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Erie Water West: A History of the Erie Canal, 1792-1854

Copyright Date: 1966
Pages: 472
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  • Book Info
    Erie Water West
    Book Description:

    The construction of the Erie Canal may truly be described as a major event in the growth of the young United States. At a time when the internal links among the states were scanty, the canal's planners boldly projected a system of transportation that would strike from the eastern seaboard, penetrate the frontier, and forge a bond between the East and the growing settlements of the West. In this comprehensive history, Ronald E. Shaw portrays the development of the canal as viewed by its contemporaries, who rightly saw it as an engineering marvel and an achievement of great economic and social significance not only for New York but also for the nation.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4347-7
    Subjects: Transportation Studies, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
    Ronald E. Shaw
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. I. The Prophecy

    • 1 Up the Mohawk to the West
      (pp. 3-21)

      The Erie Canal was the work of that remarkable generation in America who made the period between 1815 and 1860 an age of great national expansion. New York expansionists saw in the Mohawk gap in the Appalachian chain an opportunity to bring the Great Lakes heartland close to the growing metropolis at the mouth of the Hudson. The scheme was bold. They proposed a canal which would strike out ahead of the older society of eastern New York, penetrate the frontier, and create a new mold for the future of the Old Northwest. They sought to close the great compass...

    • 2 Jesse Hawley’s “Genesee Canal”
      (pp. 22-37)

      Perhaps the first conception of an interior route for a canal to Lake Erie, following the vague reference by Cadwallader Colden, was expressed in 1800 by the statesman-traveler, Gouverneur Morris. Recently returned from his post as minister to France and a speculator in “Genesee Lands,” the exotic Morris traveled to the wild backcountry of New York. He visited General Schuyler in Rome and saw the improvements already made along the Mohawk. Then, standing on the shore of Lake Erie, he counted nine vessels riding at anchor. “Does it not seem like magic?” Morris wrote subsequently to a correspondent abroad.


    • 3 Survey and Report
      (pp. 38-55)

      While it appeared unlikely that the Forman resolution and the surveys of 1808 would yield tangible federal aid, a fresh boost to the prospects for a canal to Lake Erie came in March of 1810 as the promoters of the failing Western Inland Lock Navigation Company revived their efforts for support. Thomas Eddy, the company treasurer, called upon Jonas Platt, who was a Federalist senator from the Western District and also candidate for governor running on a platform of “Platt and Commerce” in those days of the Embargo and restrictions in European trade.¹ Eddy’s object was to interest the legislature...

    • 4 From Prophecy into Law
      (pp. 56-80)

      The surge of national expansion which followed the successful termination of the war added to older pressures in New York for the inauguration of the canal. The war itself had turned on the control of the very waterways which the New York canal system would unite. Military embarrassments on the Niagara frontier were attributed in part to the bad roads between Washington and Buffalo, as cannon worth $400 at Washington had cost $2,000 to transport to Lake Erie.¹ Furthermore, the failure to annex Canada to the United States meant that the geopolitical realities which gave the outlet of the Great...

  5. II. The Grand Canal

    • 5 Forty Feet Wide and Four Feet Deep
      (pp. 83-100)

      The Erie Canal was dug with an eye to drama. As soon as construction of the middle section was authorized, preparations were begun all along the line from Utica on the Mohawk to the Seneca River. On July 4, three days after Clinton had taken the oath of office as governor, the canal commissioners broke soil in an auspicious ceremony at Rome.

      The time was set at sunrise. Visiting dignitaries and local residents gathered at the village in the hazy dawn and moved in procession to the canal line. Samuel Young alone represented the commissioners. The three chief engineers, Benjamin...

    • 6 The Politics of Construction
      (pp. 101-122)

      In the popular mind, the Erie Canal was known more commonly as the “Grand Canal,” the “Great Western Canal,” or the “Big Ditch.” And, as a matter of fact, legislative authorization for construction west of the Seneca was not yet given. The middle section had put the plans of the commissioners to the “touchstone of experiment,” said Clinton in 1819, and there could not “exist a doubt of the feasibility of the work, or of the ability of the state” to complete them. When the middle section was nearly navigable, Clinton recommended to the legislature that a law should be...

    • 7 The Canal Comes West
      (pp. 123-139)

      Westward from the long Rome summit level, the completed line of the middle section was lowered near Syracuse to the lake country. There it passed over a lower summit from Nine-Mile Creek to the Skaneateles Outlet on its way to the Seneca River. The numerous streams abounding in central New York were laced to the canal by feeders and kept it plentifully supplied with water. At the beginning of the western section, the canal crossed over the Seneca River by a towpath bridge and passed through the Cayuga marshes to the village of Lyons where it took the waters of...

    • 8 Black Rock or Buffalo
      (pp. 140-163)

      Black Rock and Buffalo, scarcely separable today, were between 1817 and 1825 keen commercial rivals for the honor and prosperity sure to fall to the western terminus of the Erie Canal. Important in the rivalry were the twin considerations of a safe and adequate harbor and a sufficient supply of Erie water to fill the canal at least as far as the Genesee River. And the answers to these considerations would determine whether the focal point of urban expansion would center on the Niagara River or on the Lake Erie shore.

      Black Rock, situated three miles down the Niagara River,...

    • 9 The Politics of Removal
      (pp. 164-180)

      Incedo super ignis was as fitting to the diary of De Witt Clinton as to the famous diary of John Quincy Adams in the year 1824.¹ Just as the canal reached its final stages of completion, the political opponents of Clinton struck once more at its Clintonian sponsorship. These forces gained increasing control over the state government and a small group of powerful Bucktail leaders were accurately dubbed as the “Albany Regency.” They were the political machine of Martin Van Buren, put together by him to dominate the state when he left New York in 1821 to serve as Senator...

