The State of New York is the fourth largest of the United States in terms of population, with nearly two thirds of the state’s more than 18 million residents living in the greater New York City metropolitan area. Most people visiting the state for the first time are surprised at the vast rural areas which cover most of the state; open farmlands and vineyards coupled with recreation areas comprise most of the state’s almost 55,000 square miles. New York’s role in the development of America as a nation and a culture has been second to none.
More immigrants passed through the port of New York City than any other American entry port. In colonial days its harbor sheltered ships of all the European nations, trading first with the natives, and later with the settlers of Dutch and British colonies. The produce of the burgeoning Midwest found its way to international markets via New York’s Erie Canal ( and later its railroads), feeding the growth of the ports on the Great Lakes. It was New York City which served as the nation’s first capital. It still serves as the financial center of the United States and in many ways for the rest of the world.
Here are some facts about the history of New York State which helped to build the United States of America.
The Erie Canal
In the years which followed the War of 1812, the farmlands of Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana had limited markets for their produce. The Allegheny Mountains were an imposing barrier between them and the eastern cities and seaports. The same was true of the farmlands of Upstate New York. Roads were primitive and subject to the weather, becoming unpassable following heavy rains. Wagons were expensive, and travel by wagon was slow. Rivers, unfortunately, flowed in the wrong direction, and many posed navigation hazards which made their use for shipping unsafe and unwise.
Several proposals were made to build a canal connecting the Hudson River at Albany to Lake Erie, but the engineering challenges were discouraging. Between the Hudson River and the Erie shore there is a difference of elevation of over 600 feet. The technology of the day limited locks to a rise of about 12 feet. More than fifty locks were thus required to raise or lower canal boats on their journey across the state, a distance of more than 360 miles. The construction of aqueducts, to ensure the water level of the canal itself could be kept stable in all types of weather, added to the engineering problems. Earth and rock could only be moved by manpower, animal power, or water power.
The Erie Canal project opened construction on the Fourth of July, 1817, at Rome, New York. It took two years to complete the first fifteen miles, an intolerably slow pace. The need for more workers increased immigration to the United States, many Irish and German workers arrived to join in the project. Innovations in construction developed through the difficulties encountered as the canal progressed. A type of bulldozer called a scraper, pulled by draft animals, helped move the earth. A pulley and rope device was contrived to pull whole trees and stumps from the ground. As sections were completed they were immediately opened to traffic.
Canal boats were pulled by horses and mules along a towpath which ran beside the canal. Although the pace was plodding, no faster than a wagon, the animal teams were frequently replaced and travel was constant, day and night. When the canal was finished the travel time between Buffalo and Albany was halved. Shipping costs were reduced by up to 95%. Travel to the West, via Buffalo and Lake Erie, was faster and far more comfortable than by stage to Pittsburgh or Wheeling, then in Virginia, and then down the Ohio River. The city of Buffalo began to grow into a major shipping port, as did Cleveland and Toledo in Ohio, and Erie in Pennsylvania.
Almost from the day it was completed improvements on the canal were undertaken, and smaller feeder canals were connected to it, providing shipping advantages throughout the state. The ports of New York and New Jersey thrived with shipping. Eastern cities such as Baltimore and Philadelphia lost business to New York, and soon canal and rail projects were underway to compete with the Erie. The original canal has been mostly replaced by improvement projects, but the Erie Canal still carries traffic, including commercial traffic, in the 21st century, one of America’s earliest and most successful infrastructure projects.