The Erie Canal is credited with the development of much of Upstate New York when construction began 200 years ago. But a locally produced documentary sets out to prove that the impact was felt far beyond New York State. PBS’s “Erie: the Canal that Made America” will be broadcast nationally next week.
Senior Director of Special Productions at WCNY Television Jim Aroune says the canal can be linked to endless political, cultural, and economic opportunities outside of New York.
“My kids are tired of me connecting everything to the Erie Canal. The thing is, you can.”
Just like the canal was a tough sell, Aroune says the folks at PBS thought it was just a New York story until he explained…
“That so much of this country’s evolution arrived down this corridor. Some of the ideas that we take for granted now. Some of the places that we believe have nothing to do with this idea of delivering people into the heartland. They came from this idea.”
Aroune says the 363 mile Erie Canal not only funneled goods to the Great Lakes and Midwest, but also ideas, from the anti-slavery and women’s rights movements to Mormonism.
“In the span of two generations, the speed of delivering goods leaps forward so quickly. From the comparative grind of putting it on wagons and putting it over hillsides, to allowing it to flow easily. That was mind blowing. Four miles an hour doesn’t seem like anything except it was a beautifully smooth, nonstop four miles an hour.”
He says it spurred a handful of other states to invest in canal systems, and it helped populate cities like Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, and Chicago on the way to the Mississippi. A couple decades later, railroads arrive. Aroune says historians say contrary to popular belief, trains didn’t kill the canal; they actually coincided thanks to governor and President Theodore Roosevelt who pushed for the expansion of the canal and fought the railroad monopolies. Aroune says business on the canal hums along for a few more decades until the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway in 1959.
“Commercial ocean traffic can simply go up the Hudson and then into the seaway and down into Lake Ontario and out into the Great Lakes though the Welland Canal. That’s when the Erie Canal ends its existence as a meaningful commercial route. It bypasses New York State.”
Only a few short years after the Erie Canal does the best business in its history, Aroune says it quickly loses its relevance. It would be another 30 years or so before efforts emerge to preserve and re-develop the canal as a heritage asset, living museum, and recreational resource.
The documentary, “Erie: the Canal that Made America,” airs Tuesday September 12th at 8 p.m. on WCNY and PBS stations nationwide. You can view the trailer for the documentary here, at pbs.org.