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WCNY DocumentariesErie: The Canal That Made America
Rating: TV-Y

The Erie Canal, America’s 19th century engineering marvel, and the promise of a new nation

About the Documentary

Fifteen miles. It is an average commute to work in 21st century America, or the jaunt to a youth sports practice on a school night. Fifteen miles. In the formative days of our nation, it was the working day for so many who helped push America west along its first superhighway.

“Erie: The Canal That Made America” is a one-hour documentary, marking the bicentennial of the start of construction of the Erie Canal when surveyors and excavators began linking a young United States’ east to its western frontier. It depicts how a young nation broke through with its first national public works project – America’s greatest – by succeeding in constructing a supposedly impossible-to-build, 363 mile man-made waterway to America’s heartland. Once the waters of the Great Lakes were wed with the Atlantic Ocean, the canal helped create what America now knows as the Empire State and propelled New York City into the role of America’s leading port and economic hub.

The United States marks the bicentennial of the Erie Canal in 2017. Surveyors and excavators began linking the United States’ east to its west in 1817. A young nation broke through with its first great crusade of ingenuity by willing the man-made waterway to places linked to the American heartland and linking a fledgling nation to the rest of the world.

Though it is 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 certainly made New York City America’s leading port and economic hub once the waters of the Great Lakes were wed with the Atlantic. The confluence would change the course of cities beyond the northeast, including New Orleans and Chicago and Detroit.

WCNY’S Erie: The Canal That Made America is a defining story of immigration. Europeans poured their lives into digging and developing homes, businesses and communities along “Clinton’s Ditch.” It is the story of the political gambit taken to drive the waterway across the region south of the Adirondack Mountains and into the Great Lakes. A canal was first proposed by George Washington in the 1790s. But it took New York to make it happen.

WCNY’s Erie: The Canal That Made America follows the system’s routes that became invaluable supply chains for the Union Army during the Civil War. Slaves fleeing the south found safe paths to freedom in Canada along the canals. Safe houses were kept. African Americans settled in canal towns.

The canal became the place to see people like Amelia Bloomer, editor of the first newspaper for women and a women’s rights movement pioneer. Suffragists such as Harriet Stanton Blanch also raised awareness about women’s rights from the deck of packet boats that traveled a Canal Boat campaign for the rights of women.

The Erie Canal motivated other states to join the ride. Ohio built a link from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi Valley, helping Cleveland rise from a frontier village to one of the nation’s great ports. Cincinnati served as a gateway for food products to move down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and up the canal system to Buffalo and beyond. Pennsylvania built a portage canal system to Pittsburgh using stationary steam engines and inclined plans to move packet boats over the Allegheny Mountains on rails.

Even a century after America’s rail system, and later its highway and air traffic systems usurped the canals as the way to move people and freight, the Erie has enjoyed a renaissance as a socio-economic lifeline for communities.