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How the Erie Canal Was Built With Raw Labor and Amateur Engineering

How the Erie Canal Was Built With Raw Labor and Amateur Engineering

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In 1809, when President Thomas Jefferson reviewed New York’s ambitious plans for a more than 360-mile canal connecting the Hudson River (and therefore New York Harbor) to the Great Lakes, he dismissed it as “little short of madness” and refused to authorize federal funding. Less than a decade later, when New York’s politically savvy governor DeWitt Clinton pushed the controversial canal plan through the state legislature, opponents mocked the project as “DeWitt’s Ditch” and “Clinton’s Folly.”

Yet in 1825, just eight years after workers broke ground, DeWitt boarded a barge called the Seneca Chief and took a victory cruise along the newly opened Erie Canal, an engineering marvel unlike anything America had ever seen. The man-made waterway, designed by untrained engineers, featured 83 separate locks, two massive stone-and-cement aqueducts to crisscross the Mohawk River, and a final ingenious “flight” of interconnected locks to raise boats over the 70-foot Niagara Escarpment.

The Erie Canal was built decades before the invention of dynamite to efficiently blast through stubborn rock, or steam-powered earth-movers and excavators to clear mud, rock and rubble. Instead, the thickly forested land was cleared and the 40-foot wide canal was dug and the locks were constructed by the raw manpower of an estimated 50,000 laborers, including a large contingent of recently arrived Irish immigrants.

WATCH: Modern Marvels: The Erie Canal

The ‘Erie School of Engineering’

“The Erie Canal was the first major infrastructure project in the history of America,” says Derrick Pratt, museum educator at the Erie Canal Museum. But the first challenge to building the Erie Canal was that the United States didn’t have a single college of engineering or any native-born engineers.

“They tried to hire European engineers, but they were either too busy, too expensive or didn’t want any part of this audacious scheme to cut through what was wilderness at the time to get from the Hudson River to the Great Lakes,” says Pratt.

So the Canal Commissioners had no choice but to hire an amateur crew of self-taught local engineers that included a few inexperienced surveyors and at least one local math teacher. The two chief engineers were Benjamin Wright and James Geddes, lawyers by trade who learned how to survey by prosecuting land disputes.

Wright sent his assistant, a young man named Canvass White, to spend a year in England to learn everything he could about locks, the brilliant method first conceived by Leonardo Da Vinci for raising and lowering boats to accommodate changes in elevation.

Returning to America, White helped make a key discovery. Lock construction, as well as aqueducts, required something called hydraulic cement, a type of masonry mortar that hardened and remained stiff underwater. But the only hydraulic cement at the time came from Europe and was wildly expensive to ship. After some experimentation, White and a colleague named Andrew Barstow identified a local source of limestone that when properly pulverized and burned, produced a lime that could be used to make hydraulic cement cheaply and abundantly.

The men who rose to engineering positions on the Erie Canal—including some who began the project with an axe in their hands clearing trees—became known as graduates of the “Erie School of Engineering” and lent their hard-won expertise to the next century of American expansion and innovation. An actual school of engineering, now the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, was founded in 1824 in Troy, New York, right alongside the Erie Canal.

Who Built the Erie Canal?

Ground was broken for the Erie Canal on July 4, 1817, just outside Rome, New York. Work commenced with the 90-mile middle section of the canal where there were the fewest natural impediments like rocky cliffs or swamps. Setting a precedent for future public works projects, the Canal Commissioners contracted out the construction work to local landowners, who were responsible for hiring the laborers to dig the canal to the engineer’s specifications: a slant-sided “prism” of water 40 feet wide and four feet deep, with tow paths on either side.

At first, the contractors mostly hired local farmers and homesteaders who were eager to get this new waterway completed and have ready access to lucrative markets up and down the canal. Wages were 50 cents to a dollar a day and the work in those first years was painfully slow. From 1818 to 1819, around three thousand men and 700 horses labored every day to dig the section of the Erie Canal from Utica to the Seneca River.

According to an 1820 report from the Canal Commission, three-quarters of these early laborers were “born among us.” But those demographics changed quickly when work on the canal moved westward into a soggy and mosquito-plagued region called the Montezuma swamps. Unable to convince upstate farmers to muck it out in the inhospitable territory, contractors hired teams of Irish immigrants freshly arrived in New York Harbor. Thousands of Irish laborers were sickened or died in the swamps from what was called “Genesee fever,” but which was actually malaria.

Irish immigrant labor gradually overtook local workers and anti-Irish, anti-Catholic sentiment swelled along the canal construction route. The Irish workers were often paid in whiskey in addition to (or sometimes in place of) their meager wages of $12 a month. While brawling and skirmishes with locals were a frequent problem, the Irish workers proved willing to do the dirtiest and most dangerous work, including blasting rock with unpredictable black powder.

Historian Gerard Koeppel, author of Bond of Union: Building the Erie Canal and the American Empire, quotes the lyrics of a popular Irish work song: "We are digging a ditch through the mire, Through the mud and the slime and the mire, dammit! And the mud is our principal hire; In our pants, down our boots, down our necks, dammit!"

Tools Used to Build the Erie Canal

Much of the planned route for the Erie Canal ran through thickly forested wilderness and the early teams of laborers had nothing more than axes, pickaxes and shovels to fell countless trees and uproot giant stumps. In time, the canal’s amateur engineers devised brilliant contraptions to make the work dramatically faster.

The first was a crank-driven tree feller adapted from European designs. A cable was tied to the top of a large tree and connected to an “endless screw” that was ratcheted and cranked by men, horses or oxen until the tree was ripped from the ground, roots and all.

Another device was invented by Nathan Roberts, a local math teacher who became one of the Erie Canal’s most storied engineers. Some trees were too small to be yanked down with the ratchet and had to be cut, leaving their stubborn stumps. Roberts designed a giant stump remover with 16-foot wheels that could be powered by a team of oxen to pull 40 stumps a day compared to only four a day using conventional labor.

Farm implements were repurposed and redesigned to help with the monumental task of digging the hundreds of miles of canal. An implement called a “plow and scraper” was pulled through the earth by draft horses to break up small roots and loosen tough clay. Another device called a “slip scraper” functioned like a modern-day bulldozer or bucket loader, scraping up rubble and dumping it into debris piles.

But perhaps the simplest and most lasting innovation was conceived by Jeremiah Brainard, a canal contractor who made a small fortune selling his patented “Brainard’s barrow” to workers frustrated with the old style of wheelbarrow that was box-shaped with vertical sides. Brainard’s design had a rounded basin that made it far easier to dump out the wheelbarrow’s contents with one good heave.

The Last Great Obstacle at Lockport

The final section of the Erie Canal posed the greatest challenge of all. The Niagara Escarpment, the same elevated rock formation that created the Niagara Falls, blocked access to Lake Erie.

“The canal engineers had to figure out how to overcome this 70-foot change in elevation,” says Pratt of the Erie Canal Museum. “The average lock on the canal could only lift between 10 and 15 feet.”

There was a competition to come up with the best solution and Nathan Roberts, a former schoolteacher, came up with the winning idea: a “staircase” of five consecutive locks, each stacked on top of each other. The “flight” of locks was so successful that the nearby town was named Lockport, but the challenge wasn’t over.

To provide enough water to fill those locks, a massive channel needed to be dug through solid bedrock to reach Lake Erie. Twelve hundred mostly Irish workers blasted through seven miles of rock with dangerous black powder. They also built raging fires to heat the rock, which could then be cracked with a sudden douse of cold water. Special tower cranes were built to remove out the endless piles of rubble and dozens of workers died or were severely injured by exploding rock and falling debris.

