First there was a need-
to move raw materials, people and manufactured goods from the Atlantic Ocean to
the Great Lakes and then to ship the growing bounty of Western New York back to
markets in the east. Then there was an idea-to build a canal through hundreds
of miles of wilderness, swamps, mountains, waterfalls and tribes of sometimes
hostile Native Americans.
Some thought it a bad idea, among them President
Thomas Jefferson. DeWitt Clinton, mayor of New York City, supported a route proposed
by Geneva's Jesse Hawley, a miller. When Clinton became governor in 1817 he convinced
the state legislature to finance a canal, and on July 4, 1817, crews of untrained
men, without professional engineers to lead them, began digging-literally with
picks and shovels-at Rome, N.Y.
Eight years later, working through unimaginable
obstacles, construction challenges and hundreds of kegs of whiskey, they ended
up at Tonawanda Creek, near Buffalo.
The canal they'd dug was 363 miles
long, 40 feet wide and 4 feet deep. Its waters were carried across rivers by 18
aqueducts; 83 locks raised and lowered boats a total of 568 feet from end to end.
Erie Canal opened Oct. 26, 1825 at a cost of $7 million. Initially dubbed "Clinton's
Folly," it immediately cut travel time in half. Shipping costs dropped 94
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