Oneida County History Center
A crowd gathered in the early morning of July 4, 1817 near Rome as ground was broken to signal the beginning of construction of the canal.
Two years later, Oct. 22, 1819, the section between Utica and Rome was opened. Thousands cheered as the first boat to travel on the Erie ... the 60-foot “Chief Engineer of Rome” named for Benjamin Wright of Rome, who was the middle section’s civil engineer ... left Rome for Utica towed by one horse.
When the canal was completed in 1825, it became an immediate success. Revenues poured in as 218,000 tons of freight were carried the first year. The cost of shipping cargo from Albany to Buffalo dropped from $100 to $7. The value of land along the canal increased greatly. And Utica and Rome became boom towns with Utica’s population exploding in 1820-30 from 2,972 to 8,323 and Rome’s from 3,569 to 4,360.
The county’s population grew in that decade, too, from 50,997 to 71,326. Many of its new residents were Irish immigrants who helped to build the Erie and most were Catholic. This led to the organization of the first Catholic parish west of Albany. It was called St. John’s and still exists today in downtown Utica.
The Erie was ideal for hauling freight, but hauling passengers was another matter. Packet boats were small and usually overcrowded. Travelers complained about long delays as captains and crews frequented the many saloons that lined the canal. Women passengers often were accosted by “canawlers” ... violent men who drank hard, fought hard and, when in need of money, would board a boat, knock a passenger on the head, rob him and then throw him overboard.Type your paragraph here.
When talk of building a canal from the Hudson River to Lake Erie via the Mohawk Valley began in earnest, in about 1810, many powerful politicians opposed the project. Thomas Jefferson said, “Making a canal 350 miles through wilderness ... it is a little short of madness. Perhaps in 100 years.” But in 1815, the state Legislature prodded by political leader DeWitt Clinton voted to survey the route an Erie Canal would follow. Two years later, the survey concluded that the 363-mile canal could be built for $6 million. It eventually cost $7 million.
Clinton ... by then governor of the state ... decided that work on the 94-mile middle section of the canal from Utica west to the Seneca River would be completed first since the terrain was flat and the earth soft. That meant the greatest progress could be made in the shortest time thus silencing opponents.