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Erie Canal Time Machine - 1830s: The Erie Canal at Work

Historical Context

Ten years after the Erie Canal opened in 1825, many of the towns and villages that had celebrated the opening of the Canal had grown into busy communities and cities. The Canal helped move goods and people through New York State. Before the Canal was built, it cost between $90 and $125 to ship a ton of cargo between Buffalo and New York City, but by 1835 that price had dropped to $4 per ton. Wheat, oats, and logs, from western New York streamed to the New York markets.
 
The Canal was not just used for trade; in its first year of operation more than forty thousand passengers traveled the new waterway because it helped make travel over long distances easier. The few roads that existed at the time were bumpy and not well maintained. Traveling by boat on a canal was slow but smooth.
 
Canal boats were pulled by horses or mules and traveled at about four miles per hour. The boats floated in the water in the canal and the horses and mules walked beside the canal on a dirt towpath. Ropes were tied to the boat and to the horses or mules. The boat only went as fast as the horses and mules could walk.
 
Boats on the Erie Canal carried settlers and business people who were looking for new opportunities. They carried products from the newly settled lands in central and western New York and the midwestern states to markets in New York City. Tourists also traveled by canal boat. People were curious to see this new man-made waterway, the locks and aqueducts that made it work, the beautiful countryside, and the cities and villages the canal passed through.
People were excited about the Erie Canal, but the Canal also caused problems.
 
The people building the canal had found the work very difficult. When they thought they were going to dig in dirt, they sometimes found solid rock instead! Sometimes the cost of the materials they needed to make the Canal was more than they had planned to spend. Sometimes the workers damaged property, cut down trees without permission, and trampled farmer's crops. Sometimes the Canal would leak and flood fields and basements, or it divided farms in half. A farmer might have some fields on one side of the Canal and some fields on the other side, with no bridge to connect them.
 
Later on, people living along the Canal often did not want strangers passing through their communities. They liked their peaceful lives and were afraid that the Canal would bring thieves and corruption to their small towns and villages. They worried that strangers passing through on canal boats might also bring diseases from the eastern cities.
 
New Yorkers had mixed feelings about the Erie Canal. They saw the advantages of quicker and cheaper transportation, but they also recognized the problems it would bring. To understand why people felt the way they did about the Erie Canal, let's take a look at some of the information they left behind.
 
This information is found in historical records, such as letters, diaries, maps, photographs, land deeds, broadsides (posters), and petitions. Other places to look for information about the Canal might include artifacts, such as dishes, wallpaper and paintings; and architecture, such as buildings, bridges, locks, and aqueducts. If you look carefully at these items, you can learn a lot about the Canal.
 
Task Description
 
Write a well-organized essay using the documents, the answers to the questions in Part A., and your own knowledge of the subject.
The Erie Canal created opportunities and challenges for people and communities. Explain why some people were happy about the Erie Canal and others were not.
 
Key Concepts
 
The Erie Canal created opportunities and challenges for people and communities.
Some people were happy about the Erie Canal and others were not.
The information in historical documents can be used to help us learn about the past.
 
Vocabulary
 
acre - a unit of area used to measure land
aqueduct - a structure in the form of a bridge that carries a canal across a valley or river
archivist - somebody employed to collect, catalogue, and take care of the items in an archive
broadside - poster
Canal Board of New York State - a group of men who oversaw the building, operation, and maintenance of the Erie Canal for the State of New York, who received complaints from individuals about Canal problems, and who resolved those problems
cholera - an often fatal disease that produces severe diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain
epidemic - an outbreak of a disease that spreads more quickly and more extensively than would normally be expected
feeder - a short canal that brings water from reservoirs, lakes, and streams to a larger canal. Without feeder canals, some sections of the Erie Canal would be dry.
foundry - a place where metals are cast and molded
Great Western Canal - another name for the Erie Canal
historical document - recorded information from the past
millstones - circular stones used to grind grain
parallel - always separated by the same distance, never intersecting
rod - a measurement equal to 16.5 feet
sloop - a sailing boat
spindles - slender rods or sticks on which thread is wound
subscriber - someone who signs his or her to a statement
tract - an area of land
twine - a strong string
 
After looking at the documents and answering these questions, students will be able to understand how New Yorkers' lives changed as a result of the Erie Canal.
 
Part A. Examine the following documents and answer each of the questions that follow them.
 
Part B. Essay: Write a well-organized essay using the documents, the answers to the questions in Part A., and your own knowledge of the subject.
 
The Erie Canal created opportunities and challenges for people and communities. Explain why some people were happy about the Erie Canal and others were not.
 
In your essay, remember to:
 
  • Explain why some New Yorkers were unhappy about the Erie Canal.
  • Explain why some New Yorkers were happy about the Erie Canal.
  • Include an introduction, a body, and a conclusion.
  • Use information from the documents.
  • Include details, examples, or reasons when developing your ideas.

About this Activity

 

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