King’s Survey: THE Ditch

In which we see how New York dug itself into global pre-eminence

 

Erie Canal
Erie Canal at Brockport, New York. Buildings date from the 1850s.

I have a question for you, Paolo.

—OK, Mr. K.

What’s a ditch?

—A hole in the ground. For water.

Good. Do you know what you call a really long and wide ditch? Big enough for boats?

—I dunno.

Fair enough. Anyone? What’s another name for a really big ditch?

—Canal?

Excellent, Sadie. A canal.

Behold, my friends, the Hudson River. As you can see, it’s not an especially long one. But the Hudson was important because it connected two the key cities of New York and Albany (and kept going North from there, which is one reason why it was actually known at this time as the North River, and also why it was of such strategic importance during the French and Indian War as well as the Revolution). Now there is a tributary, a river that connects to the Hudson at Albany. It’s known as the Mohawk River, because it ran through territory that had been controlled by that tribe of the Iroquois Confederation. The Mohawk runs west from Albany, but at this point, it was difficult for boats of any size to get very far. But what if we were to widen the Mohawk and stretch it by making a canal that ran straight across to Lake Erie? Wouldn’t that be cool?

—Yeah, it would.

—As long as I didn’t have to do it.

Yes, Chris, a big job. And it’s more complicated than I’m making it sound, because you would need not only a canal, but a system of mechanisms known as locks to regulate the flow of water. So there’s some technology involved as well as the brute force of digging a huge ditch. But so what? We can do this! And when you consider these newfangled boats developed by this guy named Robert Fultonthey use steam, not wind, to power them really fastthis canal idea is really exciting, don’t ya think?

—Sounds like a lot of money.

—Em’s right. Seems like a nightmare

Oh, c’mon kids! Don’t be such naysayers! This is a good idea! A really, really good idea! As for who will dig the ditches, that won’t be a problem. We’ll get Negroes. Even if we have to pay ’em, they shouldn’t cost much.

Do you have to pay them?

Probably. Slavery is still legal in New York circa 1820, but it’s being phased out based on when you were born. But that’s all right. Their labor is cheap. Also, there’s been a lot of people from Ireland coming over lately. A disagreeable lot, I will admit: they smell, they drink, they reproduce like rabbits. But they’re desperate for work. They don’t get along with the Negroes too well, though interesting things happen when they sing and dance together in their spare time. Jigs and such. A Celtic-African hybrid culture.

—OK, Mr. Racist. But where is the money going to come from? Sounds like a good idea. But who’s going to pay for it?

Well, kids, who do you think should?

—The government?

You mean the federal government, Kylie? That sounds sensible to me. I mean, something like this would be great for the national economy. Unfortunately, the presidential administration of James Monroe in Washington wants nothing to do with this. They say it’s a local project. And too much money. Too many opportunities for corruption. It’s not just the president. Many members of Congress won’t go along with it, either.

—Could the state government pay for it?

A good question, Adam. The governor of New York is DeWitt Clinton. He was vice president under Jefferson, and he’s crazy about this idea. He’s pushing for it, hard. And he’s got some money authorized for it. But not enough. So he goes to investors and asks them to put some money into the project, too. And so it is that between 1817 and 1825 the Erie Canal gets built, to be paid for with fees on those who use the canals, some of which will pay back the investors at a profit. But before we go further with that, let me ask: was this a good way to get the project done?

—Does it matter?

Maybe not, Em. But maybe big infrastructure projects like this should belong to the people and not undertaken for profit. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad it got built. But I wonder if this should be a model for the future.

—I agree with Mr. K. Government shouldn’t just go to the highest bidder.

—Maybe you’re right, Adam. But like I said: how much does it matter? The important thing is that the canal got built. You could say you wish America was communist or socialist or whatever. But that’s just not how we do things. I live near a park. At the park entrance there’s as sign from the law company that pays for the garden or the cleanup or whatever. If they’re willing to do that, more power to ’em.

—Yeah, but you don’t know how long they’re going to do that. And you also don’t know what their motives are. Maybe they rip off people and they use this park thing as a way to detract from what they do wrong.

—So you would rather have a worse park because of what a company might be guilty of?

—I think we’d be better off if we taxes ourselves to pay for our parks.

—Would you pay higher taxes for my park?

—That’s the whole idea behind taxes. We all pay for everything, even if we only use some things.

—I get it, Adam. I do. I just think that if it’s the difference between getting a park or a canal or whatever and not getting those things, I’m not going to worry too much about how it gets done.

Anybody else want to weigh in on this good exchange? No?

Let’s move on, then. Without rejecting Adam’s argument, let’s take Emily’s fork in the road and emphasize that the project did get done. And its impact was immense. The Erie Canal was a turning point in the history of New York City. After the canal’s 363-mile completion in 1825, New York was now the nexus between Europe and the North American interior, and became the largest city in the United States, a position of preeminence from which it never looked back. But it wasn’t just the city that was transformed. Upstate New York, a rich agricultural region, also established a foundation for future industrial growth in cities like Buffalo, Syracuse, and Rochester. With the Great Lakes as a conduit feeding into the Erie Canal, it became possible to move massive quantities of goods from the whole Midwest, which also transformed that whole region.   It became the nexus between Europe and the American interior, with the Great Lakes as the aquatic bridge that connected the Midwest to the Northeast.

There are a number of morals to this story, kids. One is that geography, and ecology are very important, but that they aren’t everything. Human ingenuity, in the form of a will to get a job done, was important. So was technological innovation in the form of locks and steamships, which greatly amplified the impact of digging a ditch. There was another amplification as well: beginning in the 1830s you start to get a truly revolutionary technological innovation in the form of railroads. Railroads snap the tether that binds cities to water. Chicago will ultimately become the great metropolis of the American interior, and that will be because it becomes a gigantic railroad basin the way the Mississippi River is an aquatic basin. But it wouldn’t have become that great railroad basin without those initial links to the Great Lakes and the Erie Canal.

—You sound so excited Mr. K.

Well, I am kinda excited, Em. There is something wonderfulI mean that in the most literal sense, that I am filled with a sense of wonderabout the huge transformations, the gigantic shifting plates, that are beginning to snap into place in the United States as it heads into its adolescence. But since you’ve brought me to my senses, I guess I better pause here to note that not everything is so wonderful. There are problems, and threats, on the horizon. And technology, a source of great hope and excitement in some respects, can be deeply troubling in others.

—What was the problem?

What do you think? What’s the nation’s biggest problem? What’s always been its biggest problem?

Slavery.

Next: Compromising situations

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