It began just 200 years ago, on July 4th, 1817 when the beginning of a 40-ft. wide and 4 feet deep canal was begun connecting the Hudson River to the Great Lakes, 363 miles long in the town of Rome, New York. It was completed eight years and four months later at a cost of 7.1 million dollars. Tolls paid off its construction costs within eight years.
It was not a new idea, connecting the West to the East, as the thought had been around since the 18th Century. However, federal funding for it had been rejected by President Thomas Jefferson, who is said to have stated that “talk of a canal 350 miles through wilderness is a little short of madness.” It took the determination of De Witt Clinton, Governor of New York, and the New York legislature to make it a reality. Detractors, and there were many, called it “Clinton’s big ditch.” But it was an immediate success when it opened on October 26, 1825, eight years and four months after the first shovel was placed into the ground in that small town outside of Albany, New York.
The canal quickly transformed North America, and was soon called the greatest engineering feat of the 19th Century in America. Some even marveled when it was completed that it was The Eighth Wonder of the World. It was, at the time, the longest artificial waterway and greatest public works project in North America. But how it transformed America was its greatest achievement
It quickly transformed New York City into a leading economic and commercial city with the most important seaport in North America. Its population quadrupled between 1820-1850. It opened the interior of the West to settlement from those in the East as well as those coming from Europe. Many have concluded that this resulted in the demise of New England agriculture, as it was then known, to inexpensive goods from the mid-west. Farmers, loggers, miners, and manufactures now had quick access to the markets of the East. For example, a ton of wheat from the Mid-west to the Northeast before the Erie Canal cost $100 per ton, and only about fourteen thousand bushels were shipped East. After the Canal, it cost $10 per ton to ship a product and it took one-third of the time. In 1840, for example, about eight million bushels of wheat were shipped East from the Mid-west. The East began to rely on the mid-west for food and other products, and New York City became the international gateway. The Erie Canal made the West accessible and valuable, unlocking the floodgates to western settlement.
Canal building mania lasted a decade or so after the completion of the Erie, with some 3000 miles of waterway by 1840. The Champlain Canal, part of the New York system, was opened in 1823 and connected Lake Champlain to the Erie Canal. This too led to a further transformation of the Vermont agriculture and forestry economy and marked the end of the Champlain Valley’s relative isolation from the outside world and its entry into the national economy. It is said that the opening of the canal “fundamentally affected the economic development of the Champlain Valley.”
Before the coming of the railroads, state legislatures chartered some of the most elaborate canal plans, many which were never developed. The first canal system in the United States was in Bellows Falls, Vermont with the Connecticut River being the first major waterway in the country improved for travel by 1810. In the 1820’s plans were discussed for a canal (Onion River Canal) connecting the Connecticut River to Lake Champlain in Vermont. The coming of the railroads after the 1840’s led to the economic demise of the canal system and any plans to expand or create new systems. Railroads were faster, cheaper and did not freeze over in the winter.
Today the Erie Canal still has some commercial traffic, but is primarily recreational and tourism use system. In the year 2000, Congress created the Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor to recognize the canal’s historical significance in the transformation of North America.
Transportation and improvements in travel have had a profound impact on agriculture and food systems. In the beginning, the state legislature authorized “toll roads.” Improvements in transportation have taken place over time. Railroads were used to ship milk and other products. (note a butter train first left St. Albans in 1852, once a week to Boston. The first milk train left Bellows Falls around 1890 for Boston). Improvements in transportation have continued with the Interstate highway system in Vermont in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. With airplanes, products can be shipped overnight by air into and out of the U.S. A lobster landed in Maine on one day can be in a restaurant in France the next, for example. In the winter fruits, can be airlifted from places like Chile, or flowers from other places in South America too. The internet has further allowed for communication instantly between buyers and sellers. As Thomas Friedman, the author notes, “The World is Flat.” Amazon will today ship an order directly to a house the next day after an order is made. The world has come far since the Wright Brothers flew their first plane at Kitty Hawk in 1903.
What will be the advancing in transportation over the next 200 years, and how will these changes impact Vermont agriculture and food systems and the working landscape?