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.

Two Criminal New York Fires, Justice Served Just Once
March 25, 2010

It Often Takes Tragedy to Bring About Justice and Change

Fire On the Upper Floors Pushed the Capabilites of the NYFD in 1911

On This Date in History:  In the early 20th century, the industrial revolution was in full swing but social and business response natually lagged behind as the rapid growth of industry presented new challenges.  As corporations grew, new accounting and management techniques had to be developed and, in response to those needs, colleges and universities had to expand their curriculum to address the requirements of  advanced business and accounting.  Social and labor practices were also under pressure from change.  In cities like New York, manufacturing utlized labor such that workers had very few rights and were subject to harsh and unsafe working conditions.  Advocates of the workers had tried to address the potential problems and the grievances of the workers largely to no avail.  As is often the case, it took a tragic and monumental event to serve as a catalyst for change.

Typical Garment Factory

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was a good example of what became known as a sweatshop.  New York’s garment district was well known as featuring factories that employed women who gained little pay but had to endure difficult and potentially dangerous working conditions.  Max Blanck and Isaac Harris owned the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which took up the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the Asch Building.  The majority of the factory’s 500 workers were young immigrant women who worked 9 hours a day during the week and 7 hours on Saturdays.  Sunday really was a day of rest for the ladies who often lived in conditions not much better than their work environment.  Smoking was banned in the factory but the Fire Marshall concluded that a cigarette butt tossed in a scrap bin on the eighth foor ignited a fire toward the end of the day on this date in 1911.  Other experts drew other conclusions but the result was a fire quickly spread through the eighth floor to the floors above.  Blanck and Harris escaped to the roof but others weren’t as lucky.   Workers on the eighth floor were able to telephone the tenth floor to warn of the danger.  But, there were no alarms and no way to contact the ninth floor.   Within 3 minutes, the interior staircase became unusable and the only exterior fire escape collapsed under the weight of the terrified people crowding onto the structure to make their escape. 

Police Have Grim Task Confronting Bodies on the Sidewalk

Sixty two people either jumped or fell to their death to the horror of observers from the street.  Louis Waldman, who would later become a New York Assemblyman who subsequently was expelled for his communist leanings,  was in the crowd and wrote that he “looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies.”  In all, 146 people were killed in what remains one of New York’s worst industrial incidents.

Civil Court Ruled The Dead Were Worth $75 a Piece; Insurance Company Paid $400

The owners were taken to trial but were acquitted from criminal charges as their defense attornies were successful in compromising the integrity of the witnesses.  Blanck and Harris were later both found guilty in a civil lawsuit but they actually came out ahead in the deal.  See, the civil suit awarded just $75 per deceased victim.  I suppose life was pretty cheap to the courts because the insurance company compensated the owners $400 per victim. Around the same time that Blanck was found guilty in the civil trial, he was found guilty of locking the doors in a factory, potentially trapping workers if there was another incident.  This time, Blank really was taught a lesson:  he was fined just $20.   But, the circumstance was not totally without some silver lining.  Aside from the assemblyman in the crowd, another eyewitness was Frances Perkins, who later became the Secretary of Labor under Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  She pushed for stricter safety and compensation legislation and unions gained more support to force management to address the grievances that long had troubled the workers, most of whom were immigrants and relatively poor.  There is a saying that the people of Venice did nothing about the sewage problem until water was flowing into the buildings.  Unfortunately, societies and governments have not learned the lesson even today. 

Confederates Hoped to Find New York City The Same Turmoil As 1863

Confederates Hoped to Find New York City The Same Turmoil As 1863

 Another New York Fire: When you get to late 1864, the prospects of the South in the Civil War were running low. The West was pretty much subdued and General William T. Sherman was making his march to the sea. Now, in a post from  October 2008, I told you about how Confederate raiders in October 1864 made the northernmost attack on the Union in Vermont as they raced into St. Albans, Vermont and robbed several banks before fleeing back to Canada. Well, the Candian plot wasn’t done just yet.

Harper's Weekly Rendition of Arsonist

Harper's Weekly Rendition of Arsonist

The Confederate Canadian agents, perhaps emboldened by their Vermont excursion came up with a bolder plan. They would burn New York City. The agents had been assured that the city was ripe for rebellion. Now, that may have been true earlier in the war when there was the infamous New York Draft Riot against the war, but by late in 1864, it was no longer the case. A case of bad intelligence. Undeterred, the plotters decided that they would bring the horror of war home to New Yorkers and carried out their plan on November 25, 1864. Happy Thanksgiving, right? Here was the plan: An agent would check into a Gotham hotel, concealing a incendiary liquid in glass. Its called a Greek fire in a valise. The perpetrator would set his room ablaze and then leave. After several of these firebugs successfully created several infernos, the city streets were filled with rumors as panic people ran about and firemen ran helter skelter from hotel to hotel. One thing the arsonists didn’t count on was the famed New York Fire Department. Today’s heroes of

Kennedy: Bad Timing

Kennedy: Bad Timing

New York were yesterday’s heroes of New York as well. Twelve fires broke out almost simultaneously but the firemen reacted so quickly the damage was limited and the fires were extinguished. So much for the great Greek fire.  Instead, it turned out to be a Greek tragedy for one of the perpetrators. Two were captured, including Confederate Captain Robert Cobb Kennedy. On this date in 1865, Kennedy was hanged for his failed enterprise and received the distinction of being the last soldier hanged before the end of the Civil War…which effectively came a little more than 2 weeks later with the surrender of Robert E. Lee to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia on April 9, 1865. They say that timing in life is everything, but I’d say this is one of the greatest examples and consequence to bad timing.

This Picture Might Produce Some Snow...don't bet on it and don't break out the snow shoes just yet

Weather Bottom Line:  Just a little wrinkle in the forecast.  See…the GFS suddenly has decided to throw out about a quarter inch of snow on early Friday morning.  The idea is that the southern storm will throw out moisture that will over run a cold front coming in from the northwest.  Okay..I said it.  If you hear about that in the forecast, that’s where it comes from.  But, my guess is that before the lower layers get cold enough the overnight rain will have ended.  I suppose that the rain could drag down cold air to support some snow but,  you know what?  If it does happen it won’t be a big deal except as a conversation piece because the ground is too warm.  Just a note:  The NAM has no snow. 

Any such activity will be over certainly just after sunrise on Friday and clouds will be decreasing as the day goes on but it may be tough to get out of the 40’s.  Saturday still looks great with highs in the lwo to mid 60’s and plenty of sunshine, though clouds will be increasing as the afternoon wears on.  Sunday we’ll have another southern system that will bring rain with a chance of some rumbles of thunder.