Plied with whiskey by avaricious contractors, the Irish got a bad reputation in Lockport, which was the site of a violent riot in 1822 between Northern Irish Protestants and Southern Irish Catholics. But after the so-called “Deep Cut” through the rock was completed, many of the Irish workers settled in Lockport and established a proudly Irish outpost in Upstate New York.

The Erie Canal, fully completed in 1825, was an immediate triumph, transporting goods, people and ideas between the East Coast and the frontier settlements of the Midwest and beyond. In 1834, the canal underwent a major enlargement—70 feet wide and seven feet deep—to better handle an increased crush of boat traffic.

Building the Erie Canal Was Messy: It's Worth Remembering That!

/> The iconic Erie Canal is one of those pieces of Americana that exists today largely in the imagination. The Brooklyn Bridge, which joined Manhattan and Brooklyn in 1885, or the Panama Canal, which joined the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans in 1914, are experienced today much as they were built. The original Erie&mdashjust forty feet wide and four feet deep by 363 miles long--which in 1825 joined the Hudson River to Lake Erie and thus the Eastern seaboard with the vast unsettled continental interior, has not existed since a substantial enlargement completed on the eve of the Civil War. The current and third incarnation of Erie, completed in 1918 and ingloriously dubbed the New York State Barge Canal (until recently), is a broad, deep channel for motorized craft, nearly all of them now pleasure boats. Wooden barges heavy with pioneers and pioneer commerce, pulled by mules along rutted towpaths, are a century gone.

Typical of mythic things, little new thinking has been applied to Erie for a good long while. Frequent juvenile and occasional adult histories retell warmed over stories. The same good long while has seen the decline of American infrastructure, of which the original Erie Canal was the overachieving firstborn.

The canal is undergoing a mini renaissance of sorts rights now. Calls for the creation of a national infrastructure bank to build and (mostly) rebuild roads, bridges, rail lines and other infrastructure cite Erie as the paradigm for American infrastructure creation.

Erie can serve as an example of American resolve and ingenuity&mdashit was designed and built by amateurs through unbroken, disease-plagued territory with crude tools, high casualties, and speculative financing&mdashbut little about its actual creation can serve as a model for 21st infrastructure. In fact, blind invocations of the great canal in service of contemporary needs can lead to frustration. Idealizing the past makes the future more difficult: How can we possibly measure up? When the things we&rsquore trying to (re)build now run up against confounding financial, legal, and environmental realities, how do we go forward with confidence lamenting that things were much easier in the past? The answer is that they weren&rsquot.

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&rsquo prison. If his anonymity had been lost, the busted dreamer&rsquos 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&rsquos 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&rsquot like him very much.
  • Conflict of interest was an unborn term in Erie&rsquos day. Men who served as Erie canal commissioners and engineers pursued healthy speculative profit in remote lands made more valuable by the canal&rsquos 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: &ldquocrossing 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.&rdquo
  • 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 &ldquoa structure of admirable solidity and beauty&rdquo and &ldquothe most stupendous and strongest work in America.&rdquo Ten years later, the country&rsquos longest stone bridge was &ldquoin a state of rapid dilapidation.&rdquo In another three years, it was &ldquonearly in ruins.&rdquo 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: &ldquoin the size of our canal . . . we have made great errors, very great indeed.&rdquo 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&rsquos 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&rsquove 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.

Morris Canal

View all photos

From 1829 to 1924, the Morris Canal was the primary way to get coal and other industrial goods to New York City from upstate Phillipsburg, New Jersey. While the remaining mouth of the canal now serves as a marina and scenic waterway, in its heyday the Morris Canal was a marvel of engineering, enabling water travel for industrial materials as well as supplies for towns along the way.

The canal runs for a total length of 107 miles, and a total elevation change of more than 900 feet. To cross the hills of northern New Jersey, it made use of water-driven inclined planes—the first canal in the United States to do so. The Morris Canal was built primarily to move coal and was heavily used through the 1870s. But as other forms of transportation became easier, the need for the canal faded. In 1922, it was taken over by the state of New Jersey, and then in 1924, it was formally abandoned.Take a walk to the Hudson River along Morris Canal park, you will have both a wonderful view of lower Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, New Jersey Railroad, and a short riverfront that is not built up and gives a bit of a sense of how the river may have looked before the banks were built up in more recent decades.

Oh, and on your travels, look out for other short, remaining portions of the canal that can still be seen, such as one of the remaining planes (the segments of the canal where the elevation changes) at Waterloo village in Sussex County, New Jersey.

How the Erie Canal Was Built With Raw Labor and Amateur Engineering - HISTORY

Click here to download
a PDF version of the
Driving Tour & Guide to Blackstone Canal Historic Markers , produced by the National Park Service in conjunction with Worcester Historical Museum.

History of the Canal
The Blackstone Canal: A Brief Overview of Its Historical Significance

For the residents of post-industrial, twentieth-first century New England, the Blackstone Canal and other manmade waterways of its day possess a quaintness and an air of simplicity. They strike us as a leisurely way to travel, free from the noise, smoke and grime and the nervous bustle that began to characterize travel with the introduction of the railroad, the epitomal image of the Age of Iron and Steam. Yet the Blackstone Canal represented a significant accomplishment for its time and its construction marked a critical transition point in the history of the Blackstone Valley, in terms of the region's economy and its social life. As such, the canal should be considered a major artifact of the "Age of Internal Improvements", a historic site that links the period of industrialization with the preindustrial era of maritime commerce and near-subsistence farming, an era that was passing with the canal's construction.

In terms of finance, the building of a canal required heavy capitalization the Blackstone Canal represented the economic success that the merchants of Providence had already enjoyed in their pursuit of trade around the world. As a financial venture, the canal demonstrated the ambition and the vision of the entrepreneurs of Providence, Worcester and the country towns in between.

As a technical feat, the canal was a product of the rather precocious skills of the American engineering profession, whose rapid rise to maturity had been strikingly demonstrated by the successful construction of the Erie Canal between 1817 and 1825. The chief engineer and many of the supervising engineers on the Blackstone Canal brought to the job expertise gained during the construction of the Erie Canal. Begun in 1825, the canal, which was nearly forty-five miles long with forty-nine locks, was the last major canal to be begun in New England during the Canal Era.

As a social force, the canal had the immediate effects of bringing the countryside into closer contact with the urban center of Providence, promoting development along its route and accelerating the shift in the focus of activities in rural society from the small circles of families and friends into the larger and more impersonal realm of national and international commerce and politics. The canal also served to introduce the Irish into the Blackstone Valley, the first of the many immigrant groups that were to come in search of work and new homes.

Ostensibly an engine of commerce, the Blackstone Canal was first projected by Providence merchants eager to secure new home markets in the fertile interior to supplement their maritime trade in Europe and Asia. By facilitating the trip back downstream to Providence, the canal also encouraged production for market among farmers and artisans who had hitherto been frustrated by the length, labor and expense of overland travel on roads of poor quality. As John Brown, the Providence merchant, had pointed out as early as 1796, by lowering transit time and costs, the canal made it feasible to deliver country produce that had been too bulky or perishable to transport overland to Providence, where it would be consumed or shipped to other markets. At the same time, boats traveling back up the canal would be delivering merchandise and raw materials imported through Providence from this country and abroad, goods that would be distributed from the northern terminus, Worcester, and smaller villages along the way.

