Friday, July 21, 2017

Flashback, July 1817: Erie Canal Begins Construction

With a second war with Great Britain concluded, New York State could stop worrying so much about its borders and start a construction project with deep nationalistic implications. Backers of the Erie Canal were intent on boosting the economic power of their state, but in the process they cemented commercial ties between the Northeast and the Midwest that proved essential in binding the two regions together 40 years later against a slaveholding South before and during the Civil War.

The project, whose construction began, with appropriate symbolism, on July 4, was the engineering wonder of its era, using 18 aqueducts to carry the canal over ravines and rivers, and 83 locks, with a rise of 568 feet, winding through 363 miles of New York’s interior from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. Four feet deep and 40 feet wide, it floated boats carrying 30 tons of freight, allowing heavy loads to be transported at one-tenth the cost of moving them by road. 

And all of this was finished two years ahead of schedule. Impossible to believe in this era of cost overruns.

Because of the methods he used here and on other canals, as well as the men he employed on them who went off to work on still other projects, chief engineer Benjamin Wright was called “The Father of American Civil Engineering” in 1969 by the American Society of Civil Engineers. But another man was more fundamental to the project in mobilizing popular support and seeing it through every difficulty: DeWitt Clinton.

New York governors, even those who have served a considerable length of time, are often known for one accomplishment that serves as historical shorthand. With Thomas E. Dewey, it was New York’s extensive highway-building program; with Nelson Rockefeller, expanding the state university system; and with Hugh Carey, rescuing New York City from bankruptcy.

Clinton served in almost every conceivable office at the local and state level: State Assemblyman and State Senator, New York City Mayor, U.S. Senator, and Lieutenant Governor. But none of his achievements in any of these posts matched the importance of what he was able to do as Governor, except maybe his 15 years as New York Canal Commissioner, when he advocated for both the Champlain and Erie Canals.

Henry Adams’s towering account of a critical period in the early America, History of the United States of America During the Second Administration of James Madison, noted that proposals had already been made for canals and roads in the Carolinas, Pennsylvania and Virginia (George Washington was an especially prominent proponent), but they could not overcome rough terrain—100 miles of mountains—in their interior. In contrast, “New York had but to people a level and fertile district, nowhere fifty miles from navigable water, in order to reach the great Lake system, which had no natural outlet within the Union except through the city of New York. So obvious was the idea of a canal from the Lakes to the Hudson that it was never out of men's minds, even before the war; and no sooner did peace return than the scheme took large proportions.”

In a landmark 1808 Report on Roads, Canals, Harbors and Rivers, Thomas Jefferson’s Treasury Secretary, Albert Gallatin, proposed four great canals along the eastern coast. Gallatin’s credibility with the Jeffersonians bode well for New York legislators' hope that federal funding could be secured for the Erie route.

But Jefferson’s convictions that federal funding for internal improvements required a constitutional amendment persuaded his friend and successor James Madison, who vetoed, as one of the last acts of his Presidency, John C. Calhoun’s bill for a system of canals and roads. (See my prior post on this foiled legislation.)

By forcing New York to act on its own, however, Madison ensured that the Southern agrarian economy championed by him, Jefferson and Madison’s successor, James Monroe, would become increasingly dependent on a single crop—cotton—and that it would fall behind the North in industry.

The impact of the Erie Canal on New York—on the nation as a whole, even—was widespread:

*It opened vast stretches of the interior of the state. Before 1810, New York was most heavily populated in the east, along the Hudson River. The Western portion of the state was even considered the frontier. The canal changed all that. Business and industry followed settlers in the wake of the canal.

*It boosted cities upstate. Except for Binghamton and Elmira, every major city in New York State lies along the trade route established by the Erie Canal, from New York City to Albany, through Schenectady, Utica and Syracuse, to Rochester and Buffalo.

*It made New York City the indispensable commercial city of the Northeast. Not long before construction began on the canal, Philadelphia and Boston exceeded New York in size. Just 15 years after the canal’s opening, however, Gotham had overtaken them as the busiest seaport in the country. It had what those other ports didn’t: access to the booming granaries of the Midwest.

*It ignited settlement of the frontier. New York City became the principal entry point for immigrants planning to press on to the West, as the canal provided a quicker, overland route past the Appalachians. The vast waterways of the Midwest—the Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri rivers—lay beyond, to lands that, after the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812, was less likely to suffer from British incitement of Native-Americans against new settlers.

*It spawned immigration with opportunities for low-paying labor. Although an estimated three-quarters of canal workers were born in the United States, construction of the canal still meant gainful employment for Irish and Welsh immigrants. It was an important precedent of assimilation before the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s.

*It inadvertently became a national security asset to the United States. Without the Erie, the United States would have been left with one principal means of moving food from the Midwest: the Mississippi. Lying deep in Southern territory, New Orleans would have presented rich possibilities for antebellum politicians to exert economic pressures on anti-slavery forces in the Midwest, including a blockade or boycott. Instead, because New York became an alternative port because of the Erie, as a “free-soil” ideology hostile to the use of slave labor flourished in the Midwest.

* It became a symbolic advertisement for the free enterprise system. This commercial and engineering marvel had not been built by slaves, as in the case of Egypt’s pyramids, but by free men. It also served as a lasting rebuke to the slaveholding south, a point made by Revolutionary War poet Philip Freneau in “On the Great Western Canal of the State of New York”:

“Not China's wall, though stretching far,
Which this vast object can compare,
With such gigantic works of old
This proud Canal may be enrolled,

“Which to our use no tyrant gave
Nor owes its grandeur to one Slave.”

*It inspired a wider program of public-works projects and politicians committed to them. One of these was an ambitious attorney-politician in the Midwest who hoped to become “The DeWitt Clinton of Illinois.” As a state legislator, he advocated the construction, use, and expansion of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, as well as wider improvements in transportation supported by his idol, Henry Clay. Once he became President, this former railroad lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, made one of the biggest non-war priorities of his administration passage of the bill starting the Transcontinental Railroad.

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