    • 10 The Wedding of the Waters
      (pp. 181-194)

      Although the canal was not completed until the latter part of October in 1825, celebration of the event began almost with the beginning of navigation in the spring. In June, Lafayette brought his military glory to the canal. The high-spirited Revolutionary War hero had returned from France in 1824 as the “Nation’s Guest.” Effusive and sentimental, he was welcomed enthusiastically as he made a great circle tour of the United States that took him west to the Mississippi. On his return eastward he followed the Ohio Valley and then Lake Erie to New York, where he traveled much of the...

  6. III. On Erie Water

    • 11 Packets, Freighters, and Canallers
      (pp. 197-218)

      The Erie Canal brought an altogether new and stimulating experience in effortless, quiet mobility to the first canal generation in New York. Packet, line boat, freighter, scow, lock, and basin became new subjects for thought and conversation as canal travel became a new thread in the social fabric. The canal boat was greeted with wonder and then taken in stride. “Commending my soul to God, and asking his defense from danger,” wrote a Rochester pioneer of his first journey by canal, “I stepped on board the canal boat, and was soon Hying towards Utica.”¹

      The first packet boat company to...

    • 12 Pure and Wholesome Water
      (pp. 219-235)

      Canal towns in western New York belonged to a region so remarkable for its religious enthusiasms and moral crusades that it has been called the “Burned-over District.” The leading student of this phenomenon, Whitney R. Cross, finds the Erie Canal itself a primary influence in making the twelve years between 1825 and 1837 “years in which a series of startling events revolutionized life in the western half of the state.”¹ Difficult as it may be to show a causal relationship, the region opened and served by the Erie Canal was also a breeding-ground for revivalism, evangelism, antimasonry, abolitionism, Mormonism, millenialism,...

    • 13 The State Runs a Canal
      (pp. 236-259)

      The operation of this new water highway became a complex process. Down canal traffic was given right of way over boats going west. When one boat passed another, the team of the first boat was checked, and its long towrope fell slack in the water and across the towpath. The overtaking boat then passed over the rope and on ahead. By the 1840s every boat was required to have a knife on its bow to cut any tow rope with which it might become fouled, and a semicircular bow was specified to lessen the damages from collision.

      Packets took precedence...

    • 14 The Trade of the “Teeming West”
      (pp. 260-278)

      The primary function of the Erie Canal was carrying freight rather than passengers, and the tonnage carried on Erie water—first drawn from the trade of New York state and then increasingly from the greater West—increased each year by geometric bounds. As early as 1825 the canal commissioners considered the total exclusion of packet boats from the portions of the canal where the press of business was heaviest.

      During the first years of navigation on the Erie Canal, the bulk of the goods carried came from New York state itself. Emigrants and tools had first to be delivered to...

    • 15 “Commerce Is King”
      (pp. 279-300)

      For all the phenomenal changes produced by the trade of the Erie Canal in western New York, the press of western goods was greatest as traffic approached the eastern terminus at the Hudson. Congestion here made the eastern section of the canal the first to be enlarged and fitted with double locks. The descent of the Erie Canal through the Mohawk Valley was dramatic. At Little Falls, nearly 400 feet above the Hudson, the valley narrowed to a gorge; steep escarpments rose on either side, and the canal followed the descending valley plain through the villages of Fort Plain, Canajoharie,...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
  7. IV. Politics and Nationalism

    • 16 The “Forty Million Debt,” 1835-1841
      (pp. 303-329)

      The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 by no means ended the political struggles over the fortunes of this successful waterway. For a period far beyond the scope of this volume, rival attitudes toward internal improvements and conflicts over canal patronage kept the canal embroiled in state and local politics. Samuel B. Ruggles, himself a leading figure in these contests, wrote in 1849 that the history of the Erie Canal since its completion “would constitute in good degree, the political history of the state.”¹ Indeed, political controversy over the canal can be found in nearly every issue of leading...

    • 17 The Democratic Stop Policy, 1842-1846
      (pp. 330-360)

      The legislative session of 1842 produced a radical change in the fortunes of the Erie Canal. The New York lawmakers enacted a stop law on state indebtedness which was written into the constitution in 1846 and remained a bitterly contested issue until it was reversed in 1854. The stop policy of that session not only widened the gulf between Whig and Democrat over internal improvements, but it caused also an irreparable schism in the Democratic party itself.

      There was no doubt that a financial crisis of the first order faced the Albany solons. Marcy feared that the “new impulse” which...

    • 18 The Canal Goes On, 1847-1854
      (pp. 361-396)

      Even before the victorious Whigs took control of the state, the Whig press prepared the way for a new policy toward internal improvements. The national conflict over the Wilmot Proviso, which would prohibit slavery in territory which might be acquired in the war with Mexico, divided their ranks between “Conscience” and “Cotton” Whigs, and all but pushed canal controversy into the realm of party history. Nevertheless although the New York Whigs divided over slavery in the territories, they set out to vindicate their past canal program, to pin responsibility for four years of inactivity in canal construction upon the Democrats,...

    • 19 A Canal for the Nation
      (pp. 397-418)

      From the perspective of today, perhaps the most striking element in the history of the Erie Canal was its nationalism. Less strident than the nationalism of more recent times, that of the Erie Canal belonged to an era when nationalism was directed primarily to the unification of the nation state.¹

      The Erie Canal was built by the state of New York alone, but it was by its very nature a national enterprise which related the growth of the other states to New York. Almost from the beginning of its existence as a state, New York successfully strengthened its own economy...

  8. Essay on Bibliography
    (pp. 419-432)
  9. Index
    (pp. 433-451)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 452-452)