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Interpreting the Evidence

Canal Boats in their Winter Quarters, from Leslie's Illustrated, May 6, 1871

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Eras:

    Industrialization (1870 - 1900)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Comprehension

  • Grade Level:

    Upper Elementary
    Middle School
    High School
    College University

  • Topics:

    Erie Canal

  • Primary Source Types:


  • Regions:

    Western New York
    Finger Lakes
    Central New York
    Capital District
    New York State
    United States

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load Canal Boats in their Winter Quarters, from Leslie's Illustrated, May 6, 1871 in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Historical Context: 


The Maker of Cities 

F. Daniel Larkin, SUNY Oneonta 

A review of the growth of cities along the route of the Erie Canal reveals 

the canal's immense impact. In 1814, three years before canal construction started, a few villages already existed along the Mohawk River, including Rome. However, there were almost no settlements west of Rome along the future canal route. Buffalo existed, but its population of 1,100 residents compared poorly with the 10,000 people then living in Albany. 

By 1820, the completed central section of the Erie Canal was open and its impact on western communities was becoming noticeable. Buffalo's numbers doubled, newcomer Rochester boasted a population of 1,500, and Syracuse was on the map with 1,800 citizens. Utica, not listed in the 1814 count, had grown to nearly 3,000 people by 1820. Nearby Rome experienced an 18.5 percent increase in its number of residents. 

The whole length of the Erie Canal was opened in October 1825. During that year, a New York State census was taken. At that time, the state took a population count in the middle of each decade to supplement the national census, which was taken in years ending in a zero. Again, the communities along the western half of the canal showed the most rapid expansion: Buffalo's population had more than doubled, to a total of 5,141 people; Rochester's population had grown by a factor of three and a half in five years; and Syracuse had doubled in size. By 1825, Lockport, which had begun as a construction camp around a series of locks climbing the Niagara Escarpment, was a city of 3,000 people. Utica had expanded by nearly 70 percent, and Albany had managed to sustain a 25 percent growth rate. 

During the 10 years after the completion of the canal, the Erie's impact on communities along its route was even more apparent and impressive. By 1835, Albany, with its population of 28,109, was still the state's largest city north of New York City. Albany had grown by 76 percent since 1825. Utica, 90 miles west of Albany, experienced a growth rate of 101 percent, with a total 1835 population of 10,138 people. Syracuse's 1835 population of 7,793 reflected a rate of expansion of 103 percent for the decade. Lockport also grew by 103 percent. Rochester and Buffalo showed the greatest percentage gains. In 1835, Rochester had 14,404 people, a 238 percent increase over 1825. Buffalo grew by no less than 283 percent, to end up with a population of 19,715. Even Rome, whose population increase had lagged behind because the original Erie Canal passed a half-mile south of the village, managed a 27 percent growth rate for the decade. 

There is no question that up until 1835 most of the growth of communities located along the route was caused directly by the Erie Canal. It is more difficult to make this assertion for the years following 1835. Railroads made their appearance along the canal route during the 1830s. They competed powerfully with the canal for the passenger trade and, to a lesser degree, for the transportation of freight. As a result, both the canal and the railroads contributed to further urban growth after 1835. 


The Remington Arms Co., Ilion, New York 

F. Daniel Larkin, SUNY Oneonta 

By the time the entire Erie Canal was opened in 1825, the Industrial Revolution 

had made its appearance in America, particularly in the northeastern states. New York State was well suited to industrial development. By 1820, it led the United States in population. Raw materials needed by factories were found in New York or in nearby states. New York City was a superb port on the Atlantic Ocean. The state was rich in rivers and streams, many of which contributed to New York's water-power potential. In the days before electricity and affordable steam engines, the force of water was a critical factor in the early growth of manufacturing. About 100 miles of the route of the new Erie Canal passed through the Mohawk Valley. Throughout this valley, numerous swift streams dropped approximately 1,000 feet over a distance of 10 to 15 miles in their race to meet the Mohawk River. These streams provided an almost unlimited number of sites for water-powered mills, and soon factories dotted the valley landscape. 

One such factory was a forge located in Ilion, on the south side of the Mohawk River, about 80 miles west of Albany. In 1816, Eliphalet Remington II, working under the guidance of his father, began manufacturing rifle barrels in Ilion. Initially the barrels were sold locally, but soon Remington's business volume increased and led him to expand. In 1828, three years after the opening of the Erie Canal, Remington bought land along the canal's bank and moved his operations there. In his new location on the canal, Remington had inexpensive access to distant markets and to sources of raw materials. 

