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Canal Versus National Road

Lesson Plan

Created by Max W. Fischer.

Canal boat along the Miami and Erie Canal


Grade Level: 


Estimated Duration of Lesson: 

One 43 minute class period

Content Standard: 

Geography 8-C:  3. Explain how colonization, westward expansion, immigration and advances in transportation and communication changed geographic patterns in the United States.

Primary Sources Employed:  

Miami and Erie Canal Photographs 
From The New York State Archives: “Corduroy Road Through the Forest”  
From The Indiana Magazine of History, “The National Road”--The Journal of Jane Voorhees Lewis
From Union College Erie Canal 175th Anniversary--“

Lesson Summary:

The lesson uses five primary sources---3 photographs (including two from Ohio Memory) and two journal accounts---with which students will compare two primary modes of transportation derived from Henry Clay’s “American System”.  Based upon their analysis of the photographs and reflection of the first-hand journal accounts involving travel on the canals and National Road of the early to mid-nineteenth century, students will write a persuasive essay defending their choice of these two means of travel.

Instructional Procedure:

1. After Clay’s “American System” of internal improvements has been introduced the previous day, students will be given the three photographic transparencies (2 canal photos + the corduroy road) to view and analyze  each of the photographs using the analysis worksheet from the National Archives.  (Note: Students will use one worksheet only for the two canal photographs and one worksheet for the corduroy road photograph). (7-8 mins.)
2. Students will share their observations through whole class discussion. (3-5 minutes)
3. Students will be shown the Infohio video clip about the canal system in Ohio and the video  about  how a nineteenth century canal lock operated at the ohio and Erie Canal Lesson at Connecting to the Past. (see below for links)l (7 to possibly 12 mins.)
4. Using the graphic organizer “Advantages and Disadvantages of the National Road and Canals”, students will silently read the primary sources “Journal of Jane Voorhees Lewis”  and The Erie Canal 175th Anniversary---Recollections and Reflections”.  While reading, students will note positive and negative aspects of each mode of travel derived from these two sources.  (12 mins.)
5.  In small groups students will share their observations of advantages and disadvantages of the various modes of nineteenth century travel.  (5 mins.)
6. In a whole class setting student groups will share out their observations. (5-7 minutes)


Students are to write a persuasive essay on which mode of travel they would have preferred during the early nineteenth century.  (Assessment and Rubric attached)

Teacher Materials:

  • Projector with two “Miami and Erie Canal Photographs” + “Corduroy Road Through the Forest” photograph
  • Copies of the National Archives Primary Source  (one per student)
  • Video clip “Building the Erie Canal,” history.com (3 mins.)  
  • Video showing how canal lock works (13 minutes, 45 secs.) 

Student Materials: