Builders of our Country Vol. II - G. Southworth

De Witt Clinton and the Erie Canal

Though United States Senator, Mayor of the City of New York, three times Governor of the State of New York, De Witt Clinton is remembered to-day principally from his connection with the Erie Canal.

In the first years of the nineteenth century those who dwelt in the western part of New York State were shut away from Albany by days or even weeks of travel. A water route, it is true, connected Cayuga and Seneca lakes with Schenectady; and rough roads ran across the state. It took fully three weeks and cost fully ten dollars to haul a barrel of flour over them from Albany to Buffalo.

Seeing what a gain it would be to the state if the rich farming country to the west could be put in touch with the markets of Albany and New York, one and another had schemes to suggest. But it was left for De Witt Clinton to champion the building of a canal from Lake Erie to the Hudson River at Albany. Every possible objection was raised to his plan; and the more he tried to convince people of the advantages a canal would bring, the more they scoffed. "Clinton's ditch," it was called in ridicule.

Because such a canal connecting the Great Lakes with the Atlantic would benefit many states besides New York, the United States Government was asked to pay the cost of building. Congress would have nothing to do with the project.

In spite of all opposition, Clinton held fast to his faith in the canal, and year after year worked away to persuade the New York legislators and the farmers to favor it. At last his efforts were rewarded, and the Legislature voted in favor of the Eric Canal.

De Witt Clinton


The digging was begun at Rome, on July 4, 1817. It seems curious that the first part of the canal to be built was the middle section. One of the reasons for this, it is said, was because the friends of the canal thought that, with the middle section built, the people at either end would insist that their section be finished. And this would make it harder for the enemies of the canal to block the work.

These old-time diggers must have known how to make the dirt fly. In a little over eight years they had dug a canal forty feet wide and four feet deep, the whole length of the three hundred and sixty-three miles between Lake Erie and the Hudson.

By the end of October, 1825, the last rock had been blasted from the canal bed; the last lock had been finished to lift the boats up and down the grades, and the canal was ready for use.

A great celebration was planned for October 26th, and on that day the waters of Lake Erie were let into "Clinton's ditch." With their first rush into the canal, a cannon's boom started the news across the state. Five miles off the firers of another cannon heard the sound. The second cannon boomed the tidings to a third, the third repeated them to a fourth, and so cannon telegraphed to cannon till New York City heard the sound and knew that the canal was open.

At ten o'clock in the morning a gay procession of boats left Buffalo. In the lead came the Seneca Chief towed by four gray horses, and carrying the exultant Governor Clinton and other noted men.

After the Seneca Chief followed a brightly decorated flotilla of canal boats. Two eagles, two fawns, some fish, a bear, and two Indians rode in Noah's Ark. All were headed for New York.

Everywhere along the route cheering crowds welcomed the procession. On the 2nd of November, Albany, the eastern end of the canal, was reached. From Albany steamboats towed the fleet down the Hudson to New York, where a splendid reception was awaiting.

Aecompanied by boats large and small, Governor Clinton was taken out to sea that he might empty into the Atlantic a keg of Lake Erie water. This signified the uniting of the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean, and the completion of De Witt Clinton's great undertaking. The Erie Canal has proved an astonishing success. Great as was the cost of building it, more than the amount was realized in tolls within its first ten years.

Erie Canal


The charge of ten dollars for carrying a barrel of flour across the state was reduced to thirty cents after the canal was opened. And in 1906 a bushel of wheat could be sent all the way from Buffalo to New York by water for from four to five cents.

The canal also aided the growth of towns along its course. Of the seven cities through which the canal runs, only Albany and Schenectady boasted that title in 1825. Mica, Rome, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo were mere villages, or settlements.

The Erie Canal is a worthy memorial of De Witt Clinton. It is a good lesson of what patience, ability, and energy can accomplish in the face of almost unsurmountable difficulties. It is a striking example of a gigantic undertaking, bravely and boldly begun and successfully accomplished.