Historian explores canal’s impact

Jan 21, 2024 at 10:38 pm by Observer-Review

Schuyler County Historian Gary Emerson
BY Karen Gadiel
Two hundred years ago, New Yorkers were awaiting the official completion of the Erie Canal. On Oct. 26, 1825, Gov. DeWitt Clinton, who had made a quick—for then—10-day journey from Buffalo to New York Harbor, ceremonially poured water carried from Lake Erie into the Atlantic for a “Wedding of the Waters.” The 363-mile project had taken eight years to dig with picks and shovels. Pundits of the time called it “Clinton’s Ditch” and predicted it would be long-regretted, a foolhardy endeavor that would bankrupt New York. Instead, it turned New York into the Empire State.
In his first of several talks about the Erie Canal planned for this year, Schuyler County Historian Gary Emerson gave a multimedia presentation Sunday, Jan. 14 to a rapt audience at the Silver Spoon Café in Montour Falls. The opening picture was an illustration of five fashionable 19th-century ladies accompanied by two well-dressed men taking tea atop a canal boat on a sunny, summery day. And indeed, many passengers dropped onto barges from low-slung bridges. At a top speed of four miles per hour, canal boats could accommodate drop-in passengers. Today that doesn’t seem particularly speedy but the canal allowed freight and passengers to travel more than twice as fast, and far more comfortably, than they could by stagecoach.
Emerson points out the idea of the canal originated in 1805 with Canandaigua flour merchant Jesse Hawley. After Hawley fled the state to escape his debts, he continued to press his case in essays published under the pseudonym “Hercules.”  His point was proven when the War of 1812 proved the difficulties of moving troops and supplies through land devoid of infrastructure. The state legislature took up the question in 1815. It was hoped the immense projected cost of construction—$6 million, then a quarter of the national budget, was the estimate in 1817 when construction began—would be supplied by federal funds, but President James Madison vetoed that. The final cost was close to $7 million, paid by the state, eventually paid for with tolls. On July 4, 1817, when construction officially began at the easiest segment near Rome, NY, an exuberant crowd followed the ceremonial ground-breaking by jumping in to speed the beginning of the project with their own shovels.
Emerson uncovers many small details to enliven his talk, including the use of small whiskey barrels placed ahead of the work on unbroken ground to give the shovelers greater incentive to reach that day’s goal. Obstacles the workers encountered were met with problem-solving innovations. The locks used to move boat traffic from one elevation to another depended on waterproof concrete, which was reformulated after extensive experimentation. The most challenging area was in Lockport in Niagara County where a flight of five locks was constructed to accommodate a 24.5 foot height differential. Challenge met, Lockport, like many other villages alongside the canal, went on to become a prosperous manufacturing and mercantile city.
The cost of moving goods from one place to another in pre-canal days was $90 per ton but fell to $6 per ton. The 90-day trip from Buffalo to New York City diminished to eight days, allowing all sorts of goods to find their way onto barges, and from there into factories and homes. Some were pieces of heavy machinery used in agriculture and manufacturing; but books, pottery, clothing and furniture imported from Europe also made their way upstate, as well as tropical fruit from the Caribbean. Meanwhile, agricultural products moved from western to eastern New York. A vintage photograph shows a seemingly endless array of apple barrels fading into the distance, awaiting shipment downstate. Secondary canals, like the Chemung Canal, joined into the Erie Canal, allowing greater access from rural areas. Emerson’s book “A Link in the Great Chain: A History of the Chemung Canal” is available from Amazon, where it received five-star reviews.
And it was not only agricultural products and consumer goods moving on the waterways. Circus boats plied the canal, entertaining passengers, boaters and residents at each stop. Ideas and philosophies spread like fire—the convictions of new Christian movements like the Millerites and Mormons; Abolitionists, Women’s Rights groups and Temperance Societies had many more opportunities to share their message. The Erie Canal was also an important escape route on the Underground Railroad.
The Erie Canal was enlarged several times, becoming wider and deeper over the years, and remains a viable commercial route, despite the later advent of railroads and interstate highways. And there’s a solid core of people who enjoy its history and continue to promote exploring the canal, whether by personal boat—“It’s wonderful! Really wonderful! And it’s free!” supplied one member of the audience; renting a small canal boat for a week or so, or taking a canal boat tour from Lockport.  There’s of course much more history Emerson is planning to share. Look for more talks about the Canal in February, March and June. Find more information at schuylerhistory.org; on the Schuyler County Historical Society’s Facebook page or call 607-535-9741.
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