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The "Madness" that Built the Empire State

Janine P. Werner
OverviewProcedure for teachersStudent Resources and Materials
Grade Level
Time Alloment
 Three 45-minute classes


In 1825, Governor De Witt Clinton poured a barrel of water from Lake Erie into New York Harbor in a ceremony called "The Marriage of the Waters." This symbolic act marked the opening of the Erie Canal, which forever transformed the geography, culture, and economy of New York. Spawning cities along its route, the Canal helped New York City prosper as an international port. Despite the lack of federal support for a plan President Thomas Jefferson derided as "a little short of madness," a determined Clinton found a way to build the great waterway. Almost all 363 miles of the Canal were built by the muscle power of men and horses. From Albany to Buffalo, it opened up the American frontier and made westward expansion inevitable. It turned New York Harbor into the nation's number one port as cities and developed along the canal and flourished.

Through activities presented in this lesson, students will become familiar with the history and design of the Erie Canal and gain an appreciation of the scope of the plan proposed by De Witt Clinton. Students will engage in critical thinking activities using primary documents to discover the rationale behind this costly proposition. The video presented in this lesson provides students with a solid understanding of the plan and the wide-ranging effects the Canal had on New York and the nation. Through examining a journal entry and lyrics to "The Erie Canal Song," students will consider the perspectives of individuals who experienced life on the Canal. Finally, students will participate in a group song writing activity, where they will demonstrate their understanding of Canal history, its economic and social effects, and its impact on individuals.

Subject Matter

Social Studies

Learning Activities

Students will be able to:
  • Explain the rationale behind the Erie Canal and its effects of New York and the nation;
  • Describe the controversy surrounding Clinton's plan;
  • Identify major cities around the Canal;
  • Describe the experiences of those whose lives were affected by the Canal;
  • Analyze primary documents and make inferences from them;
  • Demonstrate understanding of those who were there through creative composition.

From the New York State Learning Standards for Social Studies, available online at

Standard 1: History of the United States and New York

Students will use a variety of intellectual skills to demonstrate their understanding of major ideas, eras, themes, developments, and turning points in the history of the United States and New York.

From the National Standards for History, grades 5-12

Standard 3
The student engages in historical analysis and interpretation:
B. Consider multiple perspectives of various peoples in the past by demonstrating their differing motives, beliefs, interests, hopes, and fears.

Standard 4
The student conducts historical research:
A. Formulate historical questions from encounters with historical documents, eyewitness accounts, letters, diaries, artifacts, photos, historical sites, art, architecture, and other records from the past.

Media Components


New York: A Documentary Film, Episode 1:
"The Country and the City"

Web Sites

The Encyclopedia Britannica
This Web site enables students to look up the definition of "canal" to supplement their prior knowledge.

The Erie Canal: Locks on the Erie Canal
This Web site provides a moving image of how canal locks work.

E-Podunk: The Power of Place
This comprehensive, multi-media Web site allows students to take an interactive tour and watch a clip of Erie Canal history.

Houghton Mifflin Social Studies
This site provides two primary documents: a journal entry by Thomas S. Woodcock and the lyrics to "The Erie Canal Song."


Per student: