Monday, February 20, 2012

During his presidency, and even as early as 1775, George Washington was seriously concerned about the stability of the territories beyond the Appalachian Mountains and therefore isolated from the string of developed States along the east coast.  He particularly worried that settlers isolated beyond the mountains would eventually throw their lot in with France and/or England, increasing those nations' footprint on North America and restricting the growth of the United States.  His idea was a canal created from a reconstruction of the Potomac River (his vast plantation, Mount Vernon, being conveniently located on a bank of that river) that would allow commerce and travel to and from the west.  That plan failed when the Potomac proved unsuitable for the kind of restructuring necessary, but the idea had been planted that an east-west connection was essential for the new country's security, growth and development.

This is my current read, soon to be my former read as I'm in the final chapter.  I had known OF the Erie Canal since grammar school but never really known ABOUT it, about its crucial importance in the early history of the United States.  It turns out that the origins of banking and finance in this country, the expansion of its economy onto the international stage, the development of new products and industries, encouragement of immigration, settlement of the mid-west and beyond, development of numerous towns and major cities in New York State, and a great deal more can be credited to the project that was considered impossible, financially ruinous, and an immense folly when it was first proposed.  Mr. Bernstein tells the story in an enjoyable and absorbing manner.

The Erie runs from Troy to Buffalo; subsidiary canals were built northward from Troy to link to Lake Champlain; and from Syracuse to Lake Ontario to bring the St. Lawrence River into the system.  The Erie itself was a massive construction project.  Thousands of men with only shovels and pick axes and anything they could invent on the spot, dug a twelve foot deep, forty foot wide trench for 375 miles through forests, farmland, swamps, and finally through the dreaded twelve mile wide, solid rock Niagara Escarpment.   

Begun in 1817, the canal itself and all its locks were finished in 1825 -- an astonishingly short eight years -- and opened with great ceremony and rejoicing capped by the"Wedding of the Waters" in which water from Lake Erie was poured into New York Harbor along with water from other great rivers -- the Nile, Ganges, Volga, Amazon, etc. to symbolize the newly possible connection of the interior of the country with the rest of the world.  There were several days of celebrations in New York City and in Buffalo.

A packet boat,  a passenger vessel,  being drawn along the canal by a team of three horses.  Mules were used for freight boats that carried 50 tons of cargo.  The boats operated 24 hours a day, changing teams regularly; they made the Albany to Buffalo journey in four days rather than the many weeks expensive overland freight hauling by ox cart had taken previously.

A 1904 photograph of the spur that ran southward to connect Syracuse to the Erie Canal.   It was later filled in to become a main boulevard through the city.  Canal boats are tied up to the embankment on the right.

Late Victorian postcard of the locks at Lockport.  The original flight of five locks built in 1823 is on the right.  The later two lock system, more than double the width of the original locks to accommodate wider and longer industrial barges of the late 19th century, is on the left.

Four years ago, Fritz and I began a road trip westward to Cleveland, then south into Pennsylvania and finally back to New England, the purpose being to visit friends, relatives, and to visit as many Frank Lloyd Wright houses as possible.  Driving west on the New York Thruway, contemplating a free afternoon in the Buffalo area, I looked at maps to see if anything interesting was along the way.  My eye was caught by the promise of boat tours through the western end of the Erie Canal in Lockport.  We headed there directly and had three hours on the canal, up with the captain in the wheel house and learning as much as we could.   

We sailed through a goodly chunk of the Niagara Escarpment, the monumental rock formation that Niagara Falls is relentlessly carving its way through.  In the early 1820s, there was only primitive pre-dynamite blasting powder to break through the rock.

While some sections of the canal have fallen into ruin or been filled, as in Syracuse, much of it is still navigable and still accommodating serious freight.  Mules and horses have been replaced by tugboats.

The canal has also become a bit of a goldmine for tourism.  One can take a riverboat tour from New York City via the Hudson River, the Erie Canal from Troy to the Lake Ontario connector, north through Lake Ontario to the beginning of the Saint Lawrence River and then to Montreal.

But it is also possible in a couple of towns on the western half of the canal, including Lockport, to rent modern versions of a packet boat and sail the canal privately.  The boats have a maximum speed of five miles an hour, sleep either four or six, come with a full working galley, and can be rented for various amounts of time up to a week.  Tie-ups are provided at frequent intervals with facilities for dumping trash, refueling, and grocery shopping.  A training session precedes each rental.  Ever since our canal boat tour, we've been considering teaming up with some friends and renting one of these boats for a leisurely week, stopping wherever we see an interesting place.   

This is cool. I should look for this book. I grew up in Albany; I remember as a kid my dad would sometimes take us to see some of the nearby locks. In fact, on one of my recent trips home in 2006, I visited one of them on the Hudson River around Troy.
VEry cool! I grew up about 8 blocks from the old canal bed which had streetcars in it, then cars. I love the idea of a gentle week along the canal!
Hugh, would you and Ken consider renting a boat with us some time? Would your schedules allow a time away like that? What town were you in?
Have you read "River Horse" by William Least Heat-Moon? He travels across the US by boat with only a few short portages. He has 5 chapters on the Erie Canal.
No Sylvia, but it sounds very interesting and thanks for telling me about it. Nice to have you drop by here!
One of my favorite childhood memories was traveling with my grandparents, as we took his cabin cruiser up the Hudson River to Albany, and through the Erie Canal, into the Great Lakes and home again (grand haven).
Wonderful post. Why are canals so pleasing & suggestive of adventure.
I admire your thirst for learning the next new thing.
Thanks for telling us about this book, Will. I'll put it on my list to keep an eye out for. Aloha!
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