In its relatively brief life of twenty years (1828-1848), the canal performed as expected for a while, though not without difficulties. It carried the life's blood of commerce that enabled Providence to sustain its growth into one of nineteenth century America's great industrial cities, the self-proclaimed "gateway to southern New England." At the canal's opposite end, Worcester consolidated its position as the major market town for central Massachusetts and began its own rise to prominence as a major industrial city. Between the two termini, the canal raised property values, promoted industry and trade and provided the impetus for the development of several villages. It was not until the railroad arrived and could offer the same services equally well or better that the canal ceased to be a viable method of transport.

Although to modern eyes, the canal appears to have been a relatively simple improvement of the basic exchange of goods and services, and, as such, part of the universal and perhaps inevitable process of change that affected the entire country in the nineteenth century, the simplicity is deceptive. By drawing the backcountry into closer commercial ties with Providence, the canal was acting as a powerful agent of economic change, ushering in the era of the market economy and supplanting the traditional household economy. With this economic change, which began as early as the eighteenth century when Providence merchants began to trade their imported and manufactured goods for products of the farms and forests of the Blackstone Valley, came social change as well, as the disruption of subsistence farming and production for home consumption led to the displacement of the home as the production center and the family unit as the basic labor force.

These changes, which proceeded gradually in some instances and more dramatically in others, were most evident in the textile factories and other industries that were proliferating in the Blackstone Valley by the 1810's. The textile industry, although it proved to be a powerful rival in the subsequent contest over water rights on the river, served as a strong impetus for the canal. The numerous mills located on the Blackstone and its tributaries formed one of a few significant concentrations of industry in the country and they had considerable transportation needs. Raw cotton and wool, machinery and other materials had to be obtained and the finished cloth goods had to be delivered to market. In the eyes of the canal promoters, many of whom were also investors in these factories, the canal and industry would be mutually beneficial allies. To a large extent this proved to be true: existing factories were improved, isolated mill seats attracted developers and, in some cases the canal itself created manufacturing opportunities where none had existed before. Perhaps the greatest universal benefit was the system of reservoirs built by the canal, which served to regulate the river's flow year round, thereby eliminating some, if not all, of the manufacturers' low water problems. In return, as a review of the canal boat cargo lists reveals, the factories generated a large percentage of the canal's business. However the textile manufacturers did not find the canal to be indispensable, indeed for the whole of the canal's career, they often united in opposition against it. For the Blackstone Valley as a whole, it was manufacturing that was to determine the course of future development

The demise of the Blackstone Canal can be attributed in large part to the continued action of the same forces that brought it about, although inherent flaws in the technical design had a critical effect as well.

To consider the latter reasons first, the canal was hampered throughout its career by periodic disruption of travel. The three basic causes were: too much water, caused by floods and freshets too little water caused by droughts and ice, which could close the waterway for four or five months from late fall to early spring. The problems of high and low water were compounded by the fact that for approximately ten per cent of its length the canal ran in the Blackstone River, where water levels were largely beyond control. What powers of regulation the canal company did possess were further hindered by the prior right of mill owners to the "natural run" of the river. As a series of costly court cases proved, the use of water for transportation was possible only after the manufacturers' needs were satisfied. Even though the canal company had constructed a system of reservoirs at the head of the river to provide water during times of drought, the waters they impounded were still judged to be public property and part of the river's "natural run." With the regular recurrence of these seasonal disruptions, profitable operation of the canal was severely hampered.

The canal fleet consisted of 12 freight boats and one passenger "packet," the Lady Carrington.

Apart from the canal's internal difficulties, a major and ultimately fatal threat developed out of the continuing rivalry between Providence, Boston and other seaboard cities to extend their spheres of economic influence. As in the case of the canal itself, a new transportation system developed out of the combination of entrepreneurial vision, venture capital and technological expertise. Boston, jealous of Providence's incursion into Worcester County, after first contemplating its own western canal, decided to apply the newly-matured technology of the steam-powered railroad to the situation. Begun in 1831 and completed in 1835, the Boston and Worcester Railroad provided faster and more consistent service than the canal could and so served to redirect much of the Worcester trade back to Boston. Canal revenues dropped precipitously, though traffic on the lower portion of the canal remained relatively unaffected. However, the superior advantages of rail transport eventually convinced capitalists in Providence and Worcester to form the Providence and Worcester Railroad. Completed in 1847, the Providence and Worcester finalized the canal's gradual decline. It is worthy of note that in many cases the investors in the new railroad had been investors in the canal, a fact that testifies to their prevailing faith in the value of a transportation route up the Blackstone Valley, and to the confidence and economic resilience that allowed them to write off their heavy losses in the canal and invest in a new venture. The speed with which the canal became obsolete, even as its economic function increased in importance, typifies the sudden effects of what economic historian George Rogers Taylor has labeled the "Transportation Revolution."

While the Blackstone Canal has generally been regarded as a failure for its investors and something of an anachronism as a transportation system, for the Blackstone Valley its construction and operation served as a major milestone in a process of thoroughgoing change in the region's economy and social life. Today, the results of that change are in evidence throughout the valley, while the process of change has been obscured by the passing of generations and the incessant accumulation of their residue. To a large degree, the canal has long been regarded as just another part of that residue. Now, with many valley's other surviving historical resources, it is rightfully being put to use to commemorate that formative period and provide an understanding and an appreciation of the historical process that transformed a wilderness valley into one of the most significant industrial regions in the United States.

Richard E. Greenwood
Historian and Archaeologist
Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission

Canal-Driven Innovations

The Erie Canal significantly increased the amount of tonnage of virtually any and every commodity that could be shipped, giving rise to many innovations in productivity and efficiency. For example, as the demand for salt from the salt springs around Syracuse increased, the supply of wood to fuel the boiling of brine rapidly diminished. Fields of solar ovens were built to use the heat of the sun to evaporate the water from the brine. That nineteenth-century salt operation remains to this day one of the largest solar energy projects in the history of the world.

The iron-truss bridge, first developed by Squire Whipple for crossing the Erie Canal was later adapted for the railroads. As Midwestern grain was offloaded at Buffalo, the need arose to store the vast quantities of grain to be shipped. The grain elevator, invented by Joseph Dart in Buffalo, resolved the need for large storage containers to hold the ever-growing shipments of raw materials (flour, coal, etc.) from the West, and its use persisted after the height of the Erie Canal’s popularity as a means of transporting goods. Other innovations such as the “Electric Mule” were not as successful.

Whipple Cast & Wrought Iron Bowstring Truss Bridge, Normans Kill Vicinity, Albany, Albany County, NY. Courtesy, Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscape Survey

This postcard depicts the Solar Salt Works in Syracuse, New York. From May through November, solar evaporation of brine to produce salt was employed as an alternative to boiling that required lumber as fuel. Courtesy of Liverpool Public Library via Central New York Library Resources Council and Empire State Digital Network.

This photograph shows the Maxon & Co. grain elevator along the Erie Canal in Schenectady, New York. In 1843, Joseph Dart successfully implemented his steam-powered "bucket elevator" that transported grain from lake boats to enormous storage bins until ready to be shipped east on the Erie Canal. Courtesy of Schenectady County Historical Society via Capital District Library Council and Empire State Digital Network.

This 1900 photograph shows a man operating the experimental "electric mule," created to replace actual mules and horses in the towing of barges and boats on the Erie Canal. Courtesy of Schenectady County Historical Society via Capital District Library Council and Empire State Digital Network.

