Erie Canal Museum Economic Geography of
New York State:

Power Station


Physical  Geography

Human Geography

Regions of NYS

BONUS Sections!

Corning Glass

The Corning Glass Works: Highly skilled workers have always been the key to economic success in New York State. High quality glass, such as the lens of the telescope at Mt. Palomar, have been made in Corning since the 19th century.

Dutch Traders

Trading in New Netherland: Commerce is the key to the economy of New York. The Dutch colony at modern-day Albany was founded on the beaver trade.

Mule Boy

The Mule Driver: The boats of the Erie Canal were powered by mules, and the beasts of burden were led by boys called hoggies. It was hard work. The boys were abused, and they lived in squalor during the winter months when the canal closed down.


Finback Whale: They are protected by law today, but during the 1800s, whales were hunted by Long Island mariners, the inspiration for Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Even the small city of Hudson, many miles north of New York City, was involved in hunting these mammals. (See insert on the right).

The Triphammer Water Wheel

The Triphammer Wheel: The falls of Rochester's Genesee River powered the growth of industry in that city, especially the milling of flour. The Triphammer Forge was used to make tools. Today it is part of the High Falls Urban Park.

Dairy Farm

Dairy Farm: Although most New Yorkers earn their keep in factories or offices, agriculture is still very important to the state's economy. Most successful are dairy farms, but fruit farming is common near lakes and the ocean.



Geography is NOT an indoor sport. Get outside and see the Empire State!

Economic Geography

One of the questions geographers always like to ask is "Why here?" Why do certain regions remain relatively unsettled, others become agricultural, and still others urban industrialized communities? New York has all of these regions, woven together in a complex economic system. All humans must adapt their economic endeavors to the physical landscape around them. To put it (over)simply, you can't grow orange trees in the Hudson Valley and expect to make a profit. You have to take advantage of the gifts that nature has provided you, such as navigable rivers, fertile farm land, hydropower for factories, etc. Success is dependent on knowing your geography. (Unfortunately, those geographic conditions change over time, always presenting new challenges).

Traditional Seneca agriculture is demonstrated
at Ganondagan State Historic Park, the site of
a 17th century village of several thousand people.

Seneca cornfield
Commerce has always been the cornerstone of New York economics, even long before there was an Empire State. The Native peoples, both Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) and Algonquin, understood the necessity of trade. Despite the myth that the Indians naively sold Manhattan Island for trinkets and beads, Native Americans were shrewd in business. There is much evidence that they traded with other nations long before Columbus, even with those that were not "friendly." For example, the beads used to produce the sacred wampum belts were traditionally made from seashells found on the Atlantic Coast. Inland peoples needed to trade to get this important commodity.

The basis of the economies of New York's original inhabitants was agriculture. In their matriarchal society, women owned and worked the land. The staples of their diets - corn, beans, and squash (the "Three Sisters") - were planted together in clusters. (You can still see signs of this traditional agriculture in the state's reservations, and at Ganondagan State Historic Park in Victor, New York.) Their success in farming allowed the Native Americans to build complex and stable social structures.

Early European Economies

What the Port of Albany might have looked like in colonial times.
Exhibit in the Albany Heritage Visitor Center.

Port of Albany

The Dutch were the first Europeans to settle in New York, along the Hudson River and the coasts of Long Island. The economy of New Netherlands was founded on the fur trade. The settlement of Beverwyck (Albany) was a trading post where Native Americans exchanged beaver pelts for finished European goods (cooking pots, blankets, guns).
Ships carried the pelts to New Amsterdam and off to the Old World. This trade was mutually beneficial for awhile, but it eventually proved disasterous to the Indians. They became dependent on European finished goods. Beaver became scarce, resulting in a series of wars between the Haudenosanee and other peoples farther west. Meanwhile the Dutch brought their farming traditions to the region, resulting in a conflict for land that the native people could not win. By the beginning of the 18th century, the Algonquin-speaking people were basically driven out of the Hudson Valley and Long Island.

Of course, by that time, the days of Dutch rule had also ended. The British conquered the colony in 1664, although Dutch traditions lived on for several more generations. Immigrants from the British Isles as well as French Hugenots and German Palantines settled in the new colony of New York. The Dutch had established a feudal land system called patroonships. The British modified them into manors. Much of the labor done on these manors was by tenant farmers or African slaves. This created a small wealthy elite (the Van Cortlandts, the Livingstons, the Schuylers, and the Philipses) who built palacial mansions that still stand along the Hudson River. There was also a growing middle class of artisans and small businessmen, but many New Yorkers could be considered underclass.

