 1820 and 1840 and Erie blossomed by 145% in the same period.
For better or worse, the fortune of these cities was bound to the Erie Canal. </p>

<p>Along with the many towns that popped up along its path, the canal impacted the
state’s agricultural development as well, modifying theories of land use and altering the
notion of land value to include proximity to the canal. The access to new markets and
decreased shipping costs that the canal provided drew farmers from across the northeast
to the canal corridor. Western New York was developing at a feverish pace, but it was not
the only part of the state that benefited from the economics of the Erie Canal. </p>

<p>There are two schools of thought regarding the impact of the Erie Canal on New
York City. While one cautions attributing New York’s success and development to the
construction of the canal, there are others who argue, as one unnamed historian does, that
the canal “played a most important role in the commercial development of the State of
New York and probably more than any other influence contributed to the establishment
of New York City as the chief port of entry of the United States.” (Rochester Historical
Society Publication Fund Series, v. VIII) While the first part of that statement seems
beyond impeachment, the more bold assertion perhaps requires further evidence. At the
time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, New York was not a leading
American port; by 1790 it was only the fifth largest city in population. The increase in
trade and population impacted manufacturing, trade and general wealth, and New York
became to the new century what Boston and Philadelphia had been in the last. The canal
opened new markets to the port of New York, as it exported the natural resources
extracted from the west and imported manufactured products and finished commodities
that would be shipped up the canal. </p>

<p> [QB: There can be little doubt that canal trade stimulated the growth of the city and
that it contributed to the supremacy of New York over rival Atlantic seaports.” (Shaw,
282)] </p>

<p>But it was not just goods that were being transported from the city—New York
became the primary port of entry for European immigrants, many of whom would travel
up the Hudson and across the canal to settle in the Old Northwest, evidenced by the fact
that over 300,000 immigrants landed in New York between 1840 and 1845, but the
population of New York City increased by only 80,000. Travel between New York and
Lake Erie prior to the canal required a combination of land and water transport and took
about 50 days, costing approximately $150. The alternative to this was an almost
impassable 200-mile overland route through unconquered wilderness. This new route
west facilitated the emigration west allowing newly arrived immigrants a cheaper, faster
way to get west and establish themselves in the land of abundance. But the canal not only
took people and goods away from New York, the new businesses and increased shipping
market associated with the canal attracted workers, businessmen and families, and the
population of New York more than quadrupled from 125,706 in 1820 to 515,547 in 1850.
(population tables) </p>

<p>As New York developed into the Atlantic port of choice, it also stayed ahead of New
Orleans and Montreal, otherwise the most desirable and accessible options, and in doing
so, accomplished important goals relating to the competition for international commerce
and the preservation of the Union. In the years before the Erie Canal, most of the
agricultural products from the Old Northwest and the Ohio Valley (with the exception of
those from Northern Ohio) went south, down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. In
the 1830s, however, with a waterway extending to the Atlantic, trade started to go east,
with the tonnage of staples more than doubling between 1826 and 1835. Flour was
particularly important to the development of New York, which by 1827 had surpassed all
other cities in its export, doubling Baltimore (its nearest competitor) and selling more
than four times that of New Orleans. It is difficult to imagine what advantages New York
could claim over its rivals without the benefit of a cheaper and faster transportation route
connecting east to west and opening new and growing markets. By the time railroads
began to appear, potentially evening the playing field, New York was already established
as the port of favor and had secured its position as the nation’s most dominant and
productive commercial center. </p>

<p>The Erie Points West</p>

<p>As Shaw asserts in Erie Water West, “during the first years of navigation on the Erie
Canal, the bulk of the goods carried came from New York State itself. Emigrants and
tools had first to be delivered to the shores of the great lakes before western products
could pass through New York in significant volume.” (238) And delivered they were.
There were two main groups of emigrants who traveled west on the Erie Canal; as
previously mentioned, a significant number of these settlers came directly from Europe to
New York and traveled on the canal to the Great Lakes to settle in large numbers in the
Old Northwest. But many who moved west were not new to the country. Farmers from
New England and New York saw the opportunity to trade their small tracts of rocky,
fruitless soil for a larger quantity of fertile land. Many saw increased opportunities to the
west and took advantage of the easy and inexpensive trip to the frontier. (stats) The Erie
Canal had accidentally introduced competition to New York, and as the population and
production of western New York began to decline, the Great lakes region were
experiencing the inverse. As a result, the west (now Midwest) became the “breadbasket”
of the nation, opportunities for increased agricultural production seemingly endless.
While Rochester was once the Flour City, wheat production in the west had expanded
exponentially, from 14 thousand bushels in 1826 to eight million bushels in 1840. While
canal traffic historically flowed to the west, the current changed once the Great Lakes
region had established itself as the heart of national agriculture. </p>

