12/2/10 - the erie canal

In today's encore excerpt - with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, New York vaulted past Philadelphia as the largest city and busiest port in America. The economic importance of canals had been amply demonstrated in England in such projects as the Bridgewater Canal in 1761, and numerous major canals had been proposed in the U.S. However the scale of a canal from the Hudson to Lake Erie was unprecedented. President Thomas Jefferson, calling it "a little short of madness," thought the proposal for such a canal was ridiculous and rejected it. It was the entrepreneur Jesse Hawley who managed to interest the governor DeWitt Clinton and the plan went ahead. Due to the overwhelming perception that the plan was absurd, the project became known as "Clinton's Folly" or "Clinton's Ditch." In 1817 Clinton was successful in convincing the New York State legislature to authorize the funds for building the canal:

"The first section of the [Erie Canal] opened in 1819. And the entire project (including eighty-three locks enabling the rise of some 568 feet from the Hudson to Lake Erie) was destined to sit finished by the end of October 1825.

"Once the Erie Canal opened, the entire logic of trade into, out of, and through the port of New York would be changed forever. As Roy Finch, of the New York State Engineer and Surveyor Bureau observed on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the canal's opening: 'After the building of the original canal the city of New York grew by leaps and bounds. Before the canal was built Philadelphia had been the nation's chief seaport, but New York soon took the lead and too late Philadelphia made heroic but futile efforts to regain supremacy.' Finch added that Massachusetts 'had been another rival, having been about on par with New York State in exports.' Nevertheless, a mere sixteen years after the opening of the canal, Boston's exports were only one-third those moving through New York. 'In that period, too, the value of real estate in New York increased more rapidly than the population, while personal property was nearly four times its former value and manufacturing three times as great. There were five times as many people following commercial pursuits in New York as there were before the completion of the Erie Canal.'

"Men of vision saw this boom coming. Indeed, the boom was being counted upon to help pay off the massive $7 million investment it had taken to accomplish the terrific feat of engineering. Almost more important than the straightforward logistical advantage of the Erie Canal, however, was the sheer heft and grandeur of the project, which captured the imaginations of average Americans and made them feel inspired. Great things were possible; terrific accomplishment was, indeed, achievable—especially in the United States, a country with a brief past and a wide-open future. Not until the late 1860s would another such project, the Transcontinental Railroad, seize the public mind so totally and offer a similar promise for changing the economic map."


Edward J. Renehan, Jr.


Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbuilt


Basic Books a member of the Perseus Books Group


Copyright 2007 by Edward J. Renehan, Jr.


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