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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

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.

ROG

31 comments:

Paula Scott said...

Great choice! It is amazing how a project like this ever gets off the ground as it seems so IMMENSE (much like the Hoover Dam).
Thank you you the history lesson-I thoroughly enjoyed it!!

RuneE said...

Thank you for the history lesson. Such heritage must be well cared for - they are priceless.

Sylvia K said...

Great history lesson! And it is amazing that some projects ever get past the drawing board. Love Bruce Springsteen's version of the song! Hope you have a good week!

Sylvia

anthonynorth said...

A great engineering feat. Your post was full of information as always.

photowannabe said...

What a fascinating history lesson. There is so much about our wonderful country that I don't know or have forgotten. I do remember singing that song so many times in the 5th grade.

Manang Kim said...

Thank you for this great information!

E-eggs

Mara said...

I've always found it fascinating how waterways were/are built. We've had some experience with it in the Netherlands: the place where I live used to be water! And that was only possible by a lot of work digging waterways, filling in lakes and building dams.

Stan Ski said...

The modern history of many countries revolves around canals.

Tumblewords: said...

I had forgotten much of this so it's a pleasure to read and remember as well as renew the rusty parts. :) Great post!

Diann @ The Thrifty Groove said...

I haven't thought about this in a long time. Great history lesson.

Hildred and Charles said...

Great and informative post, - all I knew about the Eire Canal was the song (blush, blush). One marvels at the construction that took place without any modern machinery help...

VJF said...

Thank you for the history lesson. It is amazing what was done in the past without all the modern technology that we have today. Great post!

Leslie: said...

Kind of like the Rideau Canal in Ottawa...come on by, you'll get a laugh out of my post today! :D

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

I learned that song in primary school in Illinois in the 1960s. As I recall, we all learned different stanzas and joined together for the chorus. I wonder if anyone still learns that song.

Irene said...

That's such a comprehensive post on the Eerie canal. Your library research rocks, Roger.

Jay said...

An amazing project!

We probably didn't have the same opposition to our canal system here, because (if I remember rightly) it was all privately funded and built. But we have had the same falling into disuse, only to be revived as a leisure facility going on. It's a pity actually, that we don't have more canals - I'm sure it would be a less polluting and far more attractive way to move goods!

jabblog said...

Most informative! What a huge undertaking it was and undoubtedly doomed to failure by the nay-sayers. It's always good when the pundits are proved wrong ;-)
I love the illustrations.

Gordon said...

Another really interesting post, Roger. I remember singing the song when I was into folk music; I had book of Pete Seeger's music.

Kate said...

Ah, Roger, I finally made the connection after I read your profile between your marvelously informative posts and your profession! As a former teacher, I appreciate the effort you make to educate us!!

Pam said...

Great history on the Erie Canal, Rog. I love Bruce Springsteen's music. Back in the day, he played in a small club called Stone Pony, not far from where I use to live.

shopannies said...

I can remember learning this when i was a kid and I also remember the erie canal song

LeAnn * ~ See Great Things said...

That was a neat bit of history. The song was going through my head as I read it. Loved it!

Joy said...

Vision and ambition they had in spades in those times. Very interesting post, I love canals.
Is it me or does the Erie Canal song sound a bit like Merle Travis's 16 tons, maybe he pinched the tune and tweaked it a bit.

Roger Owen Green said...

Joy -I know the Tennessee Ernie Ford version of Sixteen Tons, but I can hear some similarities. It's possible that the older song was in the public domain by then if the copyright holder failed to renew; don't know.

Sheila said...

Truly interesting! Enthralling and engrossing, in fact. :)

ShAKirA CHOONG said...

Wonderful ABC WEDNESDAY's post.
I love history lessons.
Good job!
Mine is
http://justmeshakirack.blogspot.com/2010/02/abc-wednesday-e-for-exceptional.html
hugs
shakira

B : ) said...

Your humor is delightful. Thanks for visiting my blog, come back anytime!

Ann said...

Are there any locks?

I remember when I was 15, and my teacher trying very hard to explain locks of the Panama canal and we couldn't understand any all.

I also remember my teacher telling us to remember S.H.O.E. for the great lakes, and then we asked what about Michigan?

Recently, I read in a post to remember H.O.M.E.S. that sounds great. too bad, it is 40 years too late. LOL

How far is Erie Canal from Detroit and Windsor? I used to study in Windsor in the 70s.

Roger Owen Green said...

Ann- there were indeed locks. Check out THIS website which attempts to explain how locks worked on the Erie Canal. There were 83 locks, but the number was reduced to 72.

Buffalo to Detroit is 220 miles (354 km) "as the crow flies", actually closer than from Albany to Buffalo (257, 414). Driving across Ontario, Canada from BUFF to DET is 256 miles; obviously, taking the southern route through Ohio is longer. Driving from ALB to BUFF, BTW is 290 miles.

And of course, Detroit and Windsor are very close; I went to Detroit in 1998, and we went to Windsor because the gas was cheaper at the time.

Spiderdama said...

Very interesting post (as always):-)

LisaF said...

I'm sorry to admit I don't think about the Erie Canal too often. Thank you for highlighting this truly amazing project.