"Talk of making a canal three hundred and fifty miles through a wilderness is little short of madness," said Thomas Jefferson, who had doubled the size of the United States by the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Unfortunately the Appalachian Mountains isolated Jefferson's purchase from the original thirteen colonies. Shipping goods down the Mississippi River, around Florida and up the Atlantic coast not only took weeks, but often cost more than the goods themselves.
The best alternative route lay through upstate New York, where a series of river valleys and a pass through the Appalachians at water level gave access to the Great Lakes, and hence the whole Midwest. The water-level route connected Buffalo (on Lake Erie) to Albany, and from Albany the Hudson River flowed south to New York City. A canal along this route had been suggested in the eighteenth century, but the idea languished for lack of funds. In the early years of the nineteenth century it found a fervent advocate in De Witt Clinton (1769-1828), who was either mayor of New York City or governor of New York State for most of the quarter century from 1803 to 1828.
For support of the canal project, Clinton appealed to City merchants, who could expect to benefit from increased trade and lower shipping costs. Eventually 100,000 New Yorkers signed a petition demanding the state legislature take action. In 1817 Clinton dug the first shovelful of dirt. Irish immigrants by the hundreds carried on the work. It was the early nineteenth century's greatest engineering achievement.
Forty feet wide at the surface and a mere four feet deep, set with 83 locks, the Canal stretched 323 miles - twice as long as any European canal. A contemporary proclaimed that its builders "have built the longest canal, in the least time, with the least experience, for the least money, and to the greatest public benefit." In 1825, eight years after work began, Governor Clinton and a party of celebrities floated along "Clinton's Ditch" from Buffalo to New York City in the astoundingly short time of ten days.
With the Canal in operation, the cost of shipping a barrel of flour from Ohio to New York dropped from $12 to $1. In a decade, the Canal's revenue repaid its eight-million-dollar cost. Over its first half century it carried Midwestern produce to the Atlantic coast and untold numbers of immigrants to the Midwest. Most of all, it made New York City the commercial hub of the nation, far outstripping Philadelphia and Boston.
Until just after the Civil War, the Canal remained a vital part of the American economy: it's no accident that from 1869 to 1880, Clinton's face appeared on the thousand-dollar bill. The Canal was finally superseded by the expansion of the railroads, which carried passengers more comfortably and freight more quickly, and did it even when temperatures dropped below freezing. Ironically - and not coincidentally - the first segment of what became Vanderbilt's New York Central Railroad was laid in 1825, right next to the Erie Canal.