Erie Canal

Week 11: Erie Canal (1826)


ALL GRADES: Watch this clip on Youtube explaining how locks work by clicking HERE:

READ K – 3: The Erie Canal  by Peter Spier  (This book can also be found on youtube by clicking HERE:

AND Read “NOTE” below.

4 – 8:  The Story of the Erie Canal by Conrad Stein

Note for K – 3: The Erie Canal is a man-made channel for water.  In the 1800’s water was the best way to move things (especially heavy things) quickly.  Building of the canal began in 1817 and continued until 1825.  It is located in New York state and stretches over 350 miles.  (That’s over 6000 football fields stretched end to end!)  De Witt Clinton spearheaded the project, who was then governor of New York. 

A tremendous amount of work went into building the canal.  Ditches needed to be dug, sometimes through thick forests or muddy, mosquito infested swamps.  Sometimes aqueducts had to be built over other rivers and streams.  Sometimes rock had to be blasted away.  Locks had to be built to carry canal barges upstream.  Locks are kind of like water elevators.  The barge floats into a lock and doors close behind it.  The chamber is filled with water, raising the barge up.  Then doors on the opposite side of the chamber are opened and the barge floats out.  The barges were filled with goods to sell and pulled by mules. 

Most of the workers hired to dig the canal were local farmers and Irish immigrants.  New York residents were thrilled when the canal was finished.  It became the first “super highway” in the colonies to transport goods and was called the “8th Wonder of the World”.  Just a few years after the canal was opened, cities and towns along the canal route became booming places of business and the population of New York greatly increased.    The song you just heard on You Tube was a popular song at the time.    A pair of mules could pull a barge for about 15 miles before they would need to stop and rest.  Then a new set of mules would take over carrying the barge.



  • Why did New Yorkers want to build a canal across the state? (easy way to ship goods from one place to another; way to link east and west parts of the state)
  • Who pushed for the canal to be built anyway? (New York Governor DeWitt Clinton)
  • What problems did construction workers face? (commissioners had never built a canal before; workers had to work through swamps, mosquitoes, many caught malaria, had to build locks to raise barges, hundreds of miles, had to dig through limestone.)
  • Who did most of the work? (at first local farmers, then Irish immigrants)
  • Describe how locks work? (Ships sail in, door is closed behind them, water raised, ship rises to new level)
  • What did people say after it was finished? (8th wonder of the world)
  • Did the canal succeed? (Yes, began making money immediately, much cheaper way to ship goods from east to west, much quicker way to ship goods.)
  • How did the canal change the state of New York? (Population greatly increased, cities and towns built along route.  Buffalo and Rochester became major cities.)
  • What pulled the barges along the original canal? (mules)

Questions Grades 4 – 8:

  • What did President Jefferson and the Federal Government think of the plan? (too much money, wouldn’t fund it)
  • Who paid for the building of the canal? (New York state government)
  • What day did construction begin? (4th of July)
  • What great invention sped up the work on the canal? (stump puller)
  • What was an aqueduct? (Bridge carrying canal water and barge over natural rivers and streams.)
  • Many people were against the project.  What did they say about it and governor Clinton before it was finished? (madness, too expensive, “Clinton’s folly”, “Clinton’s ditch”.)
  • How long was the canal? (over 300 miles)

ACTIVITIES: K – 3: Make your own barge!  You will need about 16 plastic drinking straws, scotch tape, and “cargo” for your boat (like coins or Legos.)  Place the drinking straws right next to each other on a table so the ends are even with the end of the table.  Put a piece of scotch tape along the top ends of the straws and then another along the bottom edges of the straws.  Flip the straws over and do the same thing to the other side of the straws.  Fill a sink or large basin with water.  Your “barge” should float!  How much weight can your barge carry?  Experiment with coins, Legos or both!

4 – 8: Using this map:,  and the map on this page for help:

make a map of the Erie Canal with this blank map:

Be sure to label the following:

  1. Erie Canal
  2. Albany
  3. Buffalo
  4. Hudson River
  5. Lake Erie
  6. Lake Ontario
  7. Canada
  8. New York

Then, answer the following question in paragraph form:  Why was the Erie Canal called the 8th wonder of the world?


Copyright March 14th, 2014 by Gwen Fredette

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Filed under Charlotte Mason, Westward Expansion

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