In popular imagination, gangs of immigrant Irish laborers built the Erie Canal. In fact, during the first half of the construction period (1817–1821), the overwhelming majority of laborers were the families and hands who worked the small farms through which the canal line passed. The entire middle section of relatively level, dry land was contracted for and built (1817–1820) largely by these homesteaders, who had emigrated from no further away than New England. The state canal commissioners overseeing the construction reported proudly in 1819 that three in four canal laborers were American born. Gradually, contracts for multiple of the canal's hundreds of short sections were taken up by local and regional merchants and associations of contractors, suppliers, and speculators who needed larger labor crews. In the remote western sections, where work began in 1819, the scattered resident population could not supply adequate labor. Nor were area farmers willing to muck out or risk sickness in the extensive Montezuma swamps. This work increasingly fell to Irish immigrants hired right off the boat in New York City who sang their way into American folklore: "We are digging a ditch through the mire, Through the mud and the slime and the mire, dammit! And the mud is our principal hire In our pants, down our boots, down our necks, dammit!" When the deadly work of blasting the canal trough through a long rock ridge in western New York was done, Irish laborers remained to become prominent settlers of the canal-made city of Lockport.

The Irish became the most notable and, for their considerable brawling, notorious immigrant group on the canal, but preceding them were substantial numbers of skilled and semiskilled Welsh, who often worked on the canal's masonry structures. Regardless of national origin, the tens of thousands of unskilled laborers who worked on the canal over nine construction seasons earned the same low wages: as little as fifty cents for day work, or from eight to ten dollars a month including room, board, laundry, and whiskey.

Interest in the canal revived quickly after the war. A public meeting in New York City in late December

1815 produced a persuasive memorandum by state Republican Party leader Clinton, which was circulated throughout the state and brought the question of construction before the legislature for the first time in 1816. Intense opposition came from Lake Ontario interests and regions distant from the canal line, especially New York City, whose merchants feared heavy taxes to support an expensive upstate project. Political interests, centered on Clinton's emerging Republican rival Martin Van Buren, feared that Clinton, narrowly defeated for the presidency in 1812 while running as a Federalist, was using the canal for personal political gain. Others questioned whether country surveyors with no engineering education or experience could build a canal more than ten times longer than the nation's only other significant canal. The twenty-seven-mile Middlesex Canal in Massachusetts was notorious for staggering construction costs and delays and financial strain on its prominent private investors.

Clinton settled for another round of surveys but claimed leadership of a new five-man canal commission stacked with supporters. They included Joseph Ellicott (1760–1826), influential agent for the Holland Land Company, which owned 3.3 million mostly vacant acres of westernmost New York that the canal would profitably settle.

By 1817 popular imagination had overwhelmed political opposition sufficiently so that the legislature approved construction of the middle section of what the commissioners estimated to be a $5 million project, by far the most expensive engineering project in the nation's history. Heeding its merchants' fears, none of the thirty New York City–area legislators voted in favor.

New York State moved ahead without any federal support. In 1809 President Thomas Jefferson called New York's project "madness," clinging to false hope that his own Virginia would be the first to reach the interior by canalizing the Potomac. On the final day of his presidency in 1817, Jefferson's successor and fellow Virginian, James Madison, vetoed a bill that would have provided federal money to canal projects like New York's. Madison's veto, on the grounds that Congress had no express constitutional authority to fund canals, came as New York's legislature was debating its canal bill contrary to what Madison might have wished, his veto helped unify opinion in New York behind the project.

A sophisticated canal fund, administered by a financial board separate from the canal commission that oversaw construction, featured state bonds, duties on auction and salt sales, taxes on steamboat passengers, and tolls. By 1833 total tolls surpassed the eventual construction cost of $7 million when tolls were abolished fifty years later, the canal had earned a profit of over $40 million.

Geo-Joint: The Erie Canal—The Water Road to Expansion

Two hundred years ago, the country witnessed the birth of a profound mark on the national landscape—on that oh-so-American date of July the Fourth. That was when Chief Engineer James Geddes began construction on the Erie Canal. As a piece of American history, the Erie Canal is probably as well known as the Liberty Bell or The War of 1812. The name, that is. How many of us living outside of the northeastern US really know where it is located, or even how important it was to the development of of the nation? Somewhere along the way you might have sung the words, “I’ve got a mule, her name is Sal—fifteen miles on the Erie Canal.” Here’s a refresher to your 5th grade history/geography lesson.

The route of the Erie Canal, and some of the offshoots that funneled more commerce to it.

In 1817, the US was a much smaller, but a growing and modernizing place. That year saw Mississippi become the 20th state of the Union, and it was the same year that steamboat service on the Big Muddy first began. Also in 1817, Baltimore became the first city in the nation to have its streets lit by coal gas. The Louisiana Purchase had been made several years earlier, in 1803, promising new frontiers for growth. But westward expansion was arduous and dangerous, so the process of realizing the development of American lands needed help.

Travelling away from New York City was an adventure, but the Erie Canal made a significant improvement in conditions and speed.

A better way to move goods and passengers to places in the interior was required, and it was the mission of former New York City mayor, and then New York state governor DeWitt Clinton, to build a canal across New York. To connect Buffalo, at the eastern end of Lake Erie, with Albany, on the Hudson River, meant that a route of water transit could connect Ohio, the whole Great Lakes region, and parts west, to New York City. Clinton’s vision for such a route might have been easier if the canal had only made its way to Oswego on Lake Ontario. Boats could have sailed west from there, to Buffalo, cutting the length of the required canal in half. But crops and materials in boats on Lake Ontario could go north to markets on the Canadian shoreline, or to other ports along parts of the St. Lawrence River. By building a canal along an inland route, boats were kept on the track toward New York City.

After a lengthy political fight for funding, the work got under way at Rome, NY, on the Fourth of July, 1817. Construction capabilities were far less robust two hundred years ago, and the young country had far fewer qualified engineers and laborers skilled in mega-public works projects. A 363-mile-long canal is no simple irrigation ditch. It was originally designed to be four feet deep and forty feet wide, which was a lot of digging. In addition, there is a 571-foot elevation difference between Buffalo and Albany, which required the building of 83 locks, each 90 feet long. The design, coordination, logistics, and general problem-solving involved in this task was the greatest the country had yet taken on. Canal builders from Europe had been enlisted to lend their expertise to smaller canals built before the Erie Canal, and under their tutelage the first top-level American engineers had developed. When those engineers took on the task of creating the Erie Canal, the crucible of that construction tested their skills, and they later followed through on large public works projects around the nation. The era of American can-do building had begun.

Mules like these on the Delaware and Hudson canal provided the muscle power to move freight and travelers.

The men who did the actual digging and other grueling labor numbered in the thousands. There were not enough local hands to do such work, and those who were around were generally busy with farm labor. This led to the growth of immigrant labor, much of which came from Ireland. Pay was low, work was hard, and conditions were often cold and always wet. As if putting up with all that wasn’t enough, there was the constant threat of diseases such as malaria, cholera, and typhus. In addition, all the usual vices and violence of hard-working crews in isolated regions flourished, but the job got done.

