Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The long haul: The Erie Canal's place in the growth of a nation

Photo by mcgmatt, via Flickr, used under Creative Commons License
Presented to the Club by Albert Easton for on Monday evening, January 16, 2012

“As a bond between the Atlantic and Western states, it may prevent the dismemberment of the American Empire.  The most fertile and extensive regions of America will avail themselves of its facilities for a market.  All their surplus productions will concentrate in the city of New York, for transportation abroad or consumption at home.  And before the revolution of a century, the whole island of Manhattan, covered with inhabitants and replenished with a dense population, will constitute one vast city.”  In 1816, when New York governor Dewitt Clinton wrote those words, James Madison was president of the new and struggling country, the United States.  His predecessor, Thomas Jefferson, had scoffed at the idea of a canal across New York State, but Madison was more neutral, and actually was persuaded to sponsor a bill in congress providing some funding.  The United States was financially exhausted, however, from the costs of the War of 1812, and the bill went nowhere.

However, Clinton was successful in persuading the New York legislature to support the canal building effort, and it became known later as “Clinton’s Ditch”.  The advocate who had sold the idea to Clinton was named Jesse Hawley.  Hawley had gone bankrupt from trying to get the huge quantities of grain he had been growing on his western New York real estate shipped to market.  It was from debtor’s prison in Canandaigua that he began his agitation for a canal along the 90 mile long Mohawk River valley, and with the help of friends (including land speculator Joseph Ellicott, who later became the first canal commissioner) sold the idea to Clinton.

The project presented enormous challenges, of course.  The total rise from the Hudson at Albany to Lake Erie is 600 feet, and the tallest locks available in 1800 could handle only 12 feet – thus a minimum of 50 locks over that 360 mile distance.  The costs would be enormous, and almost beyond the early nineteenth century imagination.  Nevertheless, the New York legislature eventually committed the then huge sum of seven million dollars to the project, and work began on the 4th of July 1817.