Source: View of Erie Canal by John William Hill, 1829. Watercolor on paper.
The Erie Canal, which opened between 1821 and 1825, represents one of the best examples of canal construction aimed at extending inland transport systems, of foremost importance in the development of the United States. At its completion, the 9 million dollars (1825 dollars) project was about 580 km long, 40 feet wide and at least four feet deep. By linking New York to Albany to Buffalo, the Erie Canal initiated a new era of growth for inland freight transportation for East Coast ports. It reduced the cost of moving a ton of flour from Buffalo to New York from $120 to $6. It also reduced the transit time from three weeks to six days. At that time, New York was only the fifth largest American seaport, behind Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New Orleans. By 1850, New York evolved to become the most active port in the United States, as well as its primate city handling maritime traffic greater than Boston, Baltimore and New Orleans combined. In its early stages, barges were towed upstream by horses walking along the towpath, as seen on the above painting. Barges going downstream simply used the current and a rudder for steerage. Later, diesel engine propelled barges were used.
In 1918, the Erie Canal system was renamed the New York State Barge Canal. With the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway in 1959 as well as because of a major shift of freight shipments to railways and roads, traffic on the canal declined substantially in the second half of the 20th century. Then, commercial traffic almost ceased and the canal is used today mostly for leisure purposes. To reflect its new recreational function, the system was renamed in 1992 as the New York State Canal System. The canal still serves a niche freight function and is occasionally used to move project and specialized cargo too large to fit on road or rail.