The Champlain Canal between the Hudson River and Lake Champlain at Whitehall was the first to open. Worked started on the Champlain Canal in October, 1816. The first boats operated in November, 1819, and was fully completed in 1823, two years before the Erie Canal was finished.
On July 4, 1817, the construction of the Erie Canal began at Rome, New York. The plans provided for a canal forty feet wide at the top, eighteen feet wide at the bottom and at least four feet deep.
A little over two years later, on October 22, 1819, the first boat carrying passengers, the Chief Engineer, was floated on the Erie Canal, making the 30-mile round trip between Rome and Utica in 12 hours and 20 minutes, towed by a single horse. A witness recalled when the boat left Utica for the return trip:
“The embarkation took place amid the ringing of bells, the roaring of cannon, and the loud acclamations of thousands of exhilarated spectators, male and female, who lined the banks of the new created river. The scene was truly sublime.”
In November of 1821, canal boats traveled as far as the Little Falls on the Mohawk River. By the end of the next year 220 miles of the canal was open to travel.
The first boat to reach Troy was the Gleaner in September 1823. It had been built that summer and was captained by William Burton with a load of wheat and potash. At Waterford the Gleaner was delayed for several days owing to the locks into the Hudson River not being yet completed. When finally departed for Troy it arrived to the cheers of a large body of bystanders and a military salute. There was a procession to the Troy House where a public dinner was held with toasts and speeches. As the Gleaner continued on to the city of New York (by sail) it was saluted by the people of Albany, Hudson, Poughkeepsie and other places along the way. In New York the celebration was even bigger than it had been in Troy.
A little less than a month later, on October 8, 1823, the Erie Canal opened at Troy. Transportation historian Seymour Dunbar described the scene of jubilation in Troy:
“There was an imposing military display; the firing of innumerable salutes; the delivering of numerous long congratulatory speeches; the discharge of fireworks and the recitation of poems written especially for the occasion; a grand ball; a theatrical performance; and a large public banquet during whose progress those who sat at the tables were requested to drain their glasses to no less than thirteen formal toasts. And after the thirteen toasts had been drunk it appeared to be the consensus of opinion among those present that sufficient honor had not yet been paid to the happy occasion, so twenty-six additional toasts were thereupon proposed and also drunk. The distinguished company finally left the banquet hall wholly convinced that nothing quite so important had ever before happened in the history of the country.”
Meanwhile, the merchants of Troy had prepared a load of good for the first boat headed west to Rochester, as described by the Troy Sentinel:
“When the procession of boats from the junction of the western and northern canals [at Waterford], had passed on to Albany, according to the order of arrangements previously made, the Trojan Trader, a western freight boat, came down to the bridge near the Gibbonsville [West Troy, now Watervliet] basin, opposite this city, and took on board the first load of merchandise sent from the Hudson west on the Erie canal. The goods had been purchased several days and were only waiting for the navigation to be opened. As the occasion was new and interesting to us here, our merchants took some little pains to manifest their gratification. As the side cut into the river opposite to Troy was not yet done, and as the junction canal, though completed and filled with water, could not yet be opened so as to permit the Trojan Trader to come around by Waterford down the Hudson to be loaded at the wharf, it became necessary to transport the goods on wheels across the river to the place of embarkation on the main trunk of the canal. Accordingly in the morning, this necessity being intimated to the carmen of Troy, with an alacrity highly honorable to their public spirit, they volunteered their services with one accord, to take the goods over. After loading their teams they proceeded in two divisions to the two ferries, and being, through the liberality of Mr. Vanderheyden, the proprietor of the two ferries, taken across in his horse boats, toll free, they had the goods all on the bank of the canal by twelve o’clock. Several of our citizens lent their assistance to load the boat, and at two o’clock, the Trader, having on board upwards of twenty-five tons of merchandise, with her flag flying, and amid the cheers of assembled Trojans, started for the west. The Trojan Trader is commanded by Captain Brace, she is bound for Rochester, and on her flag are painted the following words: ‘From Troy; the first Western boat loaded at Hudson’s river.’ There were between eight and ten tons of merchandise which the Trader could not take; these were put on board The Troy, another western boat, owned at Auburn. ”
On November 15, 1823 the packet boat Superior was the first to pass through the newly opened side cut opposite Troy, which allowed canal traffic easier access to Troy. Two freight boats followed Superior, and unloading their cargoes of wheat and staves at the wharves of Troy.
