America's First Marvel: The Making of the Erie Canal

Dan Bryan, March 1 2015

Towpath on the Erie Canal (click for source)

The first great civil engineering project in the United States was without a doubt the Erie Canal. Completed in 1825, the canal ran for 425 miles, connected the Midwest to the East Coast, cemented the status of New York as the premier city of the United States, and opened up a population boom in western New York state. Construction took eight years, required 83 locks, and showcased the genius of the American self-made man in the realm of planning and construction. Politically, it provided decades of inspiration for the internal improvements philosophy that was a centerpiece of political contention at the local and national level.

Background: The Appalachian Mountain Barrier

The United States is divided along nearly its entire width by the Appalachian Mountains. In the early days of the nation, this presented a formidable barrier to western settlement, and even more so to the economic integration of the west with the established East Coast. Grain and corn were prohibitively expensive to ship overland (by pack mule and wagon), so settlers resorted to sustenance farming and/or the production of whiskey to make a living. Population growth in the west was slow as a result.

USGS map of New York including the Mohawk Valley gap.

One of the only places where a gap presented itself in the Appalachian barrier was via the Mohawk River in upstate New York. Connecting to the Hudson, this River cuts due west between the Catskills and Adirondacks and opens to the Great Lakes and Ohio watershed. Long before the plans for a canal emerged, it was a strategic area in the conflicts between Iroquois, French, Algonquin, English, and American forces.

Background: The Politics of the Erie Canal

By the 1800s there was a huge debate between those who advocated for "internal improvements" and those who did not. Internal improvements in that era meant the government funding for infrastructure projects. Opponents at the federal level saw these projects as unprofitable boondoggles that favored an Eastern economic elite. They also saw them as unconstitutional at the federal level and asserted that only private enterprise could appropriately provide the system of canals and toll roads that would link the nation together. From a standpoint of self-interest, many Southerners shipped their produce and cotton directly overseas and did not foresee a benefit to themselves from internal improvements. They thus motivated political sentiment along anti-internal improvement lines.

On the other hand, advocates of an internal improvements system envisaged a United States in which integrated states and regions would provide for national strength and prosperity. They doubted the ability of private enterprise to build national infrastructure. And from a standpoint of self-interest, they often came from regions (like New York or Pennsylvania) that would benefit the most from better infrastructure. They also, if sufficiently wealthy, would be invested in the banking system which would (in theory) profit from such building. Advocates of internal improvements were generally proponents of the national banks, and the richest among them were direct investors in the First, and later, the Second Bank of the United States.

In the specific case of New York and the Erie Canal, one of the earliest forceful advocates was a man named Jesse Hawley. A flour merchant from Geneva on Seneca Lake, Hawley suffered various commercial setbacks related (in his mind) to the poor transportation system to the extent that he found himself in debtors' prison. Undeterred by this misfortune, he produced a series of remarkable essays which proliferated and generated support for his ideas. These essays provided not only inspiration, but also a series of detailed cost estimates and engineering assessments, including estimated elevation changes and the number of locks that would be required.

For a time it looked as though the federal government might construct such improvements. In 1817 an infrastructure bill (the "Bonus Bill") passed the House and Senate and was sent to James Madison. This Bill would have used surplus revenue from the Second Bank of the United States to fund internal transportation projects. Madison vetoed it from the belief that it was unconstitutional. From that point, it was clear that any progress to be made would be made at the state level (until future eras, when the federal government became more malleable on the subject).

Dewitt Clinton

In that same year, however, Dewitt Clinton was elected Governor of New York. He immediately took up the cause of the Erie Canal at the state level. Clinton was a lifelong New Yorker from a prominent political family. In 1812 he was narrowly defeated by James Madison in the Presidential election and was philosophically in disagreement with Madison's strict construction of the Constitution1. Within the state of New York, there were competing factions with competing views on the internal improvements question. Using his influence, Clinton was able to secure the passage of a $7 million bill to construct the Erie Canal.

