E is for Erie Canal

It was a crazy idea: dig a ditch virtually across New York State, deep and wide enough to carry produce to the market west of the Appalachian Mountains by boat safer and more cheaply than by land. When such a plan was first proposed by Jesse Hawley, a miller in the town of Geneva, New York, President Thomas Jefferson thought it was “little short of madness”. Some proposals as early as 1768 suggested a shorter canal, connecting the Hudson River with Lake Ontario near Oswego.

“It was not until 1808 that the state legislature funded a survey for a canal that would connect to Lake Erie. Finally, on July 4, 1817, Governor Dewitt Clinton” – formerly mayor of New York City and long-time advocate for the canal – “broke ground for the construction of the canal. In those early days, it was often sarcastically referred to as Clinton’s Big Ditch. When finally completed on October 26, 1825, it was the engineering marvel of its day.” Remarkable since 1) there were no engineering schools to speak of in the country, and thus no one with a true engineering background to facilitate the work, and 2) most of the work was done by men and horses.

From New York State’s history of the canal: “The effect of the Canal was immediate and dramatic and settlers poured west. The explosion of trade prophesied by Governor Clinton began, spurred by freight rates from Buffalo to New York of $10 per ton by Canal, compared with $100 per ton by road. In 1829, there were 3,640 bushels of wheat transported down the Canal from Buffalo. By 1837 this figure had increased to 500,000 bushels; four years later it reached one million. In nine years, Canal tolls more than recouped the entire cost of construction.”

The canal was enlarged several times, with lateral canals also being built.

The expansion in the early 20th Century was opposed by some, particularly in those Southern Tier cities that weren’t directly benefiting. “With the exception of Binghamton and Elmira, every major city in New York falls along the trade route established by the Erie Canal, from New York City (ranked fourth in population in 1800, but rose to first place) to Albany (doubled its population within a few years of the canal’s completion), through Schenectady, Utica (population increased from 3,000 to 13,000 in twenty years) and Syracuse (described as a ‘desolate’ hamlet of a few scattered wooden houses in 1820, became a city of 11,000 in 1840), to Rochester (changed from ‘one wide and deep forest’ to a prosperous community of 20,000) and Buffalo (a “wilderness outpost of 200 in 1812, became a gateway to the west and its population reached 18,000 by 1840″). Nearly 80% of upstate New York’s population lives within a 25 miles of the Erie Canal.” So it’s not surprising that the poster above was published in the county where Binghamton is located.

“With growing competition from railroads and highways, and the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, commercial traffic on the Canal System declined dramatically in the latter part of the 20th century.” In fact, the New York State Thruway parallels the waterway. Interstate 87 runs from New York City to Albany, much the same way Henry Hudson traveled 400 years ago. then Interstate 90 runs from Albany to Buffalo, just like the Erie Canal.

“Today, the waterway network…as the New York State Canal System…is enjoying a rebirth as a recreational and historic resource. The Erie Canal played an integral role in the transformation of New York City into the nation’s leading port, a national identity that continues to be reflected in many songs, legends and artwork today.”

The song The Erie Canal wasn’t written until 1905. I think that, for a time, every child in school in upstate New York was required to know the tune. Erie Canal was repopularized by Bruce Springsteen on the (Pete) Seeger Sessions album earlier this century. When I saw Bruce last year, I hoped he might do this song; cities always go crazy when the artist namechecks the city he/she/they are performing in; alas, it was not the case.

ABC Wednesday.


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