When the Erie Canal was completed eight years later, in 1825, it opened the gates to what had been a remote part of the country. Suddenly, mule-towed barges laden with 30 tons of materials could pass relatively quickly west to supply growing towns in the Great Lakes region and beyond. Travellers who had previously been forced to spend two weeks bouncing in uncomfortable stagecoaches to travel from Albany to Buffalo now transited in just five days, over smooth water. Raw materials such as lumber could move quickly from interior forests to the ever-growing port of New York, and the products of Midwestern farms also went east for one-tenth of the former cost, in half the time. The Erie Canal was the main east-west line, but lateral canals began to be built running north and south of it, feeding the traffic. Towns along its route grew with the rising commerce, and with new residents came new ideas like women’s rights, alternative religions, and political ideas like the abolition of slavery. The Erie Canal infused its course with a pulse of economic and social energy like nothing else could have.

Barge traffic on the Erie Canal in the early 20th century.

In nine short years, canal tolls paid off the cost of the entire endeavor, and as time went by, the canal’s success would periodically overwhelm its capabilities. Sal the mule, as reliable as she was, could only tow a few tens of tons for fifteen-mile segments of the canal before needing to be relieved by another animal. The massive growth of shipping volume meant the canal had to be upgraded. In 1862, and again in 1918, it was enlarged to handle greater traffic and bigger boats and barges. Now steam-driven boat engines could push hundreds of tons all day, and the mules were out of a job. In time, the canal, once only 4 feet deep, grew to depths of 12-23 feet, and had its width expanded to 120-200 feet. The locks lengthened to 310 feet, and were compartmentalized, thus able to handle traffic going in two directions at once.

Older and newer locks can be seen here, as the canal was expanded.

The Erie Canal saw the height of its usage in 1880. The development of rail lines across the country in the late 19th century siphoned passenger traffic away, but the canal maintained its role by expanding its size and capability. The 1918 expansion, called the Erie Barge Canal, utilized some natural waterways in its new course. Petroleum product transport began to be the canal’s cash cow in the early 20th century, and on into the 1950s. But the development of pipeline networks and the Interstate Highway System in the 1960s cut the Erie Barge Canal’s effectiveness. In addition, 1959 saw the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, a joint US and Canadian project. It created locks and dredged the channels for the passage of full-sized, ocean-going ships to travel from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic by way of the St. Lawrence River. Its capacity was enormous—the Erie Barge Canal had been superseded.

Nowadays, the Erie Canal supports a thriving traffic in pleasure craft and tourism.

But life goes on for the Erie Canal even today. It and the canal systems that built up around it have been named as a National Historic Corridor. All these canals now support a very popular tourist trade, transiting pleasure craft both private and charter along their historic routes, allowing modern-day travelers the chance to witness first-hand the engineering marvels that helped build the young US of A.

Would you like to see what the Erie Canal had done for New York City about 30 years after it was built? This antique birds-eye-view map of NYC from 1856 shows a growing metropolis in amazing detail. Perfect for your wall, or a gift for a friend in New York.

Walkabout: Brooklyn and the Erie Canal

Late 19th century stereoscopic photo of the Lockport locks on the Erie Canal. New York Public Library.


If you grew up in New York State, as I did, at some point, your public school education included the history of the state. I grew up far upstate, in Otsego County, and we had New York history in seventh grade. I always found state history fascinating, as from where I was, one could actually go to the places where many historical events happened and stand on the ground where battles took place that shaped the state and the nation, or visit the homes where great people shaped great ideas. Of course that can happen in New York City, or anywhere else, but we had the entire Empire State to choose from, from Ticonderoga to Buffalo.

On a more intimate scale, we could look around at the small towns we lived in, and trace the origins of the people who first settled there, who they were, and why they built the towns as they did. Were they crossroads towns or village squares? Why did some small towns prosper and others stagnate? Since not much changes upstate, not even in 250 years, sometimes these towns were a time capsule, often with the descendants of the original settlers still in the homes of their ancestors. My love of history and architecture was born there, and still lives, whether in Brooklyn, Troy, or back in Gilbertsville, where I grew up.

The creation of the Erie Canal, which has its origins only a couple of miles from where I now sit, was one of those New York State defining moments. It is the reason we are called the “Empire State,” and although it cuts across the state far north of New York City, it is also one of the reasons New York City is one of the great port cities of the world, and a financial hub for the state and nation. Goods that made their way down the Erie Canal to Brooklyn’s own ports made fortunes for Brooklyn’s merchants, ship owners and manufacturers. The materials of many Brooklyn’s homes came down the canal, and you cannot fully tell the history of Brooklyn without mentioning the Erie Canal.

Late 19th century stereoscopic photo of the Lockport locks on the Erie Canal. New York Public Library.

A canal cutting across the state was proposed as early as 1768, before the Revolutionary War. This canal was proposed to connect the Hudson River to Lake Ontario, at Oswego, but the idea didn’t get too far, and the war put all plans on hold. After the war, in 1808, the canal came up again, as the new nation looked for ways to grow. This time it was proposed as a connector between the Hudson and Lake Erie, further south and west.

The canal would run along the Mohawk River, a tributary of the Hudson River, the only east-west running river cutting through the gap between the Catskill and Adirondack mountain ranges. It would connect the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, opening up the country to settlement, and enabling massive amounts of goods to flow to the interior of the country. In 1808, Governor DeWitt Clinton finally was able to get federal funding for what his detractors called “Clinton’s Ditch,” and construction of the canal began. Even Thomas Jefferson, who was president at the time, thought the idea an impossible folly.

And for good reason. Although the Mohawk River provided a great foundation to build on, the canal needed to run for 363 miles, across wilderness, forests, swamps, mountains and valleys. The land between Albany and Buffalo rose almost 600 feet, so locks would have to be built to raise or lower the canal boats as they progressed along the canal. The technology of the time allowed for only 12-foot locks, so over 50 of them needed to be built, and the river dredged and widened where needed. It was a massive engineering project which would cost $7 million dollars at the time, a number almost unheard of. As a comparison, the United States, only a few years before, in 1803, paid approximately $15 million for the Louisiana Purchase, which gave us 823,000 acres of land, stretching from New Orleans to Canada. This was half as much money for only 363 miles.

But once approved by the state legislature, the project proceeded, and the first leg of the canal, between Utica and Rome, began in 1817. It took two years to go 15 miles, and they finished in 1819. At this rate, it would take 30 years to finish the canal. Some new technology and innovation would have to be learned or invented, or this project would never be finished. And it was.

Since there were no civil engineers in the fledgling United States, the men who engineered the canal learned on the job. James Geddes and Benjamin Wright laid out the route. They were judges who had handled land disputes before taking on this project. Geddes had only hours to learn how to use surveying instruments. A mathematician named Nathan Roberts was on the team, as was a 27-year-old amateur engineer named Canvass Wright, who persuaded Governor Clinton to let him go to England and learn from the canal builders there, and bring back what he had learned.

The men who built the canal had to tear out virgin forest and excavate tons of earth. They had to build aqueducts to divert the river water, and cut through limestone mountains and malaria-ridden swamps. As the sections of canal proceeded, new techniques were devised to make tree and stump pulling easier, and earth removal more efficient. American engineering grew in leaps and bounds in innovative, on-the-job invention. The labor was provided by a large Scots Irish immigration to New York, adding to the thousands of others who labored and died to build the canal. Over 1,000 workers died in the swamps at Cayuga Lake, near Syracuse, when malaria-carrying mosquitoes infected the massive work force.

The Erie Canal at West Troy, 1896. Illustration by Carlton T. Chapman for Scribner’s Magazine. New York Public Library.

