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FEARLESS | Makers, Movers, and Shakers: Fearless DeWitt Clinton and His “Ditch” Crowned the Empire State

FEARLESS | Makers, Movers, and Shakers: Fearless DeWitt Clinton and His “Ditch” Crowned the Empire State

Oil painting of DeWitt Clinton by John Wesley Jarvis | National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

DeWitt Clinton (no relation to the funky George or Bill, but a nephew of the former founding father and vice president George) was a post-Millennial man way before his time, able to see both sides of any argument and turn other people’s visions into successes.

Clinton (March 2, 1769 - February 11, 1828), is most celebrated today, of course, for his role in constructing the Erie Canal, but he was also a naturalist, a United States Senator, the mayor of New York City, and the sixth Governor of New York.

Though hard to imagine these days, Clinton was also almost aggressively nonpartisan. While he was officially a Democratic-Republican, he frequently worked across the aisle with his Federalist cohorts.

What defined his success — and in turn, New York’s — was his ability to recognize the brilliance of another person’s vision and to gather enough support from fellow politicians and members of the public to launch it. Clinton possessed the unique combination of tenacity, patience, and bluster necessary to blast through the layers of red tape the bureaucratic machine spews out when any vision begins to be realized.


The notion of using a canal to improve the manner in which goods could be sent from one area of the country to another had been suggested and bandied about well before Clinton’s time. George Washington actually floated the idea of building a canal from the East Coast to the interior of the country in the 1790s, but the sheer size of the undertaking doomed the plan before it fully hatched.

Erie Canal route

But the problem of uniting the frontier with the rapidly expanding East Coast was a vexing one. Getting goods and people to the newly developing Illinois and other inland areas in a timely manner presented a challenge. (That was, after all, the era of the horse and buggy). Also, the original 13 states of the nation lined the Atlantic, and America’s leaders lived in fear of Britain or France hopscotching over them to grab land in the middle of the country.

New Yorkers began to lobby President Thomas Jefferson (he led the country from 1801 - 1809) for a federally financed canal that would expand westward from the Hudson River. He wasn’t into it.

However, once Clinton, then mayor of New York City, caught wind of the notion, he couldn’t let it go. While the War of 1812 prevented progress for several years, by 1817 (just after Clinton was elected Governor of New York), he resurrected the dream and turned it into reality, and managed to talk the legislature into appropriating the then jaw-dropping $7 million to construct the canal from the upper Hudson River to the Eastern shore of Lake Erie.

Predictably, not everyone was impressed. Naysayers dubbed the project “Clinton’s Big Ditch,” or “Clinton’s Folly,” and their criticisms weren’t completely without merit. Many of the engineers who were hired didn’t have any experience building a canal, and the labor force was largely unskilled.

Originally “just” four feet deep and 40 feet wide, the canal cut a swath through fields, forests, cliffs, and swamps. Trees were felled by hand.

After eight long years of cat-calling and mockery, Clinton opened the Erie Canal in 1825 by sailing in the Seneca Chief packet boat along the canal into Buffalo. After completing his victory lap from Lake Erie to New York City, he ceremonially emptied water from Erie into New York Harbor.

DeWitt Clinton and the marriage of waters. Photo: NYPL Digital Gallery


While the immediate economic impact of the canal was significant, many historians say that its reverberations went much deeper, and wider, than even Clinton could have predicted.

Freight rates fell by 90% as boats carried products along the canal from Midwestern farms through Buffalo to Albany. Passengers cruised the route in a comfortable and quick five days instead of spending two weeks in crowded stagecoaches. The public hailed Clinton’s accomplishments. And the Big Apple blossomed: before the canal, ports like Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Baltimore all had higher trade and traffic. But the canal made New York City ground zero for heartland produce, and commerce followed. Within 15 years, New York was the busiest port in the country, moving more than Boston, Baltimore, and New Orleans put together.

"To and from Albany and Buffalo, by the Erie Canal", 1846. Fares for packet boats traveling between Albany and Buffalo, from the National Almanac, 1846, p. 63. From ErieCanal.org.

It also made businesses and people perk up to the economic potential of a national economy; the canal is widely credited with opening the interior of the United States to settlement and increasing the flow of ideas around the country. Historians say social reform movements like abolitionism and women’s suffrage were able take root and gain traction in far-flung places; westbound immigrants flowed into America’s heartland, bringing different customs and religions in their wake.

"A Busy Apple Season, Thousands of Barrels awaiting transportation, Medina, N.Y." (No. 1943, Rochester News Co., Rochester, N.Y.) -- Postcard; postmarked July 2 + 3, 1906. From ErieCanal.org.

And within the borders of the Empire State, the canal’s impact is, to this day, almost immeasurable. Before the canal was built, 85% of New Yorkers lived in rural villages of fewer than 3,000 people. Take one glance at a map, and sans Binghamton and Elmira, every single major city cropped up along the trade route established by the canal. From New York City to Albany, over to Schenectady, Utica, Syracuse, up through Rochester, Buffalo. Now, about 80% of the state’s population lives within 25 miles of the Canal.

Look Over Here, Trivia Fanatics!

  • The Erie Canal is 363 miles long, 40 feet deep and 4 feet wide.
  • Construction began in 1817; it was opened for business in 1825.
  • Within 15 years of opening, New York was the busiest port in America, and moved tonnages greater than Boston, Baltimore, and New Orleans combined.
  • The canal contains 18 aqueducts and 72 locks.
  • The tools used to construct the canal included: bare hands, picks, shovels.
  • Laborers (estimates vary) were paid between 50 cents and $1 per day, which sounds like a horrifically low sum, but paid much more than the immigrants who came from Britain, Germany, and Ireland to build the canal could get in their home countries.
  • All told, the Erie Canal cost $7 million to build, but reduced shipping costs significantly. Pre-canal, shipping one ton of freight from Buffalo to New York cost $100. Post-canal, it was $10.
  • In 1862, the Erie Canal was widened to 70 feet and deepened to 7.
  • By 1882, the tolls on the canal had completely paid for the construction of it, and were eliminated.
  • The canal is still in use: about 200,000 tons of goods are shipped via the Erie Canal annually.

(Data gathered from New York State records and academic histories).

This is not just bygone history -- Take a trip today!

Curious to learn more but unsure if staring at a waterway will float your boat? Fret not, there’s plenty to do, between solemn peeks into Clinton’s Ditch. Along the canal, are four national parks, 34 national historic landmarks, historic canal sites and vessels, a 100-mile mural trail and 200+ communities brimming with museums, antiques shops, farm-to-table eateries, and galleries. Start mapping out your trip here.



Click image to purchase "Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and The Making of a Great Nation" written by Peter L. Bernstein

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