Market Centers and the Hinterland

Even simple economic systems have structure, and colonial New York was certainly beyond the simple stage. Economic geographers locate market centers and then identify those surrounding regions that support them, the hinderlands. Expanding New York City was definitely the major commercial center of the colony, with its great harbor where the Hudson greets the Atlantic. Commodities from the interior, such as furs and lumber, were sent to Mother England, which returned the favor with manufactured goods.
As New York City grew, its dependence on materials from the hinderland did also: food, building materials, drinking water. The farmers on the Hudson River or the fishermen of Long Island needed the big city to market their goods. (On a smaller scale, towns like Albany, Kingston, Schenectady developed a similar relationship with the countryside around them).

A series of wars in the 18th century impacted on this more-or-less balanced economy. After many setbacks, Britain finally drove rival France out of North America. New Yorkers pushed westward, placing them in conflict with the Iroquois Nations, still a force in the Mohawk Valley and the Finger Lakes. The colonists were outgrowing their subordinate role with England, and they rebelled against a barrage of tax laws imposed on them from London. The resulting American Revolution has been already discussed. It had some devastating consequences on New York, since one-third of all engagements were fought here. Some cities, like Kingston, were burned to the ground. Small settlements on the frontier saw years of civil war between Loyalists (Tories) and Patriots (Rebels). The powerful  Iroquois Confederacy fell apart. And most significantly, greater New York remained under British control throughout most of the war, and that greatly restricted trade in the newborn state.

The Granger Homestead in Canandaigua, built in
1816, now a historical museum.

When the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, the thirteen colonies were finally recognized as the independent United States of America. The biggest losers were the Haudenosaunee. Most of their land was confiscated or ceded by treaty to the state. This opened up vast areas for settlement. Land speculation made some millionaires; others bankrupt. A large migration of New England farmers ("Yorker Yankees") moved into Upstate, settling in new villages like Canandaigua, Geneva, Auburn. The fertility of the land in the Finger Lakes and the Genesee Valley was very enticing with one major drawback. How do you get your produce to market? Transportation costs were minimal when the majority of farmers lived along the navigable Hudson. The new hinterland was too far away to participate fully in the expanding economy, without some internal improvements. Until this happened the new western communities were isolated and grew slowly. (This is often referred to as the Homespun Era. A great place to see life recreated in early 19th New York is the Farmer's Museum in Cooperstown in the Capital-Mohawk section.)

Age of Internal Improvements

Erie Packet A packet boat from the Old Erie Canal, part of an exhibit in
the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse.

Some of the isolation was lessened by the building of roads across the states. Water transportation was still preferable, where it was available. Fortunately, the geography of Upstate helped out New York, under the guidance of Gov. DeWitt Clinton, made the gamble of building the 363-mile long Erie Canal (see the previous section). Clinton's Ditch was an amazing commercial success. Not only did it make moving food commodities such as flour to New York Harbor, but it also allowed trade to be profitable with the entire Great Lakes Region. New York City solidfied its role as the business capital of America. Towns and cities along the canal grew exponentially. For example, Rochester became a major milling center using the water power of the Genesee waterfalls to grind flour grown in the wheat belt around the city. Syracuse shipped salt extracted from nearby springs down the canal. Buffalo, located on Lake Erie and at the end of the Erie Canal, benefited from a burgeoning trade with the Midwest. Once the Erie Canal proved itself, lateral canals were constructed connecting other parts of the state to this new transportation network. For example, the Delaware and Hudson Canal was built to connect Pennsylvania's coal fields to eastern ports. Kingston, at the terminus of this canal, suddenly became an important commercial center.
Soon after the canal craze hit its peak, railroads began to take their place in this age of improvement. Transportation by rail is more expensive than by water, but the advantages gradually won out. Trains can run year-round, they are faster, and they can reach places that canals cannot (such as the Southern Tier and the Adirondacks). The railroads killed the canals in most places, but the Erie Canal remained competitive into the 20th century, when it was improved into a Barge Canal system.

Survival in the Hinterlands....
...the economy of rural New York state

Adirondack Loggers

The Adirondack logging exhibit in the New York State Museum, Albany.

