When the first section of the Erie Canal opened in 1825, it was a marvel of engineering and human labor. Cut through the rolling hills and wide fertile valleys of upstate New York, it would become the superhighway of antebellum America. From Albany to Buffalo, it opened up the American frontier and made westward expansion inevitable. It turned New York Harbor into the nation’s number one port. It shaped social and economic development. With branches that eventually criss-crossed the entire state, cities and industries developed along the canal and flourished—including Rochester, Syracuse and Binghamton.
Until the American colonies declared independence in 1776, European settlement of the New World was largely confined to the eastern seaboard. The Appalachian Mountains were a formidable obstacle to westward movement. Only the Mohawk River Valley in New York offered both a land and a water passage through the mountains.
By 1817, plans for a man-made waterway fed by the Mohawk River and bypassing its waterfalls and rapids had been made. This plan was to traverse the entire state of New York, connecting the Hudson River in the east with the Great Lakes in the west. When it was opened, vast parcels of land became accessible for the first time. Shipping costs dropped dramatically. Immigrants to America, in search of new lands and new opportunities in the west, crowded canal boats. The westward movement of the nation was begun.
This great feat of American tenacity and ingenuity was immortalized in an old boatman’s folksong. The Erie Canal Song, also known as Low Bridge, was first published on this day 1913. It was composed in order to protest the coming of the mechanized barge which would replace the mule that had been used previously. Its refrain was familiar to generations of Americans afterward:
Low bridge, everybody down
Low bridge, for we're coming to a town
And you'll always know your neighbor
And you'll always know your pal
If you've ever navigated on the Erie Canal.
The song not only captured a slice of nostalgia, it epitomized the American pioneer grit and covenantal spirit.