As the population of interior New York increased, developers pushed for a faster method of transportation between the area and developed population centers like the city of New York.
The Erie Canal, completed in 1825, revolutionized inland travel and ushered in a broader era of canal construction across the state, connecting the state capital of Albany on the Hudson River to Western New York and the Great Lakes.
The 363-mile artificial waterway opened the New York interior to trade, transportation, and seemingly limitless economic opportunities to communities along its path.
The historic route ran south along Onondaga Lake at Syracuse and grazed the north shore of Cayuga Lake before traveling through the northern portions of Cayuga, Seneca, Wayne, and Monroe Counties along its path between the cities of Syracuse and Rochester.
Farmers were now able to ship their fruits, vegetables, grains, and animals farther afield to markets along the Eastern Seaboard. Canal development was quickly followed by water-powered flour mills, cotton and wool mills, sawmills, paper mills, tanneries, and distilleries that helped transform the raw products into additional goods to be shipped to larger cities and markets in the east.
Rochester became known as the “Flour City” because of its many flour mills powered by the waterfalls along the Genesee River, and the connectivity provided by the Erie Canal allowed New York farmers to process their wheat in Rochester and ship it across the country. By the end of the 1830s, Rochester was the third largest city in the state of New York.
Canals also allowed for cheaper shipping of heavy materials. Minerals from the glacial formation of the region became some of the first products associated with the Syracuse area. Commercial salt production boomed near the marshy south shore of Onondaga Lake as canal shipping made transporting bulky cargo quicker and less expensive.
Syracuse and other Onondaga County villages economies were built around saltworks and related industries of firewood cutting, barrel production, pump manufacturing, and pipe making. Pork became a popular commodity as inland farmers preparing pork for shipping used salt produced around Syracuse. Limestone, an essential product for plaster, cement, and fertilizer was also quarried in Onondaga County.
While the 1825-alignment of the Erie Canal bypassed the heart of the Finger Lakes, the second era of canal building that was ushered in once developers saw the success of the Erie Canal created more local connections to facilitate commercial opportunities and quicker trade.
Opened in 1832, the 17-mile Seneca-Cayuga Canal connected the northern portions of the two largest Finger Lakes along the canalized Seneca River. This extended canal shipping further hinterland to wheat growers and farmers in Tompkins, Schuyler, Yates, and Ontario Counties and contributed to the development of the communities of Seneca Falls, Waterloo, and Geneva.
The Chemung Canal ran south from Watkins Glen on the southern tip of Seneca Lake along the Chemung River through Chemung County and into Pennsylvania, providing a water route from coal country to Lake Erie.
The Genesee Valley Canal, built during the 1840s, ran south from Rochester and connected the Erie Canal to farmers and wheat growers in inner Livingston County, bringing more grain to the Rochester mills.
Much like the commercial development that grew along the Erie Canal during the 1820s, processing facilities, commercial centers, and increased transportation also developed along the smaller canals connecting the Finger Lakes during the 1830s and 1840s.
Steamboats towed barges full of timber, milled goods, and coal across the Finger Lakes to access the Erie Canal, Great Lakes, and ultimately larger markets, including the city of New York.
Along with economic opportunities, canals also provided traditional inroad for settlement. Besides Binghamton and Elmira, every major city in New York State is located along a trade route established by the Erie Canal.
The Erie Canal became a major immigration route with more immigrants moving westward along the Erie Canal corridor than any other trans-Appalachian canal. Close to 80% of upstate New York’s population lives within 25 miles of the canal’s path.
Immigrants who first came to central New York to build the canal settled in Syracuse, Rochester, and smaller towns that lined the canal, creating ethnic neighborhoods associated with the Irish and German immigrants who helped construct the canal.
Illustrations, from above: 1858 Canal Map of New York State; a flour grinding stone wheel in Rochester; the Cayuga-Seneca Canal at Seneca Falls in June 2017; and an Erie Canal packet boat, possibly, as was often the case overcrowded with immigrants.
This essay is drawn from the National Park Service’s Finger Lakes National Heritage Area Feasibility Study. You can read about the study and the Finger Lakes National Heritage Area here.