Erie: The Canal That Made America

Erie: The Canal That Made America

Fifteen miles. It is an average commute to work in 21st century America, or the jaunt to a youth sports practice on a school night. Fifteen miles. In the formative days of our nation, it was the working day for so many who helped push America west along its first superhighway. It happened along a waterway most called ‘folly” and one of the country’s founding fathers referred to as “little short of madness.”

Provide the words “15 miles …” and most people will complete the thought with a four word response:

“…on the Erie Canal.”

One of the earliest transcendent tales of the American story was once a path scoffed at as nothing more than a ditch and dirt path. It became the nation’s first great technical innovation and a gateway to prominence.

The United States marks the bicentennial of the Erie Canal in 2017. Surveyors and excavators began linking the United States’ east to its west in 1817. A young nation broke through with its first great crusade of ingenuity by willing the man-made waterway to places linked to the American heartland and linking a fledgling nation to the rest of the world.

WCNY, the innovative, trailblazing producer of award-winning educational multi-media content, will produce Erie: The Canal That Made America. The documentary will lead to the development of the most significant multi-platform chronicling of the Erie Canal to date that will cut across platforms and into the historic landscape the way engineers devised the climbing of the canal up the Niagara Escarpment.

As the public media organization that served as presenting station for the award-winning PBS series Cruising America’s Waterways episode The Erie Canal Albany to Buffalo in 2002 and the producer of an educational interstitial series “Erie Canal Minutes,” WCNY will present the canal as an international breakthrough that released the greatness of a new nation and inspired generations of innovators.

Though it is often credited with helping to create what America now knows as the Empire State, the story of the Erie Canal is more than a New York story. The towpath certainly made New York City America’s leading port and economic hub once the waters of the Great Lakes were wed with the Atlantic. The confluence would change the course of cities beyond the northeast, including New Orleans and Chicago and Detroit.

WCNY’S Erie: The Canal That Made America is a defining story of immigration. Europeans poured their lives into digging and developing homes, businesses and communities along “Clinton’s Ditch.” Polish and German immigrants, and those from other European nations, worked seven days a week for seven years. Others, such as the Freeman family; among the African-American families connected to the canal, dug the canal, then settled along it. Canalers, such as the Murphy and Hernon families, joined the tens of thousands who came from Ireland and toiled in the name of progress, and survival in the new world. WCNY’s Erie: The Canal That Made America will set the record straight on the long-held canal narrative that the Irish toiled as the primary excavators of the waterway.

WCNY’S Erie: The Canal That Made America will tell the story of the political gambit taken to drive the waterway across the region south of the Adirondack Mountains and into the Great Lakes. A canal was first proposed by George Washington in the 1790s but it was not until an1808 New York-approved survey that presented the feasibility of a canal to the nation that the project moved forward. In the waning days of his presidency, Thomas Jefferson, a supporter of an earlier plan to build a canal from Washington into the interior, chose not to deliver federal support for the New York project. Only later, through the commitment of wealthy businessmen such as Jesse Hawley, Governor DeWitt Clinton and founding father of the U.S. Gouverneur Morris, would a canal approved by New York’s legislature and funded by New Yorkers be built.

The result: a canal exponentially longer than had ever been built in America or Europe. Though European influences would be found in the canal’s blueprint, the adventure of building a 363-mile, 40-foot wide, four-foot deep canal would lead to a myriad of mechanical innovations. Some would come from the canal’s 96 original locks, the 72 that guided the latter day towpath and the 17 canal locks that move water and craft over ravines and rivers. Ingenuity, combined with the will of an unstoppable workforce, led to the canal being completed a year ahead of time and under budget.

Communities along the canal such as Rome, Utica, Syracuse and Rochester became major port cities that turned New York City into the country’s economic center. Buffalo, seated at the canal’s terminus, became the world’s greatest grain export center. All became 19th century boomtowns.

A secondary network of canals stretched from the Erie. The Champlain, Oswego, and Cayuga-Seneca Canals served inland lake centers through the Mohawk Valley, Tug Hill Plateau and into the Finger Lakes region of Western New York. And as goods, commerce and economic opportunity spread from the canal, so did social change.