On October 26, 1825, after eight years and three and a half months of labor, the Erie and Champlain Canals were officially opened and the Hudson River was the scene of a huge maritime pageant. A large flotilla of new and gaily decorated canal boats began their trip on Lake Erie at Buffalo where they entered the new Erie Canal. Cannon had been lined up all along the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers and, starting with the cannon in Buffalo, they fired sequentially, relaying the message to the city of New York that the canal had been opened. The message traveled from Lake Erie at Buffalo to New York in an hour and twenty minutes.
When the boats reached Albany, a large celebration and parade was held with bands playing, bells ringing and cannon booming. William James (Albany’s most prosperous merchant and grandfather of authors William and Henry James) headed the Albany Committee and spoke at the ceremony.
Ten days after they started at Buffalo, at five o’clock in the morning on November 5, the canal boats Chancellor Livingston with Governor George Clinton on board, Young Lion of the West and Seneca Chief reached New York Harbor and were greeted by the New York Common Council on board the steamboat Washington. The procession, greeted by cannon, fireworks and church bells, proceeded to the Brooklyn Navy Yard and then to Sandy Hook where Governor Clinton dumped a keg of fresh water from Lake Erie into the salt water of the Atlantic marking the connection of the two major bodies of water.
By 1847 the freight and passenger business at Albany was larger than that at New Orleans which derived from the Mississippi River and its tributaries.
Today, the Erie, along with the Champlain, Oswego and Cayuga-Seneca canals, are known throughout the world as the most historically significant and influential canal system in North America. Together, these canals are widely seen as a scenic and cultural treasure that evoke powerful memories of a proud past and provide great promise for a bright future.
A multifaceted approach to celebrating the bicentennial is underway.
Champlain Canal 1823 – 2023
The Champlain Canal opened two years prior to the Erie’s completion and celebrates its 200th anniversary this year. Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor and Hudson Crossing Park in Schuylerville have teamed up to celebrate on Saturday, July 29 with a paddling excursion, hikes, and family-friendly fun.
Major Erie Canal Events
Several communities and organizations are already planning signature events for 2025. Among them, the Buffalo Maritime Center will replicate the historic 1825 journey of the canal boat Seneca Chief (now under construction), traveling from Buffalo to New York City in late-September and October with multiple stops along the way. Planning is also underway for multi-day paddling and cycling trips, music, and community events that will extend celebrations all along the canals.
World Canals Conference
International, national, and state delegates will convene in Buffalo from September 21-25, 2025. Hosted by Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, NYS Canal Corporation, Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, and Visit Buffalo Niagara, the conference will also include public events and pre-and post-conference tours at multiple locations.
3rd Century and Legacy Projects
Ribbon cuttings for major community waterfront enhancements and canal infrastructure projects will be on tap throughout 2025. NYS Canal System Tourism Infrastructure and Event Grants and other funding streams will also target opportunities to invest in new preservation projects and recreational amenities.
Bicentennial Promotional Toolkit
Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor is developing social media content, fact sheets, banners, and giveaways to share with communities and sites along the canal to use to promote the bicentennial. The Promotional Toolkit is expected to be available in 2024, thanks to funding support from a grant from Market New York, through I LOVE NY/ New York State’s Division of Tourism as a part of the Regional Economic Development Council awards.
Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor is beginning to assemble a list of bicentennial events and ribbon cuttings for 2025. If your organization or community has an event, ribbon cutting, or bicentennial project in the works, contact the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor.
2024 New York State Parks Centennial
2025 Erie Canal Bicentennial
2026 America’s 250th Anniversary of the American Revolution
2027 Commemoration of the 200th Anniversary of Emancipation in New York State
2028 Cayuga-Seneca Canal Bicentennial
2029 Oswego Canal Bicentennial
Peter Hess and John Warren contributed to this report.