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.

Like any large financial commitment, the canal required elaborate funding.  The bill passed by the legislature established the Canal Fund, to be administered by elected officials, and funded by a loan from the state to be repaid from toll revenues.  The Canal fund also received revenue from the sale of state land near the proposed canal route, and the inevitable state lotteries.  Taxes designated for the Canal fund were on those who would benefit most from it: salt (it was plentiful in the canal region, and expensive to ship without it), steamboat travel (expected to increase greatly on the Hudson) and land within 25 miles of the proposed canal route.

The site for the start of work was well chosen.  The area from Rome, New York to Utica is fairly level, and a stretch of about 15 miles could be completed without locks, thus enabling a part of the canal to be put in to service the year after it was built.  This, of course, helped to sell the rest of the building effort.  The original canal was cut 40 feet wide, and 4 feet deep, with the removed soil piled on the downhill side to form a tow path.  Canal boats, then, could be up to 3.5 feet in draft, and pulled by horses or mules on the towpath.

There was only one towpath, generally on the north side of the canal.  When canal boats met, the boat with the right-of-way steered to the towpath side, and the other boat steered to the opposite side.  The driver of the mules on the right-of-way boat brought his mules to the canal side of the towpath while the other driver took the other side of the path and stopped his team.  The rope would go slack as the boat continued on by momentum.  The right-of-way team would step over the slack rope; the right of way boat would pass over it, and both would continue on.

As you might expect in any massive project, there were a lot of problems that had to be dealt with in building the canal.  The digging wasn’t all through marsh or farmland – some cuts had to be made through hard limestone, all with little more than the power of the muscles of men and animals.  Fairly often, the route of the canal cut a farm in half, and the state had to provide bridges over the canal.  In an effort to keep expenses down (and minimize the problem of getting livestock over the bridge), the bridges were not very high.  Not only did this put limits on the size of boats that could travel the canal, but it also resulted in the famous cry of: “Low Bridge, Everybody Down”.  Anyone caught on the high part of the deck as it passed under a bridge would have suffered unpleasant consequences.

There were some other difficulties in building the canal.  Dependable water sources had to be found to keep the canal and the locks full in all those seasons when the canal was open (it froze in winter, of course), and in several cases, aqueducts had to be built to provide them.  Aqueducts also had to be built to carry the canal itself over rivers and streams that were not active sources of water.  Not only did these aqueducts have to carry water, they had to provide for a towpath, so they were combination aqueducts and bridges.  The aqueduct over the Mohawk River from Rexford to Schenectady was one of the longest – 610 feet, but there were many others. 

The United States had no one who called himself a civil engineer before the building of the canal.  All the several geniuses who designed and managed the work were amateurs – lawyers, storekeepers, but later deservedly considered engineers.  None had seen firsthand the canals of Europe, but had to rely on written accounts of their design and operation.

The expertise of the engineers in this massive building effort would have meant nothing without the efforts of huge numbers of laborers.  While most of the canal laborers were native born, or immigrants from various other countries, canal folklore revolves around those who were Irish immigrants.  The Irish immigrants were more often single men without families, and tended to form their own social group.  Pay for the laborers was quite generous, and sometimes included room, board, and liquor.   The work was steady, but necessarily seasonal, and many found the winters hard to endure without any income.

All work for laborers was hard in the early 19th century, and canal work was no exception.   Massive charges of gunpowder were used to help channel through some of the rocks, and attendant injuries were not infrequent.  In the course of building a channel through the swamp around the finger lakes, over a thousand were stricken with what appears to have been a mosquito-borne disease, and many died.
But all in a good cause.  On October 26, 1825, the canal was finally completed.  A fleet set out from Buffalo on October 6 headed by the boat Seneca Chief.  The Seneca Chief carried a large party of dignitaries, headed of course, by Governor Clinton, and was met along the way with celebratory cannon fire at its many stops.  It did not end its journey at Albany, but continued down the Hudson to New York, a trip totaling 500 miles.  There, in New York harbor, Governor Clinton emptied two barrels of water from Lake Erie into the ocean, in a ceremony that came to be called “The Wedding of the Waters.”
Many sections of the canal had been open for some time when the full length opened in October 1825, and commercial traffic was already well established.  Canal boats were capable of carrying 30 tons of freight, and this was a vast improvement over any form of overland transportation.  Eastbound cargos frequently consisted of lumber from the still nearly virgin forests of the Midwest, and grain from the Midwestern farms.  Westbound the traffic was usually manufactured goods from the quickly growing factories of the Northeast.

Passenger traffic began to increase too.  The trip by canal boat across the state was not only quicker, but far more comfortable than a trip by horse or stagecoach.  The boats were about 15 feet wide and forty feet long.  A special attraction for travelers was the food on board.  Here is a description from a boat captain:   "Breakfast: The meal may consist of a pike or bass, fresh caught on my overnight trawl line, a steak, bacon, sausage and ham;  a platter of scrambled eggs, boiled cabbage and squash, bread (both corn and white), pancakes (both wheat and buckwheat) with sorghum, maple, or honey to choice, and to wash all down, coffee, tea, milk, and cider.  Dinner will be heartier."

The journey across the state took several days, and passengers slept on board.  Here is a description from David Wilkie whose Sketches of a Summer Trip to New York and the Canadas describes his journey in the early summer of 1834:
There was a good company on board, considering the size of our vessel – about thirty gentlemen, and half as many ladies.  Four steps broad and 21 feet long was the size of our sleeping and dining cabin, and here, a score and a half of us had to be stowed away.  When we descended from deck between 8 and 9 o’clock, before the retiring hour, we found all the sleeping apparatus displayed in full form. On each side of the long narrow space were hung three tiers of canvas-bottomed frames, hardly broad enough to allow the occupant to stretch himself on his back, and three lengthwise, in all, affording accommodation for eighteen, and our surplus number had to betake themselves to the more humble couch afforded by the floor.

