Ideas for an artificial waterway system to boost the commerce and power of New York state began following the Revolutionary War, and began in earnest in the early 1800’s. The New York State Legislature began seriously considering potential routes for such a system in 1808. It was not until 1810 that plans for the canal truly started taking shape with the appointment of the first canal commissioners by the New York State Legislature.
These canal commissioners were what could be considered today the upper management of the Erie Canal construction. The early stages of the canal planning saw the commissioners examining the potential canal routes, and submitting reports on which route to use for the final project. The first seven commissioners were all powerful New Yorkers: DeWitt Clinton, Gouverneur Morris, Peter B. Porter, Simeon DeWitt, Stephen Van Rensselaer, Thomas Eddy, and William North. These commissioners also frequently put forward plans and proposed bills to the state legislature to help with important aspects of building the canal such as funding.
The state legislature contributed by establishing further governing bodies for the Erie Canal, notably the Canal Fund in 1817 and the Canal Board in 1826. It was often the case that some of the canal commissioners sat on these boards as well.
As progress on the building of the Erie Canal commenced, commissioners took on different, but still similar, duties to those they held before. Occasionally new commissioners such as Myron Holley and Samuel Young came on board, and older commissioners left. It was the responsibility of the commissioners to submit annual reports to the state legislature, outlining any new proposed plans and progress. The construction of the canal itself was divided into three divisions, and each division had its own designated commissioner responsible for its oversight.
The commissioners for the Erie Canal were remarkably efficient in their work, managing to complete the original Erie Canal in eight years time. This is notable considering the marked political differences within their ranks. The men not only held differing political views, but also early on held differing ideas of which route was the best to take. Commissioners during this time would often champion the route which best served their own personal or political interests. They also sometimes found themselves at odds in the political arena. The state legislature attempted to keep the commissioner ranks politically balanced, so as to ensure all factions were equally represented. This, however, sometimes resulted in power struggles between the different factions playing out on the assembly floor. Despite these challenges, the commissioners were still ultimately able to come together and complete construction for the Erie Canal.