Supporters of the canal included the residents and speculators of western New York. Others ridiculed the idea. The project was nicknamed "Clinton's Ditch" as it began, and certain partisan newspapers questioned the sanity of anyone involved. Many simply thought the project to be an engineering impossibly and predicted that the $7 million expenditure would destroy the state's finances.

1 - A Constitution, of course, that Madison was instrumental in writing. This did not stop his political opponents from providing alternative interpretations.

Construction and Engineering Challenges

From the Hudson River to Lake Erie there is an almost 600 foot increase in elevation, requiring numerous locks to traverse via boat. Near Lake Erie, the Niagara Escarpment towers over the landscape and required dense array of locks to traverse. Even where the ground was flat, it was often covered by dense forest which was difficult to clear. The engineers in charge of planning this were self-educated and had no canal-building experience whatsoever. One of them, James Geddes, had spent only a few hours surveying land in his entire life before the project commenced. Such individuals seemed to give ammunition to the skeptics of the canal.

All such concerns proved unfounded in the end. Immigrants flooded up the Mohawk valley seeking work. Some of them included skilled German stonemasons whose handiwork survives to the present day. The canal included 18 aqueducts which ran in parallel to and fed from the rivers of New York. Dirt that was excavated from the ground was packed down next to the canal to create towpaths for pack animals, who would end up pulling most of the barges. Removing the trees and building the aqueducts for the canal were two other impressive engineering feats. Yet in most cases, the work went down according to the original plans of the Canal's leaders.

Effects of the Erie Canal

The Erie Canal was a staggering success. Ridicule for Dewitt Clinton vanished. Buffalo became a major city due to its location on Lake Erie at the canal's terminus. It would become a way station for many tons of Midwestern grain each harvest season, and by 1900 it was the 8th largest city in the United States. New York became the nation's dominant commercial center, eclipsing Philadelphia and Baltimore. And for years the canal lived on as an inspiration to the Whig and Republican parties as a symbol of what was possible with vigorous government action in the realm of transportation.

An 1830 canal scene from the New York countryside, with depiction of a towpath (click for source).

All along the canal, cities sprung up overnight (Rochester, Rome, Buffalo) and farmers swarmed the countryside. The region took on the wild atmosphere associated with many new settlements. Drinking, midnight seances, religious revivals, and utopian colonies all found fertile ground. Eventually the region became known as the "Burned Over District" due to the amount of evangelical fervor associated with it.

Last but not least, the canal gave rise to one of America's great folk songs, known as "Low Bridge" or "15 Years on the Erie Canal".

"I've got an old mule and her name is Sal. Fifteen years on the Erie Canal."

The Erie Canal and Progressive Credentialism

One lesson from the construction of the canal has unfortunately been lost to history. The principal planners and executors of the project were self-made and self-educated men. None of them were professional civil engineers, yet they disrupted and overturned the economy of the 1800s with fantastic success. In our current age of progressive credentialism, immigrants, minorities, and the working-class are often shut out from upward mobility by expanding demands for expensive post-secondary education. This only serves to benefit established interests in business, academia, and government. Yet we might do well to remember that one of the greatest engineering feats in the history of the United States was executed by people who would today be called "unqualified".

What if the Canal Had Not Been Built?

Throughout the 19th century, the Midwest and the Northeast were generally aligned in social values and in national politics. Without the commercial link between the Midwest and New York provided by the Erie Canal, this might have developed very differently. There would certainly have been even greater trade with New Orleans, and perhaps more trade with Canada as well. Perhaps the Midwest would have remained more neutral in the North-South divide that engulfed the nation. Or perhaps it would have been a third source of independent power, unconnected to the East, and prone to independent gestures. Or perhaps the rise of the railroad system would have balanced these tendencies. In any of these cases, the course of American history might have run quite differently without the benefits from the Erie Canal.

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About the Author

Dan Bryan

Dan Bryan is the founder and editor of American History USA. He holds a B.A. in American History from the University of Chicago. He has created this site to empower Americans of all backgrounds to increase their historical literacy.

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