Two hundred years ago this month, work began on one of the most ambitious public works projects America has ever seen.

Three hundred sixty-three miles long, 40 feet wide and four feet deep, the Erie Canal would bring great changes to New York state by making it possible to cheaply and quickly move raw materials, goods and people between the East Coast and the Midwest.

Gov. DeWitt Clinton was an early supporter of the canal, which skeptics dubbed “Clinton’s Ditch.” It would take eight years to construct, but once completed, the waterway was an instant success: The cost of moving freight on the canal fell to 10 percent of what it cost over land, and toll collections made quick work of paying off the state’s construction debt. New York will begin celebrating the canal’s “bicentennial period” this month.

The kickoff celebration in Rome, N.Y., will mark the waterway’s groundbreaking in 1817. Festivities will last until 2025, commemorating the completion of the canal when DeWitt poured water from Lake Erie into New York Harbor.