Rome, NY

The “Ditch” That Helped Open the American West

Two costumed guides on porch of 19th-century house in Erie Canal Village, New York

The 580-kilometre Erie Canal helped open the American West in the early 1800s. The Erie Canal Village, in Rome, New York, recreates one of the towns that sprang up along it. Costumed guides tell the canal’s story.
MITCHELL SMYTH/Meridian Writers’ Group

THIS IS WHERE the conquest of the American West began, where the seeds of its “Manifest Destiny,” to forge a country from the Atlantic to the Pacific, were sown.

And all that’s here to record this pivotal moment in history is a wooden marker alongside the dry bed of a ditch, overgrown with small bushes.

The ditch is no more than six metres wide today and about a metre deep. If it wasn’t for the marker, you’d walk right past without noticing it. But once upon a time—July 4, 1817 to be exact—a shovel went into the ground in this meadow, marking the start of the greatest engineering feat of the day.

Eight years later the Erie Canal, a 580-kilometre waterway—then the longest canal in the world—was completed. It would change the face of America.

That meadow is at the centre of Erie Canal Village, a restored pioneer community composed of buildings moved from other places on the canal and set up like a canal town of the 1840s.

A video in the visitor centre tells how, when the canal opened for business in 1825, people could sail up the Hudson River from New York to just north of Albany, then transfer to mule-towed packet boats or barges and go all the way to Buffalo, on Lake Erie.

The journey from New York to Buffalo, which had taken a month on horseback, could now be done in a week.

By the 1830s, 1,000 immigrants a day were passing through Buffalo, transferring to sailboats to take them through the Great Lakes and into the wilds beyond.

Wallboards and maps in the museum remind visitors that it wasn’t all westbound traffic. With the opening of the canal, grain and other commodities from the Midwest could be shipped through the Great Lakes to Buffalo and on to New York, and thence to Europe. New York became a major port, thanks in large part to the Erie Canal.

The wooden marker, “Clinton’s Ditch,” beside the old canal here recalls that the driving force behind the enterprise was DeWitt Clinton, who made the canal his platform in his run for state governor in 1816. When he won he set aside $7 million in state funds for the project.

Cynics called it “Clinton’s Folly,” but the canal paid for itself, through tolls, within 10 years.

A stroll through the “village,” past a blacksmith’s shop, a livery stable, a tavern, school and church, gives an idea of the towns that sprang up along the canal in the 1800s. A huge shed houses sleighs, buggies and carriages. Docents in period dress tell their parts of the story.

The original ditch where the marker stands was in use until the 1830s, when a wider and deeper bypass was constructed—by mostly Irish-immigrant labour, working for 37 cents a day—with muscle power and very little mechanical help.

By the turn of the 20th century, railways had overtaken canal traffic, but the Erie Canal lives on today as a pleasure boating retreat.



Alas, the Erie Canal Village has been privatized, closed and abandoned. For more information read the article at www.atlasobscura.com/places/erie-canal-village.

For information on travel in New York state go to the New York State Division of Tourism website at www.iloveny.com.