Our berths were allotted to us by precedence as our names were placed on the way-bill. When each cognomen was sung out by the captain, the individual doffed boots, coat and vest, and hoisted himself into place.  I contrived with little difficulty to crawl into my lair, and although enjoying less room, I believe, than if I had been a mummy in one of the pyramids, I passed a very unconscious and refreshing night.  

Wilkie was fortunate to have traveled in decent weather.  Many travelers complained of the excessive heat and stuffiness of the canal boat sleeping quarters.

Once the canal was opened, the problems of maintenance and repair began.  There were two kinds of problems – too much water and too little.  Actually, the results of both were the same.  Too much water caused breaks in the canal wall that ultimately left boats high and dry.  Walkers were assigned to pass along the tow path looking for weak spots that might cause problems at the next time of high water.  Inability for boats to move through the canal was a serious problem, of course.  An upstate newspaper from the 1830’s describes one such occurrence: “The break in the canal early last Saturday gave a few hundred canal men a rest they didn’t want, and cost them a lot of money they couldn’t afford to lose.  The lay-up came in the way of a bonanza of restfulness to horses and crews, but it was as welcome as sulfuric torments to the owners who saw drivers and steersmen with hearty appetites for corned beef and cabbage and horses eating their heads off in solemn ease with their noses buried in hay or oats.”

The reference to corned beef and cabbage, of course, is proof that many of the Irish laborers who had built the canal later became its steersmen, drivers and captains.  Canal men very often had no wives or families, they too seldom stayed in one place.  In Chapter 54 of Moby-Dick, Melville describes two canalers who have shipped on as part of the crew of a whale boat, the Town-Ho, and are the first to follow and last to abandon the rebellious Steelkilt in his attempt at mutiny.  Canal men were considered a tough lot.  One observer was quoted as saying “The boys who drive the horses [on the canal] are the most profane beings on the face of this whole earth, without exception.”

Then, also, the folklore of the canal is full of tales of the fearful storms that took place.  These are part of that staple of 19th century humor, the tall tale.  Consider this example from Mark Twain in Roughing It:
On the Erie Canal it was, all on a summer’s day, I sailed forth with my parents, far away to Albany.
From out the clouds at noon that day there came a dreadful storm, that piled the billows high about and filled us with alarm.
Our captain cast one glance astern, then forward glanced he, and said my wife and little ones, I nevermore shall see.
The exaggeration we are supposed to swallow is that storms on the canal were as fearful as those at sea.  They were not pleasant of course, because breaks could occur in the canal wall, stranding boats.  But with a depth of only four feet, there weren’t likely to be a lot of drownings.

We need to understand the canal as more like a road than a waterway.  Its purpose was never to move or provide water, but to move people and goods from one place to another using the only motive power then available – draft animals.  At this it was quite effective, but looming on the horizon was the next great technological wonder of the 19th century – steam power.  In 1807, many years before the canal was started, Robert Fulton’s steamboat had begun commercial service on the Hudson from New York to Albany.  In fact, Fulton was a member of the first canal commission, and a strong supporter.  Fulton’s steamboat, the Clermont, made the trip from New York to Albany in 32 hours on a regular basis.  By the 1830’s, helped by the extra traffic generated by the canal, there were over a hundred steamboats making the run and the time was down to ten hours. 

It was inevitable that steam power should next be applied to overland travel – by use of railroads.  In fact the Erie Canal spawned the earliest American railroad, the Mohawk and Hudson line, between Albany and Schenectady.  There is a rise of 215 feet between the two cities, and in the 19th century this required 27 locks.  The journey of 16 miles between the two cities took a full day.  This was fine and acceptable for commercial cargoes.  It was most convenient that they be loaded from river to canal transportation only once.  But for passengers this added an extra and unnecessary day.  Even by horse or couch the journey was much quicker overland.  But as soon as the canal opened, a company was formed by, among others, Stephen Van Rensselaer, the patron and owner of most of Albany County, to operate a railroad over the route.  The railroad, chartered as the Mohawk and Hudson, began service in 1831, using a steam engine and cutting the time of passage down to 40 minutes. 

Other railroads quickly followed.  By 1842, the Boston and Albany line was moving goods and people from New England to the canal, and about the same time a line from Albany to Buffalo paralleled the canal.  For moving goods, it could not compete well on cost, but it was much faster because it avoided all the lock time that canal transportation required.

So the railroads and the canal and the nation grew up together.  The canal was widened and deepened in 1862, and in 1903 the entire canal was replaced by the barge canal.  The barge canal made some material changes in the route.  For example, instead of paralleling the Mohawk River, canal traffic now travels on it from Schenectady to Little Falls. There is, of course, no longer a towpath.  Vessels using the canal must now supply their own motive power.  And the locks have become much higher than they could have been in the original canal.  There are now only 8 locks between Albany and Schenectady.  More pleasure boats than commercial boats use the canal these days, but it is still open all the way from Albany to Buffalo.

Some authors on the canal put more emphasis on the role of the canal in the development of the nation than it may deserve.   It is certainly true that the city of Chicago and the entire Midwest went through a period of tremendous growth in the 1830’s and 40’s, and much of this was made possible by the canal.  But given the resources of the prairies, that growth was inevitable, and would have occurred with the help of the railroads, although perhaps somewhat later.  In any case, the canal was a triumph of American industry and ingenuity, and is an important part of our history.

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