Monday, November 15, 2010
CLINTON’S FOLLY The "Big Dig" That Changed America
A color postcard from the 1930s depicts one of several river boats that plied the Hudson in an earlier day. The author’s interest in river history dates back to a day trip on the DeWitt Clinton in 1939.
While the idea began with George Washington, and was always in the back of the mind of each succeeding President, it was not until a New Yorker named DeWitt Clinton came along that anyone dared to do something about it. The idea was to build a canal - a manmade waterway - which would connect New York and the East to the Great Lakes and what was known as the Northwest Territory. There were many reasons to support those who said it either couldn’t be done or the cost would be too high for the young nation to bear. What’s more, it was argued, it couldn’t earn enough to pay for itself in the long run. In 1817, there were no civil engineers in the United States and no School of Engineering from which to draw an alumni with the kind of skills such a monumental task would require. In fact the surveying of the proposed route was carried out by two amateurs, one a Judge, the other a young school teacher who had never touched a surveying tool before the day they started to measure.
The proposed route would begin from the headwaters of the Hudson River near Troy and Albany in upstate New York, and traverse 363 miles of virtual wilderness, including the imposing granite Niagara escarpment, terminating at the pioneer town of Buffalo, and connecting with Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. A seemingly insurmountable engineering challenge arose from the fact that the landmass over which the construction would take place involved a rise of 600 feet. Since the technology of the day could lift water no more than twelve feet, at least 50 locks would have to be engineered, constructed and operated; a daunting feat of masonry enterprise. President Thomas Jefferson had called the whole idea “a little short of madness”.
DeWitt Clinton is an American Original too much overlooked in our history books; a politician who hated party politics, believed firmly in the uniqueness of our constitutional ethic, despised and fought against corruption of any kind, and managed to serve as Mayor of New York City, member of State legislatures, U.S. Senator, candidate for the Presidency, and twice Governor of New York. It was Clinton who convinced the New York Assembly to appropriate 7 million dollars to begin work on the Erie Canal, and who saw work begin at Rome, New York on July 4th, 1817.
Before the project was completed – to everyone’s surprise - nine years later, it would be called “Clinton’s Folly” or simply “Clinton’s Ditch”, and its mentor would be widely derided and vilified, and briefly driven out of office. Everything about the project was remarkable at one level or another, from its grand scale, engineering audacity, and the inventiveness which broke new ground in defeating obstacle after obstacle. Existing natural waterways were used wherever possible, and viaducts were constructed to bridge canyons, creeks and entire towns when necessary.(Some of those viaducts still carry transiting vessels high over busy highways, train tracks and town centers today.) German immigrant stone cutters came in large numbers to construct intricate locks and bridges, and completed sections of the canal were often connected to nearby waterways to support logistics.
Communities which had previously been no more than carriage stops on dusty roads suddenly blossomed into busy centers of enterprise. Even before the canal was completed, its very construction brought about a shift in commerce which was destined to change the face of America. And here, there is a Utah connection. In 1817, Joseph Smith Sr., the father of the Mormon prophet-to-be, left behind a foundering store in New England to seek a better future in the promising land of upper New York, where a tiny town named Palmyra had exploded into prominence thanks to the construction of a key lock in the canal system, and a new access to the inviting farmland nearby. (Lock No. 29 still operates at Palmyra today, providing a 16-foot lift in the New York Canal System.)
On October 26, 1825, The Erie Canal was officially opened. Gov. DeWitt Clinton carried a bucket of Lake Erie water on a barge, emptying it into the Hudson River at Rome. On a return voyage, he carried out the same ceremony in reverse.
The Erie Canal was America’s first “super-highway”, opening up migration to the West, turning mid-America into the “bread-basket” of the world, and establishing a previously-unimposing city called New York as the nation’s and the world’s most important seaport. The canal turned a profit its first year of use, and proved to be a boom to the entire U.S. economy and to usher in a major change in the way Americans saw themselves.
Even though the coming of the railroad and the internal combustion engine would inevitably change the way people and commerce move, a giant step forward in America’s history started out as “Clinton’s Folly”.
Today, the Erie Canal is part of “The New York State Canal System” and is designated a “National Historic Waterway”. Many abandoned locks and sections dot the New York landscape, and have served as a magnet for wanderers like Al Cooper. Lock No. 32 at Pittsford, N.Y. is used mostly by recreational boaters today.