Less than 20 years after the move, the Remington factory, which by now contained several water-powered machines for arms manufacture, received an important order. In 1846, war broke out between the United States and Mexico. During that conflict, the U.S. Navy awarded Remington a contract to produce 1,000 carbines, or short barreled rifles. It was the first of many military orders that would bring about greater expansion of what was now E. Remington and Son. The successful factory also helped Ilion and the surrounding area prosper. Another order, from the U.S. Army, for 10,000 Model 1841 percussion rifles, soon followed. A second order was filled by the middle 1850s, and most of those Remington rifles saw service in the Civil War. It was during this period of increased production that the company built its own boat for transport on the Erie Canal, which was undergoing its first enlargement. 

The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 rapidly increased demand for arms for the Union army. The war's enormous needs strained the manufacturing capacity of the U.S. government's arsenal in Springfield, Massachusetts, to the point that the government turned to private arms factories to fill its requirements. Although Remington continued to produce hunting rifles, the Civil War brought a huge increase in government orders for military weapons and led to physical expansion of the Remington plant on the banks of the Erie Canal and to the manufacture of high-quality revolvers as well as rifles. Remington's two younger sons joined their father and older brother in the business, now called E. Remington and Sons. Remington's war contracts resulted in the production of 250,000 rifles, carbines, and revolvers. This rivaled Colt's Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company factory for the most arms produced for the Union war effort. However, when the fighting ended in 1865, so did the government contracts. 

With the return of peace, the arms factory in Ilion reverted to the manufacture of hunting rifles. By then, metallic cartridge breechloaders were rapidly replacing older muzzle-loaded guns. E. Remington and Sons developed a particularly rugged breechloader suitable for military as well as civilian use. Soon, military orders resumed and continued through the remainder of the 19th century, leading to the manufacture of more than one million new rifles for the armed forces of the United States and numerous foreign governments. Production of revolvers also continued, and the company introduced shotguns. Proximity to the Erie Canal gave the company continuous access to low-cost transportation. 

By the beginning of the 20th century, military orders had declined, but the production of hunting rifles and double-barreled shotguns helped sustain what was now called the Remington Arms Company. Then, in 1914, with the outbreak of World War I, military orders poured in from Russia, France, England, and eventually the United States government. During World War I, more than two million rifles were produced at the Ilion plant and at another Remington-owned facility. In the 1940s, during World War II, the Ilion factory again mobilized for military production. By then, the Erie Canal had been enlarged once more and had become part of the Barge Canal System. 

Although the Remington family has not been involved in the management of the firm since 1888, the Remington Arms Company continues to manufacture firearms at Ilion. The Erie Canal still passes through the Ilion area but is no longer adjacent to the factory. Remington Arms is the oldest and one of the largest gunmakers in the United States. It is also quite possibly the oldest of those businesses located on the banks of the Erie Canal that still make the same kind of product they originally manufactured 


The Erie Canal and New York City 

Ann L. Buttenwieser, Urban Planner 

Hogs, horses, and cattle; flour, oats, and barley; staves for making barrels in 1 which to store and ship goods; beer and spring water – all were shipped from Albany to New York City with the opening of the Erie Canal. The canal boats returning upstate carried a different variety of products: furniture, fabrics, dishes, glasses, and tools needed to build the new homes of the settlers who would use these products. Early price lists showing freight costs from New York City to Albany were often quoted in shillings and pence, the standard currency of the period. 

The movement of goods on the Erie Canal and to and from Albany boosted an already prominent New York City to the status of chief business and financial center of the nation. When the canal opened in 1825, the additional grain and farm produce traveling through the city increased gross business by $6 million. Five hundred new commercial ventures sprang up in just the first few months after the opening. The April 1825 Gazette, a local city newspaper, carried 1,115 new advertisements. Also in that year, entrepreneurs established 12 banks and 13 marine insurance companies, with aggregate investments of $23 million. 

Flour was just one of many products shipped from Albany to New York City. The volume of this staple traveling on the Erie Canal, however, helped turn New York City into the most important flour market in the United States. Inspections in the chief ports of the U.S. show that in 1820, before the canal opened, Baltimore led with 577,000 barrels, Philadelphia was second with 400,000, and New York was third with 267,000. Three years later, with the Erie Canal only partially open, New York passed Philadelphia, although Baltimore was still first. In 1827, New York took the lead in the flour competition, with 625,000 barrels to Baltimore's 572,000 and Philadelphia's 351,000. By 1860, New York had increased its lead. Its flour exports now totaled $5 million more than Philadelphia's and $4 million more than Baltimore's. 

After the Erie Canal opened, new stores sprang up in New York. They sold sugar, spices, coffee, hardware, and locally made or imported textiles that were to be sent westward via the canal. Among the stores clustered in lower Manhattan on the streets behind the waterfront was the New York Arcade, opened in 1827. Here, in the forerunner of today's mall, shoppers could stroll through a protected, skylit corridor and make purchases at 40 shops. 

