Reflections on Erie's Waters

The Erie Canal continues to link the eastern seaboard with the Midwest, connecting countless communities across Upstate New York in doing so. It continues to use technologies contemporary to Theodore Roosevelt and the period of his promotion of the most recent rebuilding of the Canal. In 2014, this still-operating canal system, the Erie Barge Canal, was placed on the National Register in recognition of this significance. For many Upstate New York cities and villages, the Erie Canal still brings economic vitality through recreation and heritage tourism. As it did in the 19th-century, the Erie Canal links people and communities, artifacts and ideas.

The Canal was a “bond of union” that through ambitious technological and political achievements made New York the “Empire State” and helped hold the nation together amidst the sectionalism of the early 19th century. While unifying the nation, the Canal proved very disruptive to the social fabric, bringing unpredicted change on an unprecedented scale. That the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention was organized along the banks of the State’s canal network was no coincidence. Native Americans found their homelands in the pathway of the Erie’s construction and development. Those lands were soon taken by what one recent historian has documented as a “conspiracy of interests,” political and economic.

The Erie Canal meeting at the noses historic lithograph

The calm waters of today’s Erie Canal continue to mirror an environment and society which have dramatically changed since the Canal’s inception two centuries ago. The Canal was a major force behind those changes. No other technological change has so radically altered New York’s physical and societal landscapes. The scars of its construction and several rebuildings have healed though their impact continues to resonate. The artificial river created by the Erie, a technological wonder at the time of its construction, now seems like a natural part of the environment. Today, the often-sought-after quietness of the Erie’s waters for recreation and contemplation masks the disruption and dislocations to place and spirit that more accurately reflect the conflicting natures of the Erie’s legacy. Natural storms and cultural ones have stirred the Erie’s waters since its inception.

New York State’s Erie Canal was promoted in the period after the War of 1812 with a national ambition. Geography had blessed the region with a unique advantage. Nowhere else along the eastern seaboard could the interior of the new nation be reached with fewer obstructions. Harnessing that uniqueness involved all of society. The decision to build this engineering wonder was political. From a strictly engineering view, the Canal would have been easier and cheaper if it followed the initial proposal of going the shorter distance to Lake Ontario. Going clear across the uncharted territory of Upstate New York to Lake Erie (thus, “Erie Canal”) was a political gamble and an immensely more complicated engineering challenge. The Canal sought to secure the nation by keeping commercial, and thus political, allegiance from going down the Great Lakes to British Canada and instead redirecting it to New York City. Its success meant that the Midwest oriented to New York instead of New Orleans, a direction of critical importance during the Civil War.

Historical drawing of the Erie canal

Political leaders made their careers throughout the 19th century based on their regard for the Erie Canal. Governor DeWitt Clinton was among the first and certainly the most prominent. Developing a consensus within the State to build the Canal confronted local interests. Intrastate sectional rivalries are with us today. New York City, for instance, initially opposed the idea, fearing that it would place its economic security at risk. The quick and tremendous success changed minds. Within a decade other regions of the State went from “not in my backyard” to “canal fever,” stretching and enlarging the canal network to seemingly impractical proportions. These grand designs came to an abrupt halt in 1842, in the midst of a national depression, when New York State government nearly went bankrupt due to the costs of these public works. Some advocated an opposite course, to even increase the public debt to keep people employed and to complete the needed infrastructure. They lost, and many canal construction sites were simply abandoned for nearly a decade. An immigrant coming across Upstate New York in the 1840s, seeing the economically blighted landscape, surely had second thoughts. These issues of continuing public works projects and therefore keeping people at work also ring true today.

That immediate success of the Erie Canal swiftly established a marine and commercial infrastructure and culture in locales that only recently had been wilderness. An 1825 travel guide for the Erie highlighted that “our canals often introduce us to the hearts of forests; the retreats of wild animals are almost exposed to our view.” The suddenness calls to mind our society’s late 20th-century adoption of an internet culture. Families invested in boats the size of modern city buses and took their homes on the water. For much of the 19th century, this public canal technology was a very open and democratic highway, available to anyone who could float a raft on the water. One thinks of the construction and impact of the Interstate Highway system as a comparable story, yet the latter was created in an already extant automobile culture. No such antecedent came with the Erie Canal. Like the automobile, it changed perceptions of time and space. A local historian recollected the tale of how “in 1844, we are told, a young man married a farm girl and took her by canal… for their wedding night, a distance of seven miles. When she got back home she told of how beautiful the world was, she had no idea it was so large.” The network of the Erie with its cargo boats, ports, and lateral canals was very much cut from new cloth. A seemingly mundane ditch, what one historian has called a “wet dish rag” across New York State, became a technological miracle.

