A Traveler Describes Life Along the Erie Canal, 1829

A Traveler Describes Life Along the Erie Canal, 1829

Basil Hall, a British visitor traveled along the Erie Canal and took careful notes on what he found. In this excerpt, he described life in Rochester, New York. Rochester, and other small towns in upstate New York, grew rapidly as a result of the Erie Canal.


On the 25th of June we drove across the country to the village of Rochester, which is built on the banks of the Genesee river, just above some beautiful waterfalls, and only a few miles from the southern shore of Lake Ontario, which, I was sorry to find, was not visible from thence, owing to the dense screen of untouched forest which intervenes. The Erie Canal passes through the heart of this singular village, and strides across the Genesee River on a noble aqueduct of stone.

Rochester is celebrated all over the Union as presenting one of the most striking instances of rapid increase in size and population of which that country affords any example. It may be proper to remark, that about this period I began to learn that in America the word improvement, which, in England, means making things better, signifies, in that country, an augmentation in the number of houses and people, and above all, in the amount of the acres of cleared land. It is laid down by the Americans as an admitted maxim, to doubt the solidity of which never enters any man s head for an instant, that a rapid increase of population is, to all intents and purposes, tantamount to an increase of national greatness and power, as well as an increase of individual happiness and prosperity. Consequently, say they, such increase ought to be forwarded by every possible means, as the greatest blessing to the country…

The ladies in America obtain their fashions direct from Paris. I speak now of the great cities on the sea-coast, where the communication with Europe is easy and frequent. In the back settlements, people are obliged to catch what opportunities come in their way; and accordingly, many applications were made to us for a sight of our wardrobe, which, it may be supposed, was none of the largest. The child’s clothes excited most interest, however, and patterns were asked for on many occasions.

While touching on this subject, I hope I may be permitted to say a few words, without giving offence certainly without meaning to give any respecting the attire of the male part of the population, who, I have reason to think, do not, generally speaking, consider dress an object deserving of nearly so much attention as it undoubtedly ought, to receive. It seems to me that dress is a branch, and not an unimportant branch, of manners, a science they all profess themselves anxious to study. The men, probably without their being aware of it, have, somehow or other, acquired a habit of negligence in this respect quite obvious to the eye of a stranger. From the hat, which is never brushed, to the shoe, which is seldom polished, all parts of their dress are often left pretty much to take care of themselves. Nothing seems to fit, or to be made with any precision.

The chief source of the commercial and agricultural prosperity of Rochester is the Erie canal, as that village is made the emporium of the rich agricultural districts bordering on the Genesee river; and its capitalists both send out and import a vast quantity of wheat, flour, beef, and pork, pot and pearl ashes, whiskey, and so on. In return for these articles, Rochester supplies the adjacent country with all kinds of manufactured goods, which are carried up by the canal from New York. In proportion as the soil is brought into cultivation, or subdued, to use the local phrase, the consumers will become more numerous, and their means more extensive. Thus the demands of the surrounding country must go on augmenting rapidly, and along with them, both the imports and exports of every kind will increase in pro portion. There were in 1826 no less than 160 canal boats, drawn by 882 horses, owned by persons actually residing in the village, besides numberless others belonging to non-residents.

Out of more than 8000 souls in this gigantic young village, there was not to be found in 1827 a single grown-up person born there, the oldest native not being then seventeen years of age. The population is composed principally of emigrants from New England that is from the States of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. Some settlers are to be found from other parts of the Union; and these, together with a considerable number from Germany, England, Ireland, and Scotland, and a few natives of Canada, Norway, and Switzerland, make up a very singular society….

Much of all this prosperity may be traced to the cheapness of conveyance on the Erie Canal…

On the 26th of June, 1827, we strolled through the village of Rochester, under the guidance of a most obliging and intelligent friend, a native of this part of the country. Everything in this bustling place appeared to be in motion. The very streets seemed to be starting up of their own accord, ready-made, and looking as fresh and new, as if they had been turned out of the workmen s hands but an hour before, or that a great boxful of new houses had been sent by steam from New York, and tumbled out on the half-cleared land. The canal banks were at some places still un turfed; the lime seemed hardly dry in the masonry of the aqueduct, in the bridges, and in the numberless great saw-mills and manufactories. In many of these buildings the people were at work below stairs, while at top the carpenters were busy nailing on the planks of the roof.

Some dwellings were half painted, while the foundations of others, within five yards distance, were only beginning. I cannot say how many churches, courthouses, jails, and hotels I counted, all in motion, creeping upwards. Several streets were nearly finished, but had not as yet received their names; and many others were in the reverse predicament, being named, but not commenced, their local habitation being merely signified by lines of stakes. Here and there we saw great warehouses, without window sashes, but half filled with goods, and furnished with hoisting cranes, ready to fish up the huge pyramids of flour barrels, bales, and boxes lying in the streets. In the center of the town the spire of a Presbyterian church rose to a great height, and on each side of the supporting tower was to be seen the dial-plate of a clock, of which the machinery, in the hurry-scurry, had been left at New York. I need not say that these half-finished, whole-finished, and embryo streets were crowded with people, carts, stages, cattle, pigs, far beyond the reacli of numbers; and as all these were lifting up their voices together, in keeping with the clatter of hammers, the ringing of axes, and the creaking of machinery, there was a fine concert, I assure you!


Basil Hall, Travels in North America, in the year 827 and 1828 (Philadelphia: 1829), 83-87.

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