The canal was cut 40 feet wide and 4 feet deep. The earth from the dredging was piled up on the downhill side, forming a walkway called the towpath. The canal boats were pulled by horses and mules from a towline, both east and westbound boats from the same side. The drivers, called “hoggees,” devised an elaborate system for allowing boats to pass when they met. One line would go slack to allow the other boat to pass over it, as the boat steered to the other side of the canal. It was simple, but efficient.

As each section of the canal was finished, it was opened for traffic. The last sections to be completed involved crossing the Niagara Escarpment near Lake Erie, an 80-foot wall of dolomite limestone, which involved the most complicated sets of locks and channels to raise the boats over 60 feet over the course of two sets of five 12-foot locks, giving rise to the town of Lockport. The choice of the town of Buffalo over its neighbor, Black Rock, as the terminus of the canal ensured Buffalo’s rise as one of the great cities of New York State.

On the eastern side, the Albany/Cohoes/Troy area was the terminus of the eastern end of the canal. In 1825, the canal was completed, and a huge celebration took place, with a 90-minute cannon salute from Buffalo to New York City. A flotilla of boats, led by Governor DeWitt Clinton’s Seneca Chief, sailed the length of the route from Buffalo across the canal to Albany and down the Hudson to New York City, a journey of ten days. Clinton ceremoniously poured water from Lake Erie into New York Harbor to celebrate the “wedding of the waters.” On the return trip, water from the Atlantic Ocean was poured into Lake Erie in Buffalo. The canal now was open for business.

OK, so where’s Brooklyn in all this? The importance of the Erie Canal to New York City, and specifically Brooklyn, that’s in Part 2.

The Canal&rsquos Success Magnifies America&rsquos Fundamental Problem

This eruption of innovation and outflow of riches did more than benefit the region. New York City became the main depot for dry goods headed west, and receiver of western produce, lumber, salt, and livestock. This commerce allowed it to surpass Boston and Charleston as the most important, and fastest growing, seaport on the East Coast. The industrial expansion and population movement enabled by the canal supercharged the northern economy. It soon looked and felt very different from the agrarian system of the southern slave states.

The canal was celebrated as a boon for independent working people, a feature of a free democratic nation quite at odds with the brutal realities of southern slavery. This difference would only become more obvious in the years to come. The canal became the main conduit for settlers bound for Ohio, Indiana, and points west. This expansion across northern latitudes brought into sharp focus the problem of whether the West would be settled as free or not.

The Erie Canal at Buffalo, ca. 1908 (Image Credit: Canal Society of New York State)

In The Artificial River , historian Carol Sheriff writes that the canal&rsquos success birthed the American idea of Progress &ndash the notion that material and technological advancement, of constant improvement, combined with a westward Manifest Destiny, was the driving force of the young nation.

Yet even as those ideals came to define the United States, the project that first energized them faded from view.


The construction of the Erie Canal was a monumental undertaking that changed the face of the nation. It also produced the country’s first generation of native-born engineers.

Thomas Jefferson had a good eye for real estate on a grand scale. But when the notion of a canal linking the Great Lakes with the Hudson River near Albany, New York, was put before him in 1809 by two New York State legislators, he dismissed it out of hand. “Why, sir,” he said, ”… you talk of making a canal three hundred and fifty miles long through a wilderness! It is a little short of madness to think of it at this day!”

The idea of the Erie Canal tended to arouse that kind of skepticism wherever it was broached, and it has been difficult for later historians writing about the canal not to disparage its many early critics. The Erie Canal turned out, after all, to be a resounding success, perhaps the single most important public work ever built in the United States. But at the time, its opponents were merely being prudent. There were many more reasons to believe the Erie would fail than that it would succeed.

Canal building was hardly an advanced craft, much less a science, in early nineteenth-century America. The two most ambitious artificial waterways attempted prior to the Erie were the twenty-two-mile-long Santee Canal near Charleston, South Carolina, and the twenty-seven-mile-long Middlesex Canal linking the Merrimack River with the Charles River and Boston Harbor. Neither had much to commend it. Completed in 1800, the Santee took eight years to build and was a fiscal nightmare. It wasn’t much of a canal either. Political cronyism had pushed its path away from natural water sources, so that eventually two-thirds of its channel lay bone dry. The Middlesex, finished in 1803 after nine years of work, didn’t pay a dividend to its stockholders until 1819.

The Santee and the Middlesex were built at the approximate rate of two miles per year. If they were any yardstick, the Erie, with its 363-mile length and its significantly larger channel (forty feet wide and four feet deep) might well be open by the millennium.

The most serious impediment to progress on both the Santee and Middlesex works was the lack of trained engineers. In the early nineteenth century there was not a single native-born engineer in America. The Santee Canal had been engineered by a peevish and none-too-honest Swede named Christian Senf. The Middlesex began in American hands, but the local magistrate chosen to lay out the canal line quickly proved incompetent, and an Englishman named William Weston was called in as consulting engineer.

Of the handful of European engineers working in this country around 1800, Weston was the most active, but he was not a man of prodigious talent many of the structures he designed for the Middlesex Canal simply fell apart. The historian Elting E. Morison writes of Weston: “Knowing not much, he knew a great deal more than anyone else and was in frequent demand.” He was in demand once again in 1816, when—after years of discussion, debate, and political maneuvering—New York State seemed poised to proceed with its canal undertaking. The state’s board of canal commissioners offered him seven thousand dollars to come from England and oversee construction of the Erie, but Weston declined on the grounds of his advancing age and his desire to stay with his family.

At that point the canal commissioners discontinued their search for foreign expertise and instead appointed four residents of upstate New York—Benjamin Wright, James Geddes, Charles Broadhead, and Nathan S. Roberts—to be principal engineers on the canal. None of these men had ever even seen a canal before. Wright, Geddes, and Broadhead were judges. They knew surveying because such knowledge was useful to magistrates when they heard property cases. Roberts was a schoolteacher who had taught himself surveying at Wright’s urging.

But simple surveying, the kind that goes into making boundaries, is of limited use when it comes to building a canal. Canal engineers must be able to measure elevations with a precision that allows for vertical errors measured in inches over horizontal stretches measured in dozens of miles. None of the four principal engineers appointed to building the Erie had ever taken a level before. But within a year they had taught themselves well enough so that when Geddes and Wright ran levels by different routes from Rome to Syracuse in the spring of 1818, enclosing a loop of one hundred miles, their final readings differed by less than two inches.

In all the many other details of canal building, they learned as they went, becoming engineers long after the title had been conferred on them. This was as true for the younger engineers on the canal as it was for men like Geddes and Wright. Virtually every American engineer of consequence during the first half of the nineteenth century learned his profession either on the Erie Canal or from an engineer who had been there. The Erie was truly, as a number of historians have said, America’s first school of engineering. Men learned things there because they had to, and they learned them in whatever way they could: by mistakes, by watching and asking questions, and by accepting expert authority without regard to rank.

In 1818, for example, a minister and amateur mathematician named David Bates was serving as the resident engineer along a stretch of the canal east of Syracuse, and a young farmer named John Jervis was working as a target man in Bates’s surveying party. Jervis had gained a rudimentary knowledge of leveling the previous year while felling trees for the canal and had buttressed this knowledge by studying two books on the subject. He ended up teaching Bates how to measure elevations.

Bates learned well from his subordinate. Later in life he was the principal engineer of the Ohio canal system. Jervis went on to become one of the greatest American engineers of the nineteenth century. Years later he wrote that on the Erie “the mechanical department of engineering was practically in its infancy.… The plan for a timber trunk for the aqueducts was prepared and submitted by a carpenter, Mr. Cady of Chittenango. This plan was adopted in nearly all the wood trunk aqueducts on the canal. At this day it stands as a well designed plan.”