Pull Quote the canal has been called america's first school of engineering

The Erie Canal has been called “America’s First School of Engineering.” The fledgling republic had few other abilities to generate the engineering expertise needed to establish a corps of professionals who could lead the way beyond canals. The Erie Canal provided hands-on testing of knowledge and abilities. Yes, many of the tools and techniques were centuries old. Herman Melville (who once sought employment on the Erie Canal as a surveyor) characterized the Canal in Moby Dick as being on “Roman arches over Indian rivers”, seeing a much older technology in its construction. The irony of the “Indian” attribute will be noted shortly. Nonetheless, many of the Erie’s first engineers such as Benjamin Wright, Canvass White, John Jervis, Squire Whipple, and Nathan Roberts became the engineering gods of the second half of the 19th-century.

On the other hand, the “First School” claim cannot overlook the European sources for so many of the Erie’s engineering triumphs. Nathan Roberts’ famous design for the Lockport flight of locks bears striking resemblance to a similar flight of locks constructed in France many decades earlier.

A demographic profile of the State’s engineering department in the 1850s, when work of the Erie’s first enlargement was going at full steam, shows offices full of very recent European immigrants, many escaping the failed revolutions of 1848, many of them with extensive military engineering training. Francis Mahler was among those, coming from Germany immediately after 1848 and quickly earning a position in the State’s canal department. His drafting work and engineering abilities are still reflected in the canal records at the New York State Archives. His military training led to his death at the Battle of Gettysburg. The stunning and often humorous drafting artwork, also at the New York State Archives, of the Irish immigrant David Vaughan provides additional and wonderful evidence of those European connections. Arriving in 1847, he was soon putting his social commentary on canal maps and plans. Typical is the 1851 cartoon of a crazed Rochester miller calling for the speedy enlargement of the canal, not realizing that the same canal would allow the Midwest to undercut his prices and products.

The Erie canal with travelers from NYC boarding

The classic engineering achievement of the Erie’s 20th-century descendent, the Erie Barge Canal, is the Mohawk moveable dam. The dam is designed to lift completely out of the water during the winter and spring, to avoid ice and flooding. Its design was copied from similar structures on Europe’s Vltava (Moldau) River. Erie’s engineers were never too shy to lift knowledge from abroad, an attitude that concerns many American industries today when the shoe is on the other foot. Building those dams and locks in the early 20th-century were Italian immigrants, following in the footsteps of their fellow Irish and German laborers of nearly a century earlier.

Lifting knowledge from and for the Erie Canal was also the hallmark of one of the republic’s first university scientists. Renowned geologist, botanist and educator, Amos Eaton used the Canal as a way to explore New York State’s geology and to teach his students. He helped establish Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1824 for the “application of science to the common purposes of life.” In the late 1820s he regularly chartered a canal boat to bring his students across the canal corridor, investigating the newly exposed rock cuts along the way. His geologic profile of New York State was the first professional study of the underlying bedrock. Not surprisingly, it was incorporated into one of the first published maps of the Erie Canal. Numerous teachers at all grade levels continue to use the Erie Canal for this same educational inspiration, incorporating it into not only history but environmental and other scientific studies as well.