The proliferation of such stores created a demand for new “white collar" workers, further adding to the city's growing economy. These employees were mostly male and relatives of the shop owners. They included clerks to record the sales and bookkeepers to count the money at the end of each day, as well as salesmen to convince out-of-town shopkeepers to buy their wares at the new arcades. 

The products coming through the Erie Canal also created banking jobs. Upstate farmers harvested their grain in the fall, but by the time it was milled into flour, the canal had frozen over; they could not sell the flour until spring. The farmers needed money in their pockets in the fall, however, to pay for milling and storing the flour through the winter and to buy seed for spring planting. New York City's produce merchants decided to help the flour market by becoming bankers. These new merchant bankers had one goal: to be assured of a ready supply of flour for their export businesses. To accomplish this, they loaned the farmers a part of the purchase price of the flour several months in advance. Although the farmers paid interest on these loans, they could now pay their millers and packers to hold the flour until spring. This also guaranteed the merchant bankers first call on the flour for which they had partially paid. The system ensured that the merchant bankers would have produce to export. It also allowed them to use the interest from the loans to buy even more of the farmers' products. 

Thus, a financial services industry, built around Erie Canal flour, began in New York City. Upstate, except in times of crop failure, farmers no longer suffered through cashless periods. Often, farmers spent the new cash on furniture, fabrics, and tools, which were shipped from New York City to Albany and beyond. More and more cash began to circulate within the economic system, further stimulating trade and manufacturing.


The Port of New York 

Ann L. Buttenwieser, Urban Planner 


By the time of the Civil War, New York City had become one of the three top 

port cities in the world, in terms of dollar value and weight in tons of goods entering and leaving the port. In 1860, only London and Liverpool had higher values and tonnage. New York had also surpassed the once-larger ports of Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Two-thirds of all the nation's imports and one-third of its exports now flowed through New York City. It handled more textile imports and grain exports than the formerly dominant port cities of Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia combined. 

A number of factors made New York City a prime national port. It had a superb, natural, deep-water harbor and landings on the East River that were protected from winds and ice floes. It had the necessary infrastructure, or basic facilities and equipment, needed to store vessels and cargo. And, after the opening of the Erie Canal, it had what the rival ports of Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia did not have: a geographic location that gave it direct, inexpensive access to the interior of the United States. 

The opening of the Erie Canal introduced a new type of vessel to take advantage of these geographic resources. The horse- or mule-driven barges of the canal boat lines, such as Black River and others, transported large quantities of raw materials, including food, fuel, and hay (New York City's army of horses had to be fed every day), from the hinterlands. Manufactured goods were transported from abroad to the city by ocean going vessels and were eventually carted on canal boats up to Albany, Canada, and the American Midwest. In 1824, the year before the opening of the Erie Canal, 157,000 tons of goods moved down the Hudson River into New York Harbor. Twelve years later, the eastbound tonnage from the West had nearly quadrupled. 

Excellent natural advantages do not necessarily guarantee good port facilities. Arriving in the city under tow by steamboat, the canal barges needed a place to tie up. Their layovers might last for weeks while they waited for a full load before returning to the canal. Or they might last the entire winter, as the bargemen waited for the ice in the Hudson River and the Erie Canal to break up. Warehouses and grain elevators were also needed on shore to store the flour, grain, and apples coming from upstream and the household goods and textiles waiting for the return trip. The increasing barge traffic of companies such as the Black River and New York Line of canal boats stimulated the building of improved port facilities. 

The city had always left dock and warehouse construction to private landowners. Anyone who bought a waterfront lot from the city was required to build a street along the water, a bulkhead to keep the street from falling into the water, and a dock to accommodate shipping. The bargemen settled along the East River in lower Manhattan in what became known as the "Flour District." This was the oldest part of the city, and so the piers and bulkheads were already in place. Photographs from as late as the early 1900s show barges tied so close to one another that they resemble a floating village. Since the canallers lived on these vessels with their families, animals, and other possessions, it actually was a floating village. 

The canal boats' success caused severe overcrowding along already old and deteriorating East River piers. To address these problems, Daniel Richards, a landowner, constructed a brand-new barge terminal in Brooklyn, between Red Hook and Atlantic Basin, in 1839–1846. There, out of marshland, Richards created a 40-acre basin capable of holding 100 ships at a time. He also erected the port's first steam-powered grain elevator. Other developers soon enhanced the docks with 20 acres of four-story red brick and stone warehouses and grain elevators. By the mid-1800s, this became the main terminus for Erie Canal boats. Erie Basin still exists today, but it is only a shadow of its former glorious self. A few of the brick structures still stand, and barges still find safe harbor here. The pier currently houses a police tow pound and a public esplanade with a magnificent view of New York Harbor.