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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.