Between 1817 and 1825 New York Governor DeWitt Clinton set in motion a 363 mile canal construction project dug between the 17th century American city of Albany and a tiny community situated at the mouth of a non-descript creek at the confluence of it, Lake Erie and the Niagara River. The construction, derogatorily called “A Ditch” by many went on to become a 1500 mile route from the Atlantic Ocean to the very far western reaches of the Great Lake named Superior. Upon completion the Erie Canal began the transformation of North America.
That little village, Buffalo NY, grew to the 8th largest city in the USA by 1900. Along the way to Buffalo the dynamic cities of Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Rome, Schenectady equally grew and prospered. The canal became America’s original Gateway to the West. Untold thousands of immigrants from across the globe made their way to new homes in the great American cities of Duluth, Green Bay, Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland and Erie; or, built new lives on what would become Midwestern farms and aided in the economic development of Canada’s Great Lakes shoreline.
Gerard Koeppel, author of the book ”Bond of Union” makes these points on Erie’s effect:
It is not generally acknowledged that Erie was a messy thing. But it was, in many ways.
- The canal was proposed in anonymous newspaper essays by a bankrupt merchant in debtors’ prison. If his anonymity had been lost, the busted dreamer’s wild notion of a canal across the breadth of upstate New York would likely have been fatally scorned.
- Benjamin Wright, the country surveyor who emerged as Erie’s chief engineer (and is honored today as the Father of American Civil Engineering), was nearly fired for avoiding hazardous Erie fieldwork and neglecting his Erie work generally for outside jobs. His peers also didn’t like him very much.
- Conflict of interest was an unborn term in Erie’s day. Men who served as Erie canal commissioners and engineers pursued healthy speculative profit in remote lands made more valuable by the canal’s passage.
- Waste of public moneys in the service of private interest flowered on the eastern end of the Erie Canal: commissioners and engineers conspired to make the canal unnecessarily crisscross the lower Mohawk River on two risky aqueducts, instead of taking a more direct and much cheaper route between Schenectady and Albany. As one incredulous and knowledgeable observer put it: “crossing the river, in order to pay the county of Saratoga a compliment; and . . . recrossing again to convince the public how easy and practicable a matter it was.”
- Money was also wasted trying to save money. The spectacular aqueduct carrying the canal over the raging Genesee River at the new village of Rochester was hailed upon its completion in 1823 as “a structure of admirable solidity and beauty” and “the most stupendous and strongest work in America.” Ten years later, the country’s longest stone bridge was “in a state of rapid dilapidation.” In another three years, it was “nearly in ruins.” Why? Against engineering advice, the canal commissioners had ordered the aqueduct built of local but soft and porous sandstone; a new aqueduct of proper but expensive limestone had to be built alongside the splendid wreckage of the first.
- The canal was an instant success in generating wealth for the state (largely via tolls) and for the nation generally in moving people and manufactured goods west and produce and raw materials east, but it was too small. Just nine years after the canal opened, chief engineer Wright admitted: “in the size of our canal . . . we have made great errors, very great indeed.” The original canal cost $7 million; the tab for the enlargement (to seventy feet wide and seven feet deep) over the next three decades was $43 million.
- Erie was a fantastic success (despite the cost of two constructions) but its success induced many more failures. The Panic of 1837 and the ensuing six-year national depression were fueled by a collapse in financing for Erie-inspired state and private canal projects that never should have been started. Erie was the herald of the nation’s first technology boom and bust.
The point is not that Erie was a terrible boondoggle. It was not. By joining east to west, Erie was the first bond of a continental union. The point is that it was an extraordinary risk with real negatives that were overwhelmingly minimized by extraordinary positives.
Two centuries later, we’ve become a risk-averse nation. Fearful of catastrophic failure, our greatness slowly ebbs. We deteriorate by a thousand small failures. But, if we recognize the past as having been as messy as the present, we can set realistic and hopeful goals for the future: it becomes easier to do better.
With this in mind and in the memory of the non-memorialized workers who toiled with little more than iron picks, wooden shovels, and some War of 1812 gun powder in their daily work.. A little know fact is revealed by the internet site History Central
“9,000 workers were engaged in the building of the Erie Canal. Many of the laborers were Native Americans.”
This information is complement by another Internet site titled “Upstate New York Genealogy” which makes the point:
“It is said by historians that the Erie Canal was dug by New England farmers that worked for what was considered very high wages paid by the state and they primarily worked in the off farming season. For those of you that have heard that “The Irish dug the Erie Canal” you would be referring to the 1850′s period of the canal widening, which of course attracted many of the recent famine immigrants to good jobs?”
While the United States has not gone so far as to identify any portion of the canal as a National Park, maybe it is time the community take a much bigger step. The Canal may be a National Heritage Corridor but it is deserving of greater recognition. That could be a designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since it’s birth this canal has made it possible for people from all over the world establish news lives for themselves, their families and their countries all across the 1 million square mile of North America accessible to the Great Lakes and its tributaries. A distinction few other man made bodies of water could claim.
It would help if you contacted your New York State and United States government elected officials and asked that they cooperate in nominating the Canal for its much deserved recognition. Click here to read and/or pass along the UNESCO World Heritage Information Kit.