To fully appreciate these breakthroughs, one must understand what the conditions of those times where. At the time that the Erie Canal was to be built there had been only two other significant waterways built at the time: The Santee Canal and the Middlesex Canal. Both canal where less than 30 miles long and they both turned into financial nightmares. The Erie Canal is 363 miles long. So you can see that there had been nothing done that was even close to this in the early nineteenth century.
On top of this problem was the fact that there were no engineers in the United States at this time. The Canal Commission made one attempt to hire a foreign engineer; his name was William Weston. He worked on the Middlesex Canal, and most of his work fell apart. But he was still one of the only candidates. Weston declined the offer because of his age and desire to be with his family. The commission had to rely on a handful of lawyers who had experience only in surveying because they handled property cases in court. These lawyers where Benjamin Wright (considered the father of American Engineering), James Geddes, and Nathan Roberts. A schoolteacher named Charles Broadhead also was hired to engineer this work. The canal became a school of engineering, as these men and others simply learned as they went along. It is said that nearly every engineer of consequence during the first half of the nineteenth century learned his profession on the Erie Canal or from an engineer who had been there.
These men made major breakthroughs in the engineering of canals. These breakthroughs can be categorized as follows: