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"Little Short of Madness"

Updated: Apr 14

DeWitt Clinton and the Erie Canal

Map of the Erie Canal

In the early years