Episode 28: Janice Fontanella, Building the Erie Canal

Lockport Erie Canal

A “little short of madness.”

That is how Thomas Jefferson responded when two delegates from New York approached him with the idea to build the Erie Canal in January 1809.

Jefferson’s comment did not discourage New Yorkers. On January 4, 1817, New York State began building a 363-mile long canal to link the Hudson River and Atlantic Ocean with the Great Lakes and the Midwest.

Janice Fontanella, site manager of Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site in Fort Hunter, New York, joins us to discuss the Erie Canal, its construction, and the impact that this waterway made on New York and the United States.


About the Show

Ben Franklin’s World is a podcast about early American history.

It is a show for people who love history and for those who want to know more about the historical people and events that have impacted and shaped our present-day world.

Each episode features a conversation with an historian who helps us shed light on important people and events in early American history.

Episode Summary

In this episode, Janice Fontanella, site manager of the Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site in Fort Hunter, New York, leads us on an exploration of the Erie Canal, one of the largest commercial and engineering projects of the 19th century.

During our conversation, Janice reveals why New York State built a 363-mile long canal between the Hudson River and Lake Erie; How laborers built the Erie Canal and the technological innovations that developed during its construction; And, how the Erie Canal impacted the economy, demography, and geography of both New York State and the United States.

Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site


What You’ll Discover

  • The location of Fort Hunter, New York
  • Details about Janice’s job as Site Manager for Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site
  • What you will find when you visit Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site
  • Why Schoharie Crossing is the best place to view the history of the Erie Canal
  • How Fort Hunter has been able to preserve its 19th-century buildings and Erie Canal history
  • Why New York State wanted to build a 363-mile long canal between the Hudson River and Lake Erie
  • How laborers built the Erie Canal
  • Technological innovations brought about by the construction of the Erie Canal
  • What proved the be the trickiest part of building the Erie Canal
  • FortHunter-map-1968How the locks and aqueducts along the Erie Canal worked
  • How the New York State Canal Commissioners determined which towns would receive the eastern and western terminuses of the canal
  • Why the geography of New York allowed for the construction of such a long canal
  • What the opening of the Erie Canal meant for the people of New York State and for the settlers of the Old Northwest Territory
  • Why the Erie Canal became known as “Mother of Cities”
  • Details about canal boats and their accommodations
  • What it was like for passengers to travel along the canal
  • How the Erie Canal coped with the introduction of the railroad into New York State
  • Why the Erie Canal has so many low bridges
  • Information about DeWitt Clinton and his role in the construction of the Erie Canal
  • Why Thomas Jefferson thought that building the Erie Canal was an idea “just short of madness”
  • Overview of the Bonus Bill of 1817
  • Details about special events and activities held at the Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site



Links to People, Places, and Publications


Time Warp PlainTime Warp Question

In your opinion what might have happened if President James Madison had not vetoed the Bonus Bill of 1817?

Do you think that New York would have still built the Erie Canal along the same route and would the substantial investment in nationwide internal improvements have affected the success of the Erie Canal?

Questions, Comments, Suggestions

Do you have a question, comment, or suggestion?

Get in Touch! Send me an e-mail, tweet, or leave a comment.



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  • The fact you can see the original Canal there is very interesting. When I went to Lyons to research the peppermint industry, I could sort-of see where the old “Clinton’s Ditch” used to run adjacent to the Hotchkiss building, but you really have to use your imagination. You have to walk about a hundred yards west to see the remains of the old ditch.

    • That is a walk I would make. I am glad you had a chance to see it, even in your imagination.

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