When European settlement of North America started pushing inland from the coast, transportation problems repeatedly occurred. The biggest problem was the Appalachian Mountains, 400 miles from the coast. This made it difficult to transport goods as well as passengers. As early as 1768, proposals were put forth to establish a cheap and safe way to overcome this obstacle.
A proposal for a waterway in New York was first put forth in 1807, but construction did not start until 1817. After eight long years of construction, the Erie Canal was finally opened on October 26, 1825. From 1834 to 1862, it was enlarged to handle growing traffic.
The Erie Canal had a major effect, not just on the development of New York, but of the entire United States. The canal starts on the Hudson River in Albany and runs through upstate New York to Buffalo, where it opens onto Lake Erie (from which it gets its name). The Atlantic Ocean was now connected to inland America by a safe water route.
The canal stimulated immigration to New York. It took massive crews to clear the land and build the canal. Carpenters, stonemasons, and other construction workers were needed to build. Teamsters were needed to haul building supplies, as well as to haul the detritus away from the construction site. These people brought their families with them to upstate New York. As construction on the canal was completed, many followed to continue construction of the canal. Others stayed behind and settled the area permanently.
Once the canal was completed, immigration to the interior became much easier. It also became much cheaper. Transportation costs dropped by as much as 95%, putting migration within reach of many families who could not have previously afforded to move.
When tracing your ancestors back in time (and geography), keep in mind that they may have migrated through the Erie Canal. This is especially true for families who migrated prior to the Civil War. By that time, the railroads were becoming widely developed, and many families chose that method of travelling.
If you have ancestors in the interior of the country, and are having difficulty determining where they came from, start by looking at nearby waterways. Follow the waterways back to a major river, and from there back to the Great Lakes. Check the histories of major settlements along those routes, looking for evidence that your ancestors may have lived in one of these towns. Eventually, you may be able to fill in the missing pieces of your ancestors’ lives.
The Erie Canal was in use for almost a century. Over the years, many songs were created about the canal, including the popular "Low Bridge" (also known as Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal). In 1918 it was replaced by the much larger New York State Barge Canal. Today it is part of the New York State Canal System. In 2000 the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor was created by Congress, in commemoration of the significant part the canal played in the history of the United States.