The Erie Canal and its effect on New England

It may seem hard to believe that one of the most influential man-made waterways in the history of the world flows into Troy, N.Y., just a three-hour drive from Wilton. The Erie Canal — measuring 363 miles and containing more than 80 locks — connected the Great Lakes region to the Eastern Seaboard for the first time in 1825, and is still in operation today.

On Feb. 23, the second part of the Wilton Library and Wilton Historical Society’s American Made scholarly series will take a close look at the Erie Canal and the effect it had on Connecticut’s 19th-Century industrial boom with Dr. Ann Green, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania.

The speed with which the canal was built, Dr. Green said by phone last week, is a large part of the canal’s “great story.”

“With picks and shovels they built a 365-mile canal across upstate New York in eight years. They probably stopped some during the winter, but wars stopped during the winter [in 1820],” she said with a laugh.

Though many people view the 19th Century as being dominated by the steam-powered railroad, Dr. Green said the canal system may have had as strong an effect on the American industrial revolution as the trains.

“A lot of 19th-Century history is written around the railroads as if everything happened because of them, and that once they happen nothing could happen anymore. We got steam engines and everything changed. But it’s not quite so simple,” she said.

Unlike trains, which relied entirely on machines, the Erie Canal is an example of early industrialization in that it changed the geographic landscape of the United States to harness the power of pack animals and water.

“It was one way that Americans tried to reconstruct their landscape in order to be able to use a particular kind of energy source,” she said. In the 1950s we built interstate highways for a variety of reasons, including the easy and efficient use of increasingly high-power, reliable petroleum-fueled automobiles. In the 19th Century, they did they same thing, except with canals.”

The decline of agricultural society in Connecticut and the rest of New England, Dr. Green said, is due in part to the way the Erie Canal connected the inexpensive lands of the Midwest with the most densely populated regions of the country. While it allowed for bulky materials like grain, lumber, and rock to be imported easily from other areas of the country, it also provided a “route” for immigrants to head west.

“People had been trying to farm New England for 300 years, but not always in a kind fashion. There was soil exhaustion, and better, cheaper land out West,” she said. “It becomes a real route for immigration.”

Dr. Green’s lecture will take place on Sunday, Feb. 23, at the Wilton Historical Society from 4 to 5:30.

The five-part series is sponsored by Bankwell in Wilton, with individual sponsors for each lecture. Registration is essential for these very popular lectures. The series is free, although donations are always welcomed. Future lectures will take place on March 2, 16 and 30.