<p>The Old Northwest had been cleared for settlement by the War of 1812 when
American victory on the Great Lakes gave the nation control of an unparalleled system of
waterways, commercial access to the west and “undisputed access to the Northwest
Territory.” (Waggoner, 25) The canal was vital to this development, Waggoner argues,
and helped to make the nation “ready for that time when they must support the greatest
migration in history, the so-called Big Push, a movement so mammoth as to transport
people of so many nations by the hundreds of thousands, across the Alleghenies in that
vast American interior,” setting the stage for the expansion to come. (13) Agriculture and
opportunity brought the populations west, and it arrived on the Erie Canal. </p>

<p>As there was previously no easy way to get across the Allegheny Mountains, the
Northwest Territory had remained relatively unsettled prior to the construction of the Erie
Canal. Even after the Northwest Territory had been divided by congress (in 1800 it sliced
off the Indiana Territory; Ohio entered the Union in 1803; in 1805 a large piece of the
Indiana Territory was detached to make the Michigan Territory; in 1809 another part of
the Indiana Territory pulled away, eventually to become Illinois and Wisconsin; Indiana
entered the Union in 1816 and Illinois was granted statehood in 1818) and prepared for
settlement, the quality of the one route west (the Cumberland Road) kept those territories
more or less uninhabited. As the canal became a viable option for travel to the west, the
Old Northwest received the emigrants it had been expecting. The population of Ohio
doubled five years after the canal was opened to Buffalo; Northern Indiana, once a “bleak
wilderness” became the most important part of the state; and Michigan saw an influx of
northeasterners to Detroit, 15,000 from New York and New England settling there in
1830. One historian calculates that if the territory west of New York (between the Ohio
and Mississippi Rivers) increased in value by only two dollars per acre, the territory’s
value would have increased by over half a million dollars. Perhaps a more telling statistic
is that between 1815 and 1825 the market value of produce decreased; between 1825 and
1835 (the first decade of the canal) market prices increased by 100%. The Erie Canal had
made the west accessible and valuable, and facilitated the Big Push, as imperative to
American expansion as the movement into the Louisiana Territory and the drive to the
Pacific Coast.</p>



For Love or Money: Evaluating the economic and social impact of the Erie Canal

Perhaps the most obvious way to judge the success of the Erie Canal is to examine the
economic statistics that tell the story of its impact on the commercial development of the
United States. But an analysis of social and political factors demonstrates that canal also
served the nation in a different way binding east to west and helping to preserve the
Union in the tumultuous antebellum years.

The economic success of the canal was guaranteed within its first years of operation
when it became apparent with what speed the construction debt could be repaid. Still, the
numbers compiled around mid-century are staggering, cementing the Erie Canal as one of
the most profitable ventures in American history. One measure of the canal’s economic
accomplishments is freight hauled (see table) while another is tolls collected. While
earnings declined in the 1850s, they peaked during the Civil War. In 1835, New York
collected $1 ½ million, and in 1847 that number was $3 1/3 million. The total revenue of
the canal when tolls were abolished in 188? Was $121,461,871.

<table align=”right” width=”45%”>
<tr><td colspan=”4”>Erie Canal Shipping Statistics (1849)</td></tr>
<tr><th colspan=”2”>Cargos</th><th>Weight (tons)</th><th>Value</th></tr>
<tr><td colspan=”2”>forest products</td><td>665,547</td><td>$7 million</td></tr>
<tr><td colspan=”2”>agricultural products</td><td>769,000</td><td>$38
million</td></tr>
<tr><td colspan=”2”>manufactured products</td><td>44,286</td><td>$4
million</td></tr>
<tr><td colspan=”2”>merchandise</td><td>5,872</td><td>$500,000</td></tr>
<tr><td colspan=”2”>other products</td><td>95,000</td><td>$2 million</td></tr>
<tr><td colspan=”2”>Total</td><td>1,580,072</td><td>$52,375,521</td></tr>

(check the years)
In 18??, the “up canal” traffic (to the west) brought only 315,550 tons of freight, mostly
finished merchandise, valued at nearly $70 million. In 1852, freight destined for
tidewater weighed in at 2 ½ million tons, worth over $74 million. Up canal shipping saw
560,764 tons of freight worth $114,090,801.

