October 26, 1825: The Erie Canal opened. And New York would never be the same.
On October 26, 1825, New York Governor DeWitt Clinton began a voyage on the Erie Canal in Buffalo, NY, finishing nine days later on November 4th in the Narrows of New York harbor, where he poured two containers of water from Lake Erie into the Atlantic Ocean. Prior to the creation of this canal, an overland trip via horse-drawn carriage would have required weeks. And New York City, then a small city – and only the 5th busiest port city in the U.S. – would be affected more than anywhere else. Perhaps more than any other single factor, the opening of the Erie Canal was responsible for New York becoming the commercial capitol of America, and eventually the world.
While all of New York was deeply affected by the opening of the Canal, Lower Manhattan, especially waterfront communities like today’s Greenwich Village and the East Village, were more profoundly affected than anywhere else.
Proposed in 1807, and constructed between 1817 and 1825, primarily by immigrant laborers, the Erie Canal provided a much needed route between the East Coast and the interior of our young, growing nation — allowing ships to go from the Atlantic, through New York harbor and the Hudson River to the Great Lakes and the American Midwest and Canada (and eventually with the introduction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico). The Appalachian Mountain chain made travel and commerce between the East Coast and the Ohio Valley / Great Lakes region difficult and expensive. A more cost-effective water route did not exist naturally, but DeWitt Clinton knew that the most logical place to create one was upstate New York. The canal began at Lake Erie in Buffalo, carving its way through central New York State, along the Mohawk River valley to Albany, where it met the Hudson River, which flows south to New York harbor. People and goods could now travel in both directions by boat for a fraction of the cost of overland travel.
By the early 1800’s there was already some commerce on the Greenwich Village Hudson River waterfront. Food industries, including fishing, meat, and sugar, were present due to proximity to the harbor. But after of the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, waterfront activity grew exponentially, and Greenwich Village along the Hudson River became one of the leading production sites for sugar refineries and other industrial plants. (Back in July, GVSHP presented a program with author Robin Shulman and her book Eat The City, which has chapters on both the meat and sugar industries that once dominated the Gansevoort Market area.) Over the years, landfill was used to expand the west shore of Manhattan and facilitate the construction of numerous piers.
In the East Village as well, there was maritime activity due to increased traffic enabled by the Erie Canal. Prior to 1825 there was already some shipbuilding on both sides of the East River, but later a portion of what is now the East Village became known as the “Dry Dock” district. A dry dock is an area near the water that is used for shipbuilding and repair. A large basin was constructed that ships could be brought into, but the water drained out of, for easy repair. Or a ship could be built in the dry dock, which was then flooded to allow the ship to be launched into the river.
The economic boom that accompanied the commerce and shipbuilding provided thousands of jobs. Many immigrants came to New York and settled in areas of Greenwich Village, both east and west, throughout the 1800’s and early 1900’s. But little of that remains today. Dry Dock Playground bears the name of its historic past, and Hudson River Park has replaced the piers.
To read more about how the opening of the Erie Canal affected Greenwich Village’s development, read GVSHP’s proposal for landmark designation of the Far West Village here.