The Erie Canal and Niagara Falls

Exploring the Nation's Historic Sites

By Heather Tourgee, Tim Clark
January 19, 2018
Niagara Falls

Join the Almanac in a coast-to-coast exploration of America’s most beloved national parks and historic sites. This time we check out two of the Northeast’s most prominent water features: the Erie Canal and Niagara Falls!

The Erie Canal

The Erie Canal was first conceived in the 1780s by George Washington and constructed between 1817–1825. Eventually spanning 524 miles from Albany to Buffalo, New York, it cost $140 billion in today’s dollars—all of it paid for by New York State, whose governor, DeWitt Clinton, pushed the project relentlessly. What came to be called “Clinton’s Ditch” transported settlers and finished goods west to the Great Lakes and beyond, and farm products and raw materials east, giving New York City an insurmountable edge over mercantile rivals like Boston and Philadelphia.

Erie Canal painting by John William Hill, 1829. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.
“View on the Erie Canal”; 1829. Painting by John William Hill. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Today, very few commercial boats and barges use the canal, but it is still open for recreational use. Its impact on life in Central and Western New York is tangible even to this day; three out of four residents of the region live within 25 miles of the canal.

Niagara Falls

After checking out the canal, we headed to the Honeymoon Capital of the World: Niagara Falls.

Niagara’s reputation as a honeymoon hot spot seems to date back to 1801, when Vice President Aaron Burr’s daughter, Theodosia, and her new husband visited the falls after their wedding. But the true story of the falls begins 14,000 years ago, when the last glaciers retreated to form what are actually three distinct waterfalls: the American, Bridal Veil, and Horseshoe Falls.

Over 757,500 gallons of water per second pour over the falls, eroding their base at a rate of nearly a foot a year, depending on various hydrologic conditions. Close to 20% of the US’s fresh water supply makes its way over the falls—you’ve most likely had a sip of it.

We can’t imagine feeling the impulse to plummet down the cascades, but a sense of adventure has tempted many. The first person to successfully go over Horseshoe Falls in a barrel was a schoolteacher named Annie Taylor, who did so on October 24, 1901, her 63rd birthday. 

Aerial view of Niagara Falls
An aerial view of Niagara Falls, including the American Falls (left, foreground) and Horseshoe Falls (background).

As early as 1882, the energy of the falls was harnessed by the Niagara Falls Hydraulic Power & Manufacturing Company. This early plant could only generate direct current and distribute it within two miles of the falls, but today, an average of 1.2 million gallons of water per second are diverted from the falls, with a potential to generate around 4.9 million kilowatts. 

The views from both the American and Canadian side are breathtaking, though for the best view of all three falls, we recommend paying the Canadian side a visit. However you decide to see them (if you can’t make it in person, there’s even a live webcam), they are well worth the visit.

Travel Tip: Spring for the Maid of the Mist boat trip under the falls. It’s a safer way to cool off on a hot day than going over them in a barrel!

Learn More

Visit the Niagara Falls State Park website for more information on visiting the falls! Then check out the rest of our national park and historic site articles to see where to go next.


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