WCNY’s Erie: The Canal That Made America follows the system’s routes that became invaluable supply chains for the Union Army during the Civil War. Slaves fleeing the south found safe paths to freedom in Canada along the canals. Safe houses were kept. African Americans settled in canal towns.

The canal became the place to see people like Amelia Bloomer, editor of the first newspaper for women and a women’s rights movement pioneer. Amelia was among the many women to be seen riding bicycles along the canal in the name of women’s fashion reform. She advocated wearing the article that became known as “the bloomer” outside one’s dress. Suffragists such as Harriet Stanton Blanch also raised awareness about women’s rights from the deck of packet boats that traveled a Canal Boat campaign for the rights of women.

As the Erie Canal and its spurs generated social evolution, they also motivated other states to join the ride. More than three thousand more miles of canals were built in the United States following the successes of the Erie. Ohio built a link from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi Valley, helping Cleveland rise from a frontier village to one of the nation’s great ports. Cincinnati served as a gateway for food products to move down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and up the canal system to Buffalo and beyond. Pennsylvania built a portage canal system to Pittsburgh using stationary steam engines and inclined plans to move packet boats over the Allegheny Mountains on rails. The Canal Age also moved New York to expand The Erie in the 1830s, a redevelopment of what would become known as New York’s Barge Canal in the early 20th century.
Even a century after America’s rail system, and later its highway and air traffic systems usurped the canals as the way to move people and freight, the Erie has enjoyed a renaissance as a socio-economic lifeline for communities that have developed their main streets and business and recreation centers along the towpath.

WCNY will share this amazing story and show a new generation where “15 miles on the Erie Canal” can take you.

20120614_eriecanalwayAs New York’s Erie Canal approaches the bicentennial of its opening in 1817, WCNY, with support from the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, traveled the world’s most successful canal to explore the waterway as it is today. Along the way we met people who use the canal in a variety of ways and invited them to share their stories. It is these stories that make up the seven Erie Canal Minutes (actually each 90 seconds in length) found on this page. As you watch and listen to these minutes, it is evident that this national historic treasure is very much alive and well!
The seven minutes are:

A Tradition of Service

The Canal’s locks are a constant source of fascination for young and old. The lock-tenders responsible for maintaining and operating the locks are a wealth of information about the Canal, past and present. At Lock 22, not far from Rome, John Matt III, chief lock operator, shared how he is the most recent of several generations of his family to work on the Canal and what that means to him.

Canal Cruising

The Canal’s primary function today is as a recreational waterway. Boats of all sizes and shapes enjoy its tranquil waters, including the specially designed ships of a Rhode Island cruise line whose captain explains what makes boating on the Canal so unique.

Still Shipping

The Erie Canal began as a commercial shipping route but railroads and later trucks traveling routes like the New York State Thruway, became the preferred, more cost-effective means of transporting commercial goods. But cargo, sometimes quite unique, is still shipped on the Canal, as a visit to a Troy shipping company reveals.


When traveling the Erie Canal boaters are often surprised to see adjacent dams and power plants, some of which are generating hydroelectric power, as WCNY discovered during a visit to the New York Power Authority’s Crescent Plant near Albany.

Canal Crop Irrigation

Agriculture is New York State’s #1 industry, and the Canal is a source of water for irrigation for farmers, including the Hurd Family, whose farming roots along the Erie Canal date back to the 1830s. Today, water from the Canal irrigates the family orchards.

Canalside Recreation

The original Erie Canal required the clearing of land for a path — a towpath — for the horses and mules that pulled or towed the Canal’s 19th century flat-bottomed boats. The horses and mules are gone, but not the towpath, which is now used by walkers, hikers and bikers.

Good for Business

Communities like Fairport and Pittsford, both near Rochester, have long recognized the economic development opportunities the Canal offers. Now Buffalo is redeveloping its Canal waterfront, generating jobs and new businesses to serve both residents and tourists.


Classic FM

Important: Radio Streaming will soon be moving to our new MemberSite


WCNY Oldies

Important: Radio Streaming will soon be moving to our new MemberSite



Important: Radio Streaming will soon be moving to our new MemberSite


Capitol Pressroom