Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

May 25, 2013

CANAL DISCOVERIES: Canal shortened time and distance

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — The opening of the Erie Canal created a dividing line in time that separated a rough and precarious way of life before the canal, to the beginning of a new, more comfortable era following the canal’s completion. In addition to speeding up travel, the canal brought inexpensive transportation for local products going to eastern markets, and for finished goods coming into Niagara County.

Before 1825, housing would have been simple log cabins with hand-made furniture; greased paper for windows and homespun clothing would have been the norm. Meals would have consisted of meat from wild game, fish, salt-pork or beef upon occasion, pork and beans, corn meal mush, and Johnny Cakes or other corn breads.

Oxen were more prevalent than horses, and were used to help clear enough forest to make small fields to cultivate. On top of all of the other hardships, bears and wolves would kill the settlers’ sheep and hogs. To help eliminate the wolf population, settlers were encouraged to shoot the wolves and then turn in the wolves’ ears to collect a bounty.

The few cows that had arrived would wander at will to forage and often after wandering far away, could only be located by the tinkling of a cowbell attached to their necks.

Crops were good in 1817, the year construction began on the Erie Canal, and early settlers took courage that better things were on the horizon. There was a great spirit of cooperation among the pioneers, what the Amish of today call a “barn raising” was known in the 1820’s as a “log rolling bee,” where all of the settlers would help the newest pioneer to erect his log cabin. The ladies would bring food and a feast would follow. At harvest time, there would be “corn husking bees” and the ladies would have “quilting bees.”

After 1825, the benefits of opening the Erie Canal became immediately evident. The flow of goods into and out of this area became commonplace and affordable. The Erie Canal also brought many new settlers to this part of the state. 

With a shortage of bank currency, the Holland Land Company even accepted wheat, cattle and other goods, in exchange for settlers’ land purchases. With the arrival of the canal, real money also flowed into the area and solved a lot of problems inherent in trying to use barter for purchasing.

By 1828, a number of men in the area had profited to a great degree from canal construction and land speculation. These men began building substantial homes of canal stone, brick, and lumber. Fireplaces were usually built in each room. Saw mills grew up along the creeks and finished lumber homes replaced the old log cabins. After the opening of the canal, lumbering became one of the leading industries in the area. Oak lumber from Niagara County was shipped to the Atlantic seaboard. The longer timbers were used in ocean-going vessels and the shorter timbers were cut into staves for barrels. 

With a cheap way to transport crops, Niagara County became the leading fruit area in the state. Cooper shops were busy making barrels for apples to be shipped on the Erie Canal. Also, “Evaporators” and “Dry Houses,” became common and apples were first dried and then stored in barrels.

Carol Sheriff, in her book, The Artificial River, noted that all manner of consumer goods were making their way into Western New York after the opening of the Erie Canal. The Batavia newspaper in 1824 ran the headline “Oyster! Oysters! Beautiful Oysters!” The editor noted, “Let us remember that Providence is the author of the ocean, and DeWitt Clinton the Projector of the Erie Canal.” 

The fact that fresh ocean seafood could now be shipped inland to as far as WNY without spoiling was a demonstration of how time and distance had been reshaped by the Erie Canal. Perishables, such as oysters, would never have survived the several weeks journey by wagon prior to the Erie Canal, but soon became plentiful and affordable after 1825. The trip from the ocean to the Great Lakes had been reduced to a matter of days instead of weeks. 

This scenario was repeated with every creature comfort that was needed by these now-connected settlers. The Erie Canal was used to import nice furniture, fine clothing, perishable foods, and other items that the early settlers thought they had given up for good.

Doug Farley is the director of the Erie Canal Discovery Center, the best place to start your Erie Canal Adventure. His column runs every Saturday. Hours of operation are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Mark your calendars for Sat. June 1 when The ECDC will celebrate "Strawberries & Antiques" at all three History Center sites in Lockport, with a full day of activities.