By 1819 local contractors and mechanics like Cady working on the first section of canal under construction—the ninety-four miles between the Seneca River and Utica—had invented three immensely valuable laborsaving devices. The land they were clearing was thick forest, and without their new machinery, the entire enterprise might have ground to a halt early on.

The first of the three inventions made it possible for one man to fell a tree of any size without using a saw or an ax. The worker would secure one end of a cable to the trunk of a tree some sixty feet above the ground and the other end to a roller turned by a gear with a crank. After anchoring the apparatus to the ground one hundred feet from the base of the tree, the worker would turn the crank. The tremendous leverage obtained by fastening the cable so high up made it only a matter of time and exertion before the tree crashed to the ground.

The stumps left behind could be extracted by another local invention. It rested on two huge wheels sixteen feet in diameter joined by an axle almost two feet thick and thirty feet long—in other words, a fair-sized tree. Midway along this axle-tree was a smaller wheel, fourteen feet in diameter, with its spokes firmly united to the axle barrel. A rope was fastened to the rim of this middle wheel, wound around it several times, and its loose end attached to a yoke of draft animals.

The middle wheel would be positioned almost directly over a stump, the two larger wheels braced, and a chain made fast to both the thick axle and the stump. When the team of horses or oxen pulled on the rope, the rotation of the wheel made the entire axle turn, winding the chain around it and gradually uprooting even fresh, green stumps. With this huge machine, seven men and a pair of horses could pull thirty or forty stumps in a day.

The third invention was a plow with a heavy piece of sharpened iron attached to it when draft animals pulled the plow, the plate traveled below the ground, cutting through roots as thick as two inches so that they could be easily scraped away.

From almost the beginning, plowing and scraping were the preferred method of excavation on the Erie, since the continual traffic of men and animals packed and strengthened the banks in a way that shoveling and carting could not. Spades and wheelbarrows did have to be used when the ground was wet, but on the Erie new spades were , designed to cut through roots more easily, and new wheelbarrows provided greater ease in carting dirt away.

All these means for clearing and shaping the land were in use by 1819. So was a well-organized system—based on the accountability of contractors—for letting many small excavation and construction contracts to private citizens along the canal’s route (the state put up major structures, such as aqueducts and dams). There was an ample supply of local labor, supplemented with Irish immigrants shipped north by New York City’s Tammany Hall. There was a corps of engineers whose diligence more than compensated for their inexperience.

And yet despite all that, the Erie Canal might have been a failure—even at that early stage—for lack of one vital commodity: material for building durable locks. If the locks were built of wood, they would rot in a few years. Good stone locks needed hydraulic cement for waterproof mortaring, but the only known sources of hydraulic cement were in Europe, so the cost of that would be prohibitive. The only solution was to build the locks by uniting stone to stone with ordinary mortar and applying a thin coating of imported hydraulic cement at the joints between them. It was a concession to the apparently inevitable: The Erie’s locks were destined to fall apart fast. The only question was how fast.

That question became academic almost as quickly as it became critical. In 1818, quite by accident, contractors along the canal line discovered natural cement rock. It was also discovered by a Herkimer County physician named Andrew Bartow, who demonstrated its potential for the benefit of Benjamin Wright and Wright’s chief assistant engineer, Canvass White. In a tavern in the village of Chittenango, Bartow mixed the pulverized rock powder with sand and placed a ball of it into a bucket of water. By morning the mixture had hardened to the point where it could be rolled across the floor like a stone.

Canvass White, easily the most gifted engineer on the canal, had spent the previous winter in England—at his own expense—studying existing canals and learning about hydraulic cement. By the start of the 1819 construction season, he had perfected the process for refining this local rock into true cement powder. By the time the canal was completed, more than four hundred thousand bushels of it had been used. It firmly held together every bit of masonry on the canal, from mundane little culverts to gigantic aqueducts—and, of course, good stone locks. (The gates were of wood.)

White’s discovery exploded on the scene so quickly that his patent on the process was conveniently ignored by all the manufacturers. Eventually the state legislature considered awarding him ten thousand dollars in compensation. He was entitled to at least six times that in royalties, but even the attempt at partial reparation fell through. It was a typical outcome for White. Perhaps an engineering genius, he was luckless in his financial affairs. He died young, in 1834, leaving his widow little more than the furniture she was compelled to sell.

The discovery of native hydraulic cement came as the building of the Erie Canal was about to enter a more technically difficult phase. The middle section had been chosen as the starting point for construction in 1817 because it offered advantages to both the engineers and the pro-canal politicians. Politically the advantage of starting in the middle was twofold. Results, measured in navigable canal miles, could be effected quickly there and then used as leverage to obtain more state funds for further work. At the same time, as the middle section was completed, popular support for the rest of the canal would grow in the areas to the east and west.

Engineering a canal forty feet wide and four feet deep through the ninety-four miles of wilderness between Utica and the Seneca River was no mean technical feat, but the problems it presented were minor compared with the ones that lay in the later segments. If the canal was a school of engineering, the middle section offered the appropriate introductory course.

That course was completed in the fall of 1819, and the middle section was opened for navigation the following spring. Along the 270-odd miles of unfinished channel remaining, the most striking engineering problems (and solutions) were to be found in the 158-mile western portion, between the Seneca River and Buffalo, but the more difficult, if less spectacular, engineering had to be done in the east. There the canal dropped 419 feet in the 109 miles between Utica and the Hudson River between Lake Erie and Utica the drop was only 146 feet over 252 miles.

The magnitude of the descent in the eastern section would have offered enough of a challenge by itself, but the difficulty was compounded by the inhospitable topography of the Mohawk River valley, through which eighty-six miles of the canal’s line had to be laid out. The banks of the Mohawk were cramped by steep hillsides, which in places ended at the water’s edge. This required construction of the canal channel in the river itself, supported on a masonry base and protected by high embankments. The canal’s eastern section was a potential nightmare, and it fell to White, by now a principal engineer of the canal in everything but title, to make the best of it.

The key to his solution lay in his placement of locks, which automatically determined the location of the pound levels—the stretches of channel between the locks. In order to take advantage of the better line available on the north bank, he ran the canal across the Mohawk four miles below Schenectady on a 748-foot-long aqueduct. Twelve miles farther east, at the Cohoes Falls, he recrossed to the south bank via a 1,188-foot-long aqueduct. White saw the work through in three years. By the end of 1823, the Erie was open from Brockport, some twenty miles west of Rochester, all the way to the Hudson River at Albany.

At that point, about eighty miles of channel, between Brockport and Buffalo, awaited completion. Already standing were two of the western Erie’s engineering triumphs: the Irondequoit Embankment and the Genesee River Aqueduct.

Not far east of Rochester, an unexceptional stream called Irondequoit Creek had carved out a valley and an engineering challenge. Taking the canal across it without adding about one hundred and fifty feet of up-and-down lockage was imperative. The only thing that made the task even remotely possible was the presence of several natural ridges that could carry the canal at least partway over the valley it would have to span. James Geddes had long advocated linking these ridges together with great earthwork embankments and running the canal across the top the canal commissioners were hesitant to approve so bold a plan, but finally realizing that they had few real options, they authorized work to proceed as Geddes had proposed.