A canal barge located at the Montezuma area of New York

The Canal was soon proving beneficial to many others. Within a decade of its 1825 completion, the revenue that state government collected from tolls amounted to more than 80% of its budget. Today’s Alaska with its staggering oil profits is a fit comparison. That fiscal windfall was reinvested in the Canal’s technology throughout the 19th century. The tolls directed the regional economy in several other significant ways. The schedule of tolls was based on the type and origin of the cargo. Tolls were designed by the State’s Canal Board of public officials to not just raise revenue but to also favor certain products and producers over others. Instate-generated products were always favored over non-state ones. For instance, New York State government operated the distinctive and highly profitable salt works in Syracuse. The canal made that industry viable by providing an economic means to transport the bulk product. Additionally, the higher rate of canal tolls placed non-Syracuse salt (Massachusetts) at a distinct disadvantage. Perhaps more importantly, the fund gave the State the ability to implement other efforts to improve society. New York State’s first asylums at Utica and Syracuse were constructed with canal revenue, within walking distance of the canal’s towpath. They all date from a period when the spirit of “perfectibility” was in the public discourse, when the concept of a public good expected if not demanded state government participation. That vital public discourse on the role of government in the economy and in society in general continued to drive the Erie’s evolution.

Rochester went from a few cabins before the canal to an urban setting within a decade. In 1827 a visiting Englishman expressed amazement at such economic growth, unlike anything he had seen, where in some just-built manufactories “the people were at work below stairs, while at top the carpenters were busy nailing on the planks of the roof,” where “several streets were nearly finished, but had not as yet received their names, and many others were in the reverse predicament, being named but not commenced.” While journeying to Niagara Falls on the canal in 1829, Thomas Cole observed of Rochester that “but for the appearance of newness, the traveller would imagine that it would have been the work of ages.” He was noting a new course of empire. The reason behind such remarkable growth? Rochester was located where the Erie Canal crossed over the Genesee River’s great falls. Waterpower was essential to industry, and the Genesee falls provided more than enough. There were complications. The aqueduct that carried the Canal was commenced by inmates from New York State’s new Auburn prison. Local craftspeople objected in word and action to the use of such prison labor. It was never again used on the Canal. The river’s valley to the south held one of the most agriculturally fertile lands in the nation. It became the nation’s breadbasket before being economically outbid by the even more fertile lands in the Midwest. Both regions depended on the Erie Canal to transport their grain.

A mule disembarking from a canal barge

Lockport was certainly appropriately named due to the flight of locks taking the canal across the Niagara escarpment, the same geologic feature over which Niagara Falls flows. Like the great canal aqueduct at Rochester, its flight of locks became a destination for the new tourism being spawned by a growing middle class, in awe of their new society’s new abilities. Like Rochester, Lockport benefitted from the waterpower provided by the surplus water from Lake Erie brought there to feed the Erie Canal. It was one of the nation’s first boomtowns.

On the other hand, there is Rome, NY. The community was the only one to stridently protest the 1825 opening of the Erie Canal, carrying a black barrel of water from their old 1790s canal to the new waterway in a mock celebration.

The new canal bypassed their community and economy. A hoped-for restoration of the connection seemed imminent with the enlargement program of the 1830s. Their downtown was torn apart and water wells destroyed as work began on the new route. The Stop and Tax Act of 1842 abandoned the work at the worst possible moment. People became ill around the muddy excavation with its stagnant water. From their own pockets, they paid contractors to finish the work only to be rebuffed by the State, delaying completion still further. With the 20th-century Barge Canal, Rome asked that the canal be removed from its downtown.

The canal was becoming just a memory quote

The Erie’s great success encouraged great economic growth. By the late 20th- century, however, that economic momentum had largely died in these Upstate communities. The Erie’s extensive network of lateral canals began shrinking in 1878. While the Erie Canal had been a cornerstone for many Upstate communities, it was becoming just a memory. When trying to comprehend the spread of Upstate’s rust-belt economy, one must remember that it was not always that way. Yet, even when the Erie Canal appeared to have reached the status of an old-fashioned relic of better times past, Theodore Roosevelt reinvigorated the Erie. He did so, as generations before, for political reasons. He confirmed the national bond of the Erie Canal during his governorship by his advocacy for the Erie’s most recent rebuilding, creating the Erie Barge Canal of today. He demanded a modern public waterway as insurance against private railroads. The Midwest-to-seaboard connection for grain, coal and other vital bulk commodities was too important to leave to what he perceived as the whims and selfishness of private capital.

