Erie Canal – Lock 18

Little Falls, New York | C.1825

Photo Credit: RC Di Mezzo

The Erie Canal was possibly the most impressive industrial feat of the New World, marking a significant moment in American civil engineering. While the project was a massive undertaking that required tons of manpower and man hours, none of it would have been possible without the help of a few perilous “powder boys.”

At the time it was built, the Nation’s First Superhighway was one of the longest canals in the world, second only to China’s Grand Canal. Today, the Erie Canal spans a whopping 351 man-made miles from New York’s capital of Albany, to Buffalo, just south of the Canadian border. To build the canal, it required a most unusual sort of engineer.

“Powder boys” or “Powder monkeys,” were a platoon of 8-11 year-old boys who were tasked with going down into natural fissures to set charges – and then, using those youthful legs of theirs, run like heck to safety. Needless to say, this was well before child labor laws, but despite their lack of seniority, for their courageous undertakings these were among the highest-paid canal workers. The price for this precarious task? $0.90/hr. While that doesn’t seem like much today, it was more than three times the average wage.

With the whole world just a few taps away it’s hard to appreciate the monumental impact the Nation’s First Superhighway had on international commerce and travel. If it weren’t for unassuming heroes like the “powder boys,” who knows what our world would look like today. 

Create an account to comment! Login/Sign Up.


Log in

Need an account? Sign up

Sign up

Already have an account? Log In

Enter your email to reset your password

Enter your new password