Erie Canal Is a Great Example of American Ingenuity and Boldness
October 26, 2010

Without a Mule or a Horse, You Went Nowhere on the Erie Canal

The Erie Canal Stretches 363 miles across Upstate New York; Quite an accomplishment in the early 19th Century

On This Date in History:  In 1817, DeWitt Clinton became governor of New York following a victory we only see today in totalitarian countries.  DeWitt received almost 97% of the vote as he gained 43, 310 votes with those opposed only registering 1,479 votes.  That kind of victory would give anyone the notion that perhaps he had a mandate.  Only trouble was that he had promised something that had never been done and many suggested could not be done.  You see, the United States was still a small, largely coastal nation but expansion contintually pushed the nation westward through the continent and away from the coast.  Trade was a great necessity for the fiscal stability of the nation and for the needs of settlers in the nation’s interior.  Roads were unreliable and rivers didn’t flow toward the East Coast so a great need developed for a quick, reliable way to connect the interior parts of the nation to the seaports on the East Coast.  An impediment was the Appalachian Mountains and, not only did the mountains impede economic concerns but they also were a potential limitation to national security.  If the young nation could not find a way over or around the Appalachians, then it could lose its frontier to Britain or France. 

Erie Canal Today Near Albany, NY

So, Clinton had seized upon and idea that had first surfaced in 1784 which was to link the Great Lakes with the Hudson River with a canal.  Initially, it was called the Great Western Canal but later took on the Erie Canal moniker.  Now, that was a great task as the rise in elevation from Albany to Buffalo is about 675 feet so it was not a matter of simply digging a ditch.  There were huge engineering obstacles to overcome.  Clinton had served on a commission to study the issue in 1810 and that New York State Commission concluded that the project went beyond the state’s means and that federal funding would be necessary.  Federal funds had never been used in such a manner in the past and, at the time, the states looked at themselves as independent entities loosely held together in a confederation rather than a unified nation.  The changeover from a “union” to a “nation” would not come about until after the Civil War.  So, other states objected to New York getting federal monies as they reasoned the Empire State would get all of the benefit.  Thomas Jefferson said building the canal was “a little short of madness.”

Towns Like Baldwin Built Feeder Canals to the Erie Canal To Connect The Township to the rest of the world

Undeterred, Clinton went on a crusade to build the canal.  Using the power of his vote total, he proposed and the legislature passed a funding bill but the legislative approval was not the final tally.  New York had a Council of Revision which was made up of 5 men and they had to approve the measure.  Two were in favor of the canal project and two were firmly opposed.  That left it up to one man to decide.  That one man was New York Supreme Court Chief Justice James Kent and he was all set to vote “no” when he got a surprise knock at his door.  US Vice-President and former New York Governor Daniel Tompkins made a call and he told Kent that another war with Great Britain was imminent.  The Vice-President cautioned that New York should not waste its time and money on such a foolish project.  Most of the time, presidents tend to want vice-presidents to be seen and not heard.  If Tompkins’ feeling mirrored those of the adminstration,  then President James Monroe would have done better to send his VP to a funeral than to pay a call on the Council of Revision.  Kent was so peeved at the intrusion and saber-rattling attempt at coercion that he said, “If we must have a war, or have a canal, I am in favor of the canal!”  An odd twist to this part of the story is that Tompkins had been plagued by charges of misusing federal funds while serving as governor of New York.

Locks Were Needed to Overcome the 675 ft change in elevation over the distance of the canal

So, the project was approved but it started off quite curiously as there were no American engineers who any expertise in building canals, let alone one of such a scale.  For some reason that gave the state the great idea to hire two lawyers to lead the project. At least one newspaper of the time took note of the rather unorthodox appointment of Benjamin Wright and James Geddes to face the challenges posed by the canal when it described them as “a brace of country lawyers with a compass and a spirit level.”   However, the state wasn’t totally out of its mind because it was not unusual for men to have more than one profession and both Wright and Geddes are remembered today as engineers more than their jurisprudence with Wright earning a popular distinction as “the father of Civil Engineering.” 

Boats Had to Bring Their Own Mules; They Rotated Them Over the Course of the Journey

I’m not sure if it was considered a “shovel-ready” job, but the shovels must have been ready because work began on the job in July 4, 1817 and it was initiated in an easy spot.  The land west of Frankfort in Oneida County was soft and level.  By today’s standards, or even those of the late 19th century, the canal was quite small.  The specifications called for the canal to just be four feet deep and only 40 feet wide.  Bret Favre could possibly have thrown a football across the canal without throwing an interception.  But, one must remember that flatboats were relatively small at that time and the boats that used the canal had to be pulled along by animal power.  Teams of mules or horses walked along the banks of the canal with the boat in tow.  Before the canal could be dug, trees had to be cut, stumps removed and underbrush cleared.  Parts of New York State were still quite an untamed wilderness so such an undertaking was no easy task.  The clearing work was done in sections as small as just a quarter mile long.  Local contractors and farmers  contributed animal and human muscle to the endeavor, though some work-related contraptions were invented to help with the work.

