Erie Canal's rich musical history highlighted, as bicentennial begins

Jul 3, 2017
Originally published on July 5, 2017 5:33 am

This Fourth of July, New York is not only celebrating the nation's independence, but a 363-mile waterway that helped bring economic independence to Buffalo and other cities across the state. Begun on July 4, 1817, the Erie Canal opened in its entirety in 1825 - and a variety of events are planned over the next several years to celebrate this engineering marvel. WBFO's Marian Hetherly got into the bicentennial spirit by sitting down with Erie Canal historian and teaching artist Dave Ruch


The Erie Canal, as told by Dave Ruch:

"The canal is what made Buffalo. I mean, we were here on the Great Lakes, but completely isolated from the East, from the East Coast. Inland navigation was very, very difficult before they had built the Erie Canal.

"Most of Western and Central New York was wilderness. So the Atlantic Ocean, Hudson River from New York, up to Albany and then the Erie Canal connected Albany to Buffalo by water and that was the missing piece. So it really made Buffalo what it is. It made it the commercial center of what was then the West."

The People

"You have immigrants, you have dock workers, you have Great Lakes sailors, you have canallers, you have freed African Americans from the South, you have Native Americans, you have young 13- and 14-year-old orphan boys who worked on the canal. It was just colorful beyond belief.

"The main commercial drag down there, which was called Canal Street, you know, many of the Great Lakes sailors referred to Canal Street as 'the wickedest street in the world.' Some of these guys had been around the world. They had worked on the oceans before they had worked on the Great Lakes.

"In something like a three- or four-block section, you had dozens and dozens of brothels and theaters and free-and-easy shows - as they called them. It was a place where the Lake Erie sailors got paid, it was a place where the canallers got paid, so they all had a little money in their pocket. 

"The fighting was nearly constant, from the reports that you read from the people who were actually there. It was also a very musical place."

The Music

"What we know today as sea shanties: what sailors would use to coordinate the labor on the ship. There were so many boats at any given time, singing in the harbor to do their work, that ordinary citizens would come down just to listen to this.

"There were no radios then, so if you wanted music, you made it. Or you went and stood and listened where someone else was making it, and so we have this great body of music that was either written about the canal or, in some cases, really came out of the canal experience itself. And I've just been fascinated with trying to dig up - excuse the pun - as much of this stuff as I can."


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