That system is with us today under the care of the New York State Canal Corporation, with an annual operating and capital budget of over $100 million, still carrying commercial and passenger traffic. No longer characterized by cut stone and a strong back for power, the new Erie Barge Canal incorporated the innovative technologies of concrete and electricity (public power). It continues to very ably and proudly use the early 20th-century operating technology that Roosevelt promoted. That engineering continuity is unique. What other transportation system continues to depend on equipment contemporary to Ford’s Model T automobile? What in that technology and operation has proven so successful? These communities continue to claim the canal as their own, perhaps even more so now than just a generation ago. As a recreational corridor, the Canal offers one of the few potential economic bright spots in Upstate New York. The appropriately named historic canal village of Fairport has redeveloped itself around the waterway. In 2014, it celebrated the centennial of its extraordinary Barge Canal lift bridge, making the bridge logo a symbol of the community’s rebirth.

Historic Lock 52 from 1921

Ownership of the Erie Canal remains an interesting concept. Throughout the 19th century, politicians often wrapped themselves in the canal flag. When corruption and scandal were in the air enveloping these public works, they sometimes recast themselves as reclaiming ownership of the Canal on behalf of the public from the unworthy. The public often laid claim to the Erie Canal by using its iconography in ceramics, wallpaper, engravings, and literature. Staffordshire blue-and-white china with images of Erie Canal scenes was immensely popular. A c.1829 wallpaper found in a travel trunk now in the collection of the New York State Museum shows the new canal amidst yet-to-be urban landscape in Rochester, not a bucolic countryside of farms. The designers of this mass-produced wallpaper must have felt that the canal was being perceived and appreciated as an engine of growth.

While New York State government technically built and legally owned the Canal, government did not actually lift a shovel of dirt for its construction and maintenance. The low-paying, always-in-demand jobs of moving dirt were often taken by the most recent wave of immigrants, from the Irish to the Italians. Today, recent immigrants continue to fill these public sector jobs, creating their own new ownership of the historic waterway. Few lock operators are as proud of their care and maintenance as are the two recently arrived Russian immigrants at Erie Barge Canal Lock 13 in the Mohawk Valley.

The concept of ownership also defines those who were forced to lose claim to this new landscape. The Oneida sided with the patriot cause during the American Revolution and expected to live in peace with the new republic. Their lands straddled some of the State’s most critical transportation points. The ownership boundaries of the Oneida were tragically redrawn by New York State government to encompass just a few acres by the mid-19th century. The Buffalo Creek Reservation of the Seneca was among their most sacred lands, its integrity initially assured by a federal government still fearful of Seneca military strength. By the 1840s, the Seneca had followed the Oneida in losing their land to what one historian clearly identifies as a “conspiracy of interests” – political, commercial, and overwhelming. The western edge of the Reservation touched the Erie Canal in one of its most commercially valuable locations. Today, the Oneida and Seneca have partially restored their ownership to this landscape, through legal challenges and commercial skill. Ironically, the promotion of their casinos is often included in the same tourism packages that highlight the recreational qualities of today’s Erie Canal, once again their neighbor.

The Erie Canal is ingrained into our national cultural consciousness. The legendary song, “Low Bridge,” is universally recognized. As with the internet today, the Erie touched almost every aspect of 19th-century America. The Canal reflected the society and the environment along its banks. A special strength of the proposed program is its design to capture that reflection through time and space and bring it to the present. A correct understanding of the Erie’s integrity as a cultural institution requires such an interpretation.

In 2017 the communities along the historic Erie Canal marked the bicentennial of its first digging. When completed in 1825, the Erie Canal was celebrated with a prophetic “Wedding of the Waters,” a chain of festivities from Buffalo to New York City that tied the State and the Nation together with a new spirit of improvement and perfectibility. Lake Erie water was emptied into New York harbor with great fanfare by Governor DeWitt Clinton. Duncan Phyfe crafted special boxes for commemorative medals from wood carried by Clinton’s flotilla. The 1825 celebration has been hailed as one of the first truly public festivals of the new republic. The centennial of the Canal was also marked in 1917, though much less grandly due to World War I. A year later the Erie’s 20th-century version was completed, being rushed to completion as a wartime measure. Its 2018 centennial will also be noted by historians, historical societies, and communities from the Hudson River to Lake Erie and beyond. Indeed, these upcoming commemorations should be of more than regional interest. The Canal set the stage on which so many of our national struggles and successes took place. The Canal still has much to offer. We can learn from its reflections on the past and present.