It's hard to be impressed today by a shallow ditch dug across more or less level ground. After all, today's technology can dig a tunnel underneath the English Channel, and Americans have been to the moon several times! The fact is though, that very few engineering feats have had a bigger impact on all of our lives today than this one project that Thomas Jefferson described in 1809 as "little short of madness".
Watch the following video, and then make your own list of ways in which history would likely be very different today if Americans hadn't opened the door to the inner continent -- and then eventually extended that grasp with railroads all the way to the western sea.
The videos you find on this website aren't intended to tell the complete story of the Erie Canal's construction. They are however, fun tools in the hands of any teacher seeking a highly interactive class about one of the most important -- and unlikely -- infrastructure projects in American History.
You can buy a copy of our "The Grand Erie Canal - The Classroom Collection" DVD for your own personal use from Amazon.
Our VIDEO TOPIC INDEX page includes a link to each of our over thirty video features. You'll find that each short story stands alone,
During the 1980's I made my living with a backhoe installing residential septic systems in Western New York State. My home was near the Erie Canal, and about half-way between Lockport and Rochester. In the winter of 1985 I read how Irish workers overcame the three toughest challenges of the original Erie's construction: The aqueduct at Rochester, the "Deep Cut" at Lockport, and the towpath across the Montezuma Swamp.
My work then consisted of digging level trenches. We used a survey instrument called a transit, and each fifty-foot trench had to be dead accurate. Imagine my reaction when I read that the diggers of the original canal, working with transits not unlike mine, dug a level trench that wound across the virgin wilderness between Lockport and Rochester for 62 miles! If it was a foot too high, boats would "sniff bottom". If it was a foot too low, water would leak and quickly wash out the bank, emptying the canal for miles in either direction. To me, their success in 1825 was the "moon shot" of the nineteenth century.
I was hooked. These videos are the result of my awareness of just how difficult the project was. Thomas Jefferson called the plan to build the canal, "little short of madness", and I would have agreed with him! It was madness!. I say that not as a historian, nor as an engineer... but as a digger who's fought with soft mud, frozen ground, giant tree roots, and rocks the size of small cars ... all tough enough with modern hydraulic equipment today, let alone the soft steel and muscle-power that they had to work with back then! Enjoy our short stories, and try to imagine how different our lives would be today if this project had never been completed. Stephen Drew -- Rochester, NY