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 American hadn't opened the door to the inner continent -- and eventually extended that grasp 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 sitting on 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 surveyor's instrument called a transit, and each fifty-foot trench had to be dead accurate. Imagine my reaction to learning that the diggers of the original canal, working with transits not unlike the one I had, 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.
I was hooked. These videos are the result of my awareness of just how difficult the project was, and how correct Thomas Jefferson was when he called the proposal to build the canal, "little short of madness". 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 as big as Volkswagons... all tough enough with modern equipment today, let alone the mules and muscle-power of the early nineteenth century! Stephen Drew -- Rochester, NY