Although the majority of New Yorkers live in urban centers, both upstate and downstate, much of the land area of the state is rural, even wilderness. Making a living there has always been a challenge. The obvious choice is agriculture. Many parts of the state have fertile farmland - the Hudson Valley, Long Island, the Great Lakes regions, and the Finger Lakes.
How about other places, such as mountainous areas or coastlines? Usually the basis of the economy is extraction, taking raw materials out of the environment, and selling them to large markets nearby. Logging and mining were important in the Adirondacks. Tanning, using hemlock bark, was a major enterprise in the Catskills.
The forests in both mountainous regions dwindled to the point that  they needed protection, resulting with the creation of two large parks and forest reserves.
Long Island is blessed with an extensive coastline on the Atlantic Ocean. Since colonial times, fishing and whaling have been mainstays of this economy. Whaling, of course, ended in the 19th century, but commercial fishing continues, although struggles today.
Starting with the Guilded Age after the Civil War, many rural areas of the state turned to tourism for their economic base. Rustic camps and hotels sprang up in the Adirondacks, and huge resort complexes were built in the Catskills. Seasonal tourism also developed in the Finger Lakes and the Thousand Islands. Long Island's Hamptons became the summer playground for the rich and beautiful.
In modern times, these regions are trying to adapt. Tourism is still important. Many rural areas also depend on the state's prison system and military bases for employment. The future is unclear at best.

A whale weather vane reminds us of the whaling tradition of Long Island's coastal regions.

Whale vane

The new transportation improvements coincided with the rise of the Industrial Revolution in America. New York's dominance in trade expanded into the world of factories. By the beginning of the Civil War, around 40% of New Yorkers lived in urban areas. It wasn't just native-born Americans that moved into the cities; immigrants from Northern Europe poured in by the thousands. So, all the ingredients needed for industrialization were there: reliable transportation (canals and railroads), energy sources (hydropower and fossil fuels), raw materials (lumber and iron ore), capital (New York City banks), and cheap immigrant labor. Communities in the Mohawk Valley (such as Cohoes and Amsterdam), for example, were built around textile mills. The falls in Rochester powered flour mills and other industries as well. Dozens of factories crowded around the district called the Brown's Race. Similar stories of industrialization can be told about other urban centers across New York State.

New York's Economy in the Guilded Age

The remains of the Schoelkopf Power Plant,
just downstream from Niagara Falls, that made
Buffalo the first "electrified city."

Ruins of Schoelkopf Power Plant
Once economies build up momentum, they grow even as they change. The success of New York's economy was based on transportation, first by canals, then by railroads. When some of the older industries went into decline (such as Rochester's flour mills or New York City's shipbuilding), they were replaced by others. Granaries dominated the skyline of Buffalo's harbor, and steel plants moved into Lackawanna. Western New York no longer grew the wheat, but it was part of the distribution system that sent flour to the world.
Much of the Empire State's success came from ingenuity and higher education. The nation's first engineering college, Rensaelear Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, was established to train civil engineers for canal construction. Cornell University in Ithaca was the state's Morrell Grant institution, and it became one of the world's leaders in research. These are just two of many examples of the role of education in the expansion of New York's economy.

During this time period several geniuses appeared on the scene Nikola Tesla, a Serbian immigrant invented the system that transmitted alternating current, first used in Niagara Falls in 1896. The Electric Age was born. In nearby Rochester, George Eastman discovered how to manufacture film and easy-to-use cameras, founding Kodak, the economic mainstay of Rochester from that point onward. And in the small Finger Lakes community of Hammondsport, Glenn Curtiss became one of pioneers of air transportation, setting many speed records, and designing planes that would be used in both World Wars.
This new modern age advanced the economies of many upstate communities. Schenectady became the home base of General Electric, and Syracuse's Carrier Corporation produced air conditioners. Of course, New York City also saw impressive growth, as thousands of European immigrants funneled into the country via Ellis Island. Many of them worked in the garment industry, as Manhattan became the world's fashion center. And, as the nation's financial capital flourished, New York also became the center of America's cultural scene - in the arts, in music, in theater. (As any New Yorker, and he or she will say that there is live theater everywhere, but there is only one Broadway!)

It seemed that the sky was the limit in the early-20th century. Yes, there were growing pains: labor unrest, tragedy fueled by corporate greed, crime, and clashes among ethnic groups. But the outlook was positive.

Recent times, however, would not be so kind.

Coming Soon.... New York's Economy in Modern Times!

 New York is a state with many distinct regions. Learn about the geography of each section of the state by following this link...

Next Section
Go to the NYS Regions section!

Lucifer Falls Wall Street Montauk Lighthouse

Content Copyright (c) Timothy McDonnell - Layout Copyright (c) GingerSKW

Design downloaded from
Free web design, web templates, web layouts, and website resources