Often credited with helping to create what America now knows as the Empire State, the story of the Erie Canal is more than a New York story. The towpath made New York City America’s leading port and economic hub once the waters of the Great Lakes were wed with the Atlantic, and its confluence would change the course of cities beyond the Northeast, including New Orleans, Chicago, and Cleveland.
The Erie Canal is a defining story of immigration and American culture. Farmers and new citizens poured their lives into digging and developing homes, businesses, and communities along “Clinton’s Ditch.” We learn how six men who would be U.S. president, including Washington, Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt, are linked to the Canal’s destiny, and we discover how a wily New York politician, DeWitt Clinton, championed its construction.
This documentary illustrates how the Canal was a route to immense social change. Slaves fleeing the South found safe paths to freedom in Canada along the Canal, and African Americans settled in canal towns. The ideals of the women’s rights movement and the tenets of new and renewed religions were similarly transported along the Canal.
As the Erie Canal generated social evolution, it also motivated other states to join the ride. More than 3,000 more miles of canals opened in the United States following the successes of the Erie, including canal systems that would offer farmers and industrialists a safe, reliable, and cost-effective route beyond the Mississippi by which to deliver their goods. This would continue into the mid-20th century after a third edition of the Canal opened to ocean-sized barge traffic.
That third edition of the Erie lives on today, enjoying a renaissance as a socio-economic lifeline for communities in New York that have developed their main streets and commercial and cultural centers along it. WCNY shares this amazing story, introducing a new generation to where “15 miles on the Erie Canal” can take you.