The industrials, materials and transportation sectors led the market higher, allowing the S&P 500 to finally pop above 1,297, a ceiling the index has not been able to cross since November.
"From a technician's point of view, breaking through 1,300 was an important factor," said Tobias Levkovich, chief US equities strategist at Citigroup (C).
The Dow rose 58.43, or 0.52 percent, to 11,209.77, its highest close since it reached 11,257.24 on May 22, 2001. The Dow rose 75.32, or 0.68 percent, Tuesday, and surged 104 points on Friday.
Broader stock indicators edged higher. The S&P 500 index rose 5.54, or 0.43 percent, to 1,303.02, and the Nasdaq rose 15.94, or 0.69 percent, to 2,311.84.
Stocks rose in choppy trading following the New York Fed's Empire State index, which came in much stronger than expected, with the highest reading since July 2004. The survey, which measures the conditions for New York state manufacturers, is seen as a good predictor of the Institute for Supply Management's national manufacturing survey. The Empire State index rose to 31.2 in March from 21.0 in February.
But the advance solidified after the U.S. Federal Reserve's beige book, a compilation of reports from the Fed's 12 district banks, said economic activity continued to expand in January and February. Most of the Fed district banks characterized the pace of expansion as "moderate or steady."
Bond prices fell, pushing the yield on the 10-year bond higher after a sharp drop Tuesday. The yield rose to 4.73 percent from 4.69 percent late Tuesday.
The U.S. dollar fell against other major currencies. Gold prices were higher.
Crude oil futures fell. A barrel of light crude settled at $62.17, down 93 cents, in trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
In other economic news Wednesday, a national survey of import prices showed they fell 0.5 percent in February, while export prices were unchanged, indicating that inflation pressures are contained.
Meanwhile, the housing market again showed signs of slowing. The National Association of Home Builders index for sales of new, single-family homes fell to 55 in March from 56 in February, the fourth month it has hovered in a two-point range. When the index is over 50, it means the number of buyers who see "good" sales outnumber the number who see "poor" sales.
In company news, chemicals maker DuPont rose 95 cents to $42.87 after it raised its earnings outlook for 2006. The company also said it plans to cut 1,500 jobs and close four facilities in Europe as it restructures its performance coatings business.
Investors didn't seem impressed by record profits from Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., which paled in comparison to a blow-out quarterly report Tuesday from investment firm rival Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS), which sent the market sharply higher. Lehman fell $1.15 to $144.15; Goldman fell 42 cents to $149 after rising 6.2 percent Tuesday.
Goldman's earnings, "set the bar too high for the group," said Arthur Hogan, chief market analyst at Jefferies & Co.
General Motors Corp. (GS) is considering a bid of $12.5 billion to $13 billion for a majority stake in its financing arm from a group led by New York private-equity firm Kohlberg, Kravis & Roberts and some banks, The Wall Street Journal reported. GM rose 36 cents to $21.50.
Sears Holdings Corp., the retailing company formed last year when Kmart bought Sears, rose $15.02 to $132.29 after its fourth-quarter earnings more than doubled due to the addition of Sears' results, beating expectations.
H&R Block Inc., the nation's largest tax preparation service, fell $1.37 to $20.63 after New York state filed a $250 million fraud suit charging that the company steered more than 500,000 customers into a money-losing retirement account plan.
The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies rose 6.84, or 0.93 percent, to 742.94.
Advancing issues led decliners by nearly 2 to 1 on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume was 1.64 billion, up from 1.56 billion at the same time Tuesday.
Overseas, Japan's Nikkei stock average rose 0.50 percent. Britain's FTSE 100 rose 0.24 percent, Germany's DAX index gained 0.47 percent, and France's CAC-40 rose 0.21 percent.