THE WEDDING OF THE WATERS:The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation by Peter Bernstein

Read : June 16 -21Category : HistoryPages : 448

This book is divided into 5 sections - the vision, the action the creation, the path, the aftermath.
The first section of this book begins with identification of those people who believed that the expansion of the United States required the improvement of its waterways to allow for easier navigation from the Atlantic Coast to the interior. George Washington was interested in expanding the Potomac River usage (possibly because of his large Mount Vernon frontage on this river) and though there was a company founded to explore this possibility, it never came to fruition. Numerous others from Christopher Coles to Gouverneur Morris tried and failed in the attempts to get the project funded and started. Along with the proposed waterway expansion, this section also identified men who designed and improved the watercrafts that were to be used once this project was underway.
The second section addresses the funding and proposal. In 1807, President Jefferson, in his annual address to Congress, suggested that the government surplus of funds be directed to "canals, roads, education…" Congress commissioned the Treasury to submit a plan "to propose the opening of roads and making canals which as objects of public improvement, may require and deserve the aid of the government."
Albert Gallatin, the Secretary of the Treasury stressed in his report that for the volume of industry to increase with territorial expansion, a nationwide network of canals and roadways was essential for connections over the long distances. However, when the proposal was presented to the President requesting funds, Jefferson pointed to the Potomac (C&O Canal) and noted that it was unfinished for the last few miles but for a lack of $200,000 and New York wanted $10 million for a "350 mile canal through the wilderness - it is little short of madness". (Again an instance of Jefferson saying one thing and doing another.) New York resolved to proceed on its own.
Six New York commissioners undertook a 700 mile trek across the state in 53 days to gather the required details so that the NY legislature could be informed of what the project would entail. Several routes were under consideration -specifically one to Lake Ontario, the other to Lake Erie. Legislators frequently sided with the route that aided them either monetarily or politically. Finally, in March of 1811, the commissioners were authorized to arrange for funding, purchase the necessary land, and applied to Congress for additional funds. The project was on.
The War of 1812 had 2 effects on the Canal project. First, it delayed the progress because of the manpower that was routed to the war effort but two, it proved the need for a better communication and transportation system between the east coast and the western frontier. Only through rapid shipbuilding in Erie, PA was the access of the great lakes maintained by the US and not overtaken by the British. After the war, legislatures both state and National held up the project until the official route of the canal was decided upon, and funding was in place.
Construction started on July 4, 1817 and as it progressed so did improvements to the construction process. Numerous inventions were found/discovered to speed the construction. Inventions for speeding the cutting down of trees, removal of tree stumps and even cement came with the construction of the canal.
In 1819, the nation suffered its first depression and thanks to the Canal project, NY state survived nearly unscathed. Unemployment, rampant elsewhere, was non-existent around the Canal construction, in fact employment was up 20%.As the project progressed, political issues surrounded the finishing aspects - the location of the terminal on Lake Erie and how to handle a few of the final sections were just a few.
After the canal was completed, traffic increased in the first year from 2000 boats to 7000 boats. The time frame of traveling the distance from Albany to Buffalo was cut from 32 days to 5 days.Weather caused some issues - the canal froze in winter and the spring rains caused flooding. But towns sprung up overnight along the route and small villages turned into cities. Farm productivity in western NY state and beyond expanded 30% by 1840 and eastern areas turned to dairy farming. But the main impact of the Erie canal was the unification of the nation by the connection of the western areas to the eastern seaboard. Areas in the west could now ship their goods all the way to New York while receiving luxury items from the east that had not been available before.
This book was very informative but has a few drawbacks. At times it was very detailed in the descriptions of the building of the canal. For non-technical readers this would have been aided by drawings to help visualize what was being described. The writer also had a tendency at times to inappropriately report on the far future of NY state and how the Erie Canal was continuing, making the tale somewhat disjointed at these parts. Overall a very good book for background reading to this timeframe of US history.

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