Quite a View From Lockport

Within the challenge of overcoming the elevation change was problem of how to construct the Erie Canal locks.    Canvass White was considered by many to be the most gifted engineer on the entire project.  He had been recruited for the project by Governor Clinton who suggested the young engineer go to England to study that country’s canals.  He did so on his own dime and studied the methods used, including the use of hydraulic cement to seal the mortar used to connect the stones.  But, importing hydraulic cement from Europe was costly so they tried to simply coat the mortar with a thin layer of hydrolic cement.  It was no solution because it would take no time at all to crumble.    As it turns out, while digging the canal, limestone was discovered that doubled as a natural cement rock.  White, who was working on the middle section, calcinated the local rock, turned to to powder and mixed it with water and sand.  The new substance was found to harden with time under water and form an underwater cement that was far better than anything used before.   White patented his new discovery and the new material caught on rapidly.  Trouble was for Canvass, no one paid much attention to the patent and he received next to nothing for his effort.  When he died, his wife was left with an estate that included little more than the house furniture which she subsequently was forced to sell. 

Governor Clinton boarded the first boat to traverse the Erie Canal on October 26, 1825

Another challenge was the number of streams and rivers that had to be crossed and to overcome those hurdles, a page was taken out of the Roman playbook.  Much as White had observed on his tour of England’s canals, aqueducts were built over rivers and pipelines were used to divert streams.  In Western New York, the marshes were a prime breeding ground for malaria carrying mosquitos so workers wore necklaces that served as mini-smudge pots that kept mosquitos away; they must have smelled lovely at the end of the day.  Beyond all of those challenges, the issue of the elevation change remained but that was overcome with a series of 83 locks along the 363 mile canal.  Not all of the land was made up of soft earth as New York is famous for its granite subsurface.  Five of the locks had to be blasted from solid rock near the future site of Lockport.  This series of locks lifted boats 76 feet over the Niagara Escarpment. On this date in 1825, the Erie Canal was completed and, a few weeks later, the canal boat Seneca Chief brought a keg of water from Lake Erie to New York Harbor for a “Wedding of the Waters.” 

Passengers as well as cargo used the Erie Canal

In the end, the Erie Canal not only proved that great engineering obstacles could be overcome, even with lawyers in charge.  It also showed that government could effectively build a public works project as the total cost came in at $7 million and it was paid off in tolls after just 12 years.  Between 1836 and 1862, the canal was enlarged to a depth of 7 feet with a width of 70 feet to accomodate the larger boats and needs of the expanding nation.  The number of locks was reduced by 9.   By 1900, boats had outgrown the canal and once again expansion was needed.  An enlargement project was proposed in 1903 and completed in 1918 that increased the depth to 12  to 14 feet, broadened the width to 120 to 200 feet and reduced the number of locks to 57 that could handle barges carrying up to 3000 tons of goods.  Today, the Erie Canal is used largely by boating enthusiasts and not be commercial traffic but, in its day, it was a true marvel.

High Risk for Severe Weather is a Bit Unusual

15% Chance for Tornadoes in Ohio Valley

Weather Bottom Line:

  After a very long, boring stretch, it would appear we have some action afoot.   The boys at the Storm Prediction Center have us in the High Risk for Severe Weather for Tuesday.  A warm front of sorts came through and opened the door for warm, moist air from the South.  First time we’ve had the Gulf open up for some time.  There is a strong upper level jet which is not unusual for this time of year and is indicative of a changing season.  See, the time of most severe activity will be in seasonal transition.  The primary time is the spring with the secondary prime time being the fall when we still have some times of warm moist air coming from the Gulf but we have the introduction of winter-like systems from the North with accompanying strong upper level energy.  It’s going to be windy all day with something like 20-30 mph winds with gusts to 40.  We should see a line of thunderstorms, most likely racing through the area between noon and 3 pm.  The potential for high winds will be the biggest threat though tornadic activity can’t be ruled out, especially along any bowing segments of the line.  There is such a strong level of dynamics that the SPC has issued a Tornado Watch for the area until 4 PM EDT on Tuesday

Wind Biggest Threat For Damaging Conditions


This situation is not very unusual to have such a storm this time of year.  In fact, this situation is really a bit similar to that of the in 1975 when the Edmund Fitzgerald sunk.  In that situation, there was an extremely deep low pressure area making its way across the Great Lakes that produced very strong winds and the result was huge waves on Lake Superior and Michigan.  The common nature of the scenario is why Gordon Lightfoot referred to the storm as the Gales of November.  Mariners know that there are some tough weather conditions found in November in that area and Lightfoot had the famous line “When the Gales of November come early”.  Well, this is a little before November so I’d say that the Gales of November will be coming early to the Great Lakes as this storm will have a central pressure of about 959 mb which is would support a category two hurricane.  Like the storm with the Fitz, this storm will have a very long cold front extending south that will sweep through the area.  It will be racing through so the action will be quick and possibly rather ferocious.