The Irondequoit Embankment, built entirely during the season of 1822, consisted of three natural ridges joined together by two man-made ridges, one 1,320 feet long and the other 231 feet. The canal ran along the narrow summit for 4,950 feet, passing 76 feet above Irondequoit Creek, which flowed through a 245-foot-long culvert. Since the valley’s soil was unsuitable for such enormous earthworks, small mountains of earth had to be hauled in from elsewhere. Even so, there was no great confidence that the embankment would hold up from its completion in October until the close of the 1822 season, the work was drained nightly.

A few miles farther west, in Rochester, a stone aqueduct carrying the canal over the Genesee River was completed in 1823 its combined span of 802 feet made it the second longest aqueduct on the canal. But impressive as the aqueduct and the embankment were, the engineering work that captured the most attention lay about sixty-five miles to the west, in Lockport, where the canal had to be lifted sixty feet up onto the Niagara Escarpment and where, for two miles, its channel would be blasted out of solid rock.

The work there began in 1822 and took three years. What stood at Lockport upon completion of the job were five double locks, one set of five for going up, a parallel set of five for going down. West of the locks, which quickly won popular renown as the Lockport Fives, the channel ran for seven miles through the Niagara ridge. To get through the most difficult portion—the two miles known as the Deep Cut—workers had to blast free and haul away nearly 1.5 million cubic yards of rock.

While progress was being measured in feet and inches at Lockport, the final section of the canal, between Lockport and Buffalo, was being built more quickly—but nevertheless to an extraordinary standard of care. To propel water down from Lake Erie, the fifty miles of channel from Buffalo to Lockport were sloped at exactly one inch per mile. By the summer of 1825, the job was done. A few final details remained then, on October 26, 1825, the Erie Canal formally opened amid statewide ceremony and celebration that lasted for weeks.

The ceremony and celebration ended with the year, but the effect of the canal on America had just begun. The Erie had cost the state about $7.9 million to build, but it attracted such a huge volume of commercial traffic that it paid for itself through toll revenues in less than ten years. Its awesome vitality as an avenue of commerce catapulted New York City into the position of preeminence that Philadelphia had always assumed would be its own. It turned western New York State from a wilderness into a prosperous country of farms, towns, and busy manufacturing cities. And as emigrants passed over the canal heading west, it had the same civilizing and nurturing influence on Ohio, Indiana, and the other states of the Old Northwest. The Erie appreciably advanced the timetable of American development.

But what if the canal had not been built? What if the task had proved too great and the work had been abandoned?

In his definitive History of the Canal System of the State of New York , written in 1905, Noble E. Whitford indulged in some fascinating speculative history. Without the Erie, he wrote, Canada would have been “enriched … commercially and strategically almost in proportion as it would have tended to impoverish us.” With the completion of the Welland Canal across the isthmus between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario in 1831, the already established tendency of Northwestern trade to gravitate up the St. Lawrence would have been greatly accelerated. Moreover, Canada would have gained strategic control of the outlet to the Great Lakes, making it possible for the British government to translate that advantage into naval control of the lakes. All this at a time when their vital importance in the War of 1812 was still fresh in the memory.

Within the United States, the natural outlets for the northwestern trade were the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and prior to the building of the Erie Canal, trade was drifting south along those routes just as it was drifting north to Montreal. Without the Erie Canal and the impetus it gave for the building of other canals and, later, east-west railroads, geographic expediency would have routed that trade north and south. “Chicago could hardly have become so great an emporium,” wrote Whitford, ” … and not a little of the commercial prestige of Boston, New York and Baltimore … would then, perchance, have descended upon New Orleans and Mobile and Galveston. More portentous still than this commercial alliance between the Northwest and the South is the consequent probability that out of it there would have grown racial sympathy and political kinship, with what effect upon the great issues which culminated in the Civil War or upon the present constituency of the American land and people, we can only conjecture.”

But the canal had been built, and there was no conjecture as to its benefits. The men who built it found themselves in high demand as “canal fever” swept the country in the wake of the Erie’s success. Benjamin Wright would still be referred to as the father of American engineering had he retired after the Erie, but he served as either the chief engineer or the consulting engineer for practically every major canal built in the United States for the next sixteen years, and for the Harlem and Erie railroads as well.

James Geddes was sixty-two when the Erie was done, but he continued canal work in Ohio and Maine before retiring. Canvass White served as the chief engineer of several canals, including the Delaware and Raritan. Nathan Roberts, who designed the famous Lockport Fives, was chief engineer on the Pennsylvania State Canal and at Muscle Shoals on the Tennessee River. After serving as chief engineer of the Ohio Canal System, David Bates moved on to success in railroad engineering. Before he too moved on to railroads, John Jervis’s triumphs included the Delaware and Hudson Canal and New York City’s Croton Aqueduct.

They did not build a perfect canal— no one does. The old Erie required a great deal of maintenance and repair, and it was alternately bedeviled by floods along streams that fed it or crossed its path and by low water due to leakage through its bed and banks. In 1836 the state began a twenty-six-year program of enlarging and improving the canal, guided by an authoritative, canal-long survey led by such men as John Jervis and Nathan Roberts. The survey found problems along every section of the canal, and some required substantial changes.

None of this detracts from the original accomplishment. That there was a profitable and maintainable canal in operation at all in 1837 speaks volumes about the kind of men who put it there. The few of them who had any technical knowledge at all had been nothing more than plain old-fashioned country surveyors before the Erie began. The rest had been farmers, craftsmen, merchants: the ordinary settlers of a wilderness. To do what they were asked to do, they had to reinvent themselves, and in reinventing themselves, they accomplished something unimagined and extraordinary. They invented the American engineer.

John Tarkov wrote about the Quebec Bridge in our Spring 1986 issue.

After traveling in the United States in 1842, Charles Dickens did little to advance the cause of transportation—much less tourism—by canal-boat when he committed his impressions to paper. He recounted canaling experiences that were better read about than lived through. “And yet despite these oddities,” Dickens allowed, ”… there was much in this mode of traveling which I heartily enjoyed.… The fast, brisk walk upon the towing path, between [dawn] and breakfast, when every vein and artery seemed to tingle with health the exquisite beauty of the opening day, when light came glancing off from everything the gliding on at night so noiselessly … all these were nure delights.”

The New York State Department of Tourism couldn’t have said it better. In 1985 the state earmarked $50 million to be spent over five years to advance the cause of tourism and pleasure boating along the Erie Canal. It’s a different canal from the one built in the early 1800s, though. In the first two decades of this century, the canal was widened and deepened and, over much of its course, relocated. The expanded waterway was completed in 1918 as the New York State Barge Canal, and much of it consists of dammed sections of the Mohawk River.

Since any canal built with public funds is, by law, a public highway, recreational craft have always had a right to be on the Erie. But state officials considered them a nuisance until 1958, when the St. Lawrence Seaway opened. Capable of handling oceangoing vessels, the seaway killed commercial traffic on the Erie. One lock operator near Rochester told a newspaper reporter recently that at least two barges a week used to pass through his lock, but now “I haven’t had a dozen all season.”

Conversely, more than one hundred thousand pleasure boats used the Erie in 1985, an increase of ten thousand over 1984. If recreational use of the canal can grow that impressively through word-of-mouth, once the state starts spending its millions the Erie’s status as a public highway may even be confirmed by Sunday-evening traffic jams. Charles Dickens might have had a thought to share about that.

Watch the video: Passing thru Oswego Canal Lock 1 - Phoenix, NY (May 2022).