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.
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.
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 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: 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!
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.
Commerce has always been the cornerstone of New York economics,
even long before there was an Empire State. The Native peoples, both
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
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.
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
of Internal Improvements
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
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.
A packet boat from the Old Erie Canal, part of an exhibit
the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse.
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
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
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
The remains of the Schoelkopf Power Plant,
just downstream from Niagara Falls, that made
Buffalo the first "electrified city."
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
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.
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
Go to the NYS Regions section!