In the 1830s however, the American canal system got its first glimpse of the competition.
“Paradoxically, the years of greatest expansion of canal transportation saw also the rise of
the competitor which would ultimately bring an end to the canal era. (Shaw, 286-287)
Also ironically, the first railroads in New York were used to feed and complement the
canal, often running along side already-established canal routes. When the infrastructure
was built and railroads became faster than canals, conventional history tells us that the
Erie Canal quickly became obsolete. In fact, after the canal was enlarged, it remained
competitive with the railroads until after the Civil War. In 1843, for example, canal boat
arrivals and departures at Albany, New York averaged 80 per day. In 1852, the canal
brought the Albany Basin more than 20 million tons of property valued at more than $27
million. The city saw its population quadruple between 1824 and 1850. But in 1842, rails
connected Albany to Lake Erie and by 1849 six trains were leaving Albany daily, four
making the trip to Buffalo, the fastest in fifteen hours. While there was some resistance,
by mid-century there were twenty-two railroad lines in New York, carrying passengers
and freight, ten of which ran parallel to the Erie Canal. The increased rail presence in the
state secured the western trade that the canal had established and enabled New York to
keep its rival Atlantic ports at bay. The two main New York railroad companies carried
three times as much freight to the Atlantic as Pennsylvania and twice that of the
Baltimore-Ohio connection. But even at the height of Antebellum railroad transportation
the Erie Canal held its own, carrying more western freight to the Atlantic than all four
railroads combined. (Shaw, 292) (transition)

While the financial windfall did benefit New York, “the Erie Canal was a state work with
a national function,” and played a vital role in the economic development and
commercial growth of the nation. (Shaw, 416) But the Erie Canal was valuable to the
nation as more than just a financial resource; it bonded east to west and was a significant
factor in the preservation of the Union in the Antebellum and Civil War years.

In the early part of the century when the Erie Canal was first proposed, the project was
viewed as a way to connect the western frontier to the established eastern United States
and retain its commercial and cultural loyalties for fear of losing it to the French. The
Northwest Territory’s proximity to what is now Canada and accessibility to the St.
Lawrence River, which led directly to Montreal were considered assets in “New France’s
attempts to unite her Canadian and Louisianan halves into a continental whole.” (Bourne,
64) (GW QUOTE)

Even after the threat of losing the territory to France had subsided, the Erie Canal served
as an important commercial bond for the fertile west and populous east, providing
markets for western resources and allowing manufactured items a route to the frontier.
This commercial bound became more significant as antebellum sectionalism intensified.
Historian Noble Whitford maintained that in this way, the canal benefited the nation,
“binding together, by a more extensive and sympathetic intercourse and interdependence,
the great divisions of our land.” Rivalry between east and west was contained and their
mutual dependence generated a sense of national unity.

It can also be argued that the canal played an important role in the Civil War, and as one
historian contends “it requires no fanciful imagination to conceive that the opening of the
Erie Canal was an agency which did more than almost an other to curb the power of
slavery.” (roch hist) The canal was not directly involved in battles, nor was it central to
freeing slaves, but it was indirectly as valuable as if it had. In the first respect, the canal
was vital to securing the support of the Old Northwest and its loyalty to the Union. Had
the Erie Canal not provided an outlet for the agricultural products of the west, the most
obvious path to export would have been down the Mississippi to New Orleans. The
Midwest would have established a commercial alliance with the south, which, along with
its common dependence on agriculture, would impact the Civil War. The economic
pressures, the threat of a southern blockade or boycott of western agricultural products,
would have easily been enough for the south to secure the support of the west. The
separation of east and west was especially dangerous because with its ability to trade to
the south, the cities and farms of the Midwest would become more powerful while cities
on the east, without exports would decline as commercial centers. The trade outlet to the
east enabled the Old Northwest to avoid being used as a pawn in the Civil War, while the
military and political support of Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana proved
vital to a Union victory. As for the claim to “curbing the power of slavery,” in much the
same way it proved central to the war, it reduced the dependence of the industrial north
on the agriculturally dominant south. The ability of the northern states to access the
resources and farm products of the Midwest reduced its reliance on the south. The
inefficiency of slave plantations versus smaller farms allowed the Midwest to establish
itself as the dominant agricultural center. Additionally, the international trade and ability
to export the products of the west to foreign nations secured the financial superiority of
the north over the south and rescinded the rationale for slave labor. (work)
The Erie Canal in its lifetime proved economically valuable to the nation, and through
commerce became a vital component of the social and political fabric of the nation. Its
impact on expansion was illustrated through the development of the Old Northwest and
the demonstration of its importance to the preservation of the Union is clear, if not
prominently discussed in our national history. Looking back at the legacy of the canal he
proposed in his essays, Jesse Hawley wrote, with no small sense of pride and perhaps a
touch of bias, that “no single act—no public measure—except the Declaration of
Independence and the formation of the U.S. Constitution, has done so much to promote
public prosperity and produce a new era in the history of the country, as the construction
of the Erie Canal.” A bold statement, but one that finds support in the ledgers,
newspapers, documents and accounts of national history.

				
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