The phrase “Clinton’s Folly” does not, as one might assume, refer to the Monica Lewinsky scandal, or Hillary Clinton’s decision in 2016 not to devote more campaign resources to crucial swing states.
Opponents of then-New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton’s plan to build a waterway from the Hudson River to Lake Erie used that derogatory phrase for the Erie Canal.
They turned out to be wrong. The famed canal “ensured the status of New York City as America’s premiere seaport, and gateway to the interior – eclipsing New Orleans, Philadelphia, Boston and Baltimore,” according to the website for the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, established by Congress in 2000. The canal reduced the travel time between Albany and Buffalo from two weeks by stagecoach to five days by canal. And it contributed to an explosion in Buffalo’s population and prominence.
“The Erie Canal was finished in 1825; and from that time to the present Buffalo has increased in wealth and population with the characteristic rapidity of the cities of the West,” reads the entry for Buffalo in the 1860 volume “Historical and Statistical Gazetteer of New York State.”
In 1829, 3,640 bushels of wheat were shipped across the canal from Buffalo to New York, according to the New York State Canal Corp. By 1837, that figure had increased to 500,000 bushels, and four years later, it reached a million. Through tolls, the canal paid off the cost of its construction in only nine years. The cost of shipping a ton of flour from Buffalo to New York was reduced from $120 to $6, according to a document at Hofstra University’s website.
The canal transformed Buffalo from “a small, small town into a major, major city and destination,” said Thomas Dee, president of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., in a 2015 C-SPAN report.
“It really put Buffalo on the map,” Dee said.
Buffalo became a melting pot, as well, as immigrants from Ireland, Poland, Italy and other nations poured into the city to work on the canal. It carried America’s population westward – 80 percent of upstate New York’s population lives within 25 miles of the Erie Canal.
Just as the Erie Canal’s rise in importance coincided with Buffalo’s, the canal’s decline also contributed to a downturn for the city. Growing competition from railroads, highways and the St. Lawrence Seaway – which opened in 1959 – led to a dramatic decline in commercial traffic on the Erie Canal in the latter part of the 20th century, according to the Canal Corp.
But the canal’s importance to Buffalo’s history has been central to the reinvestment seen in downtown Buffalo in the last 10 years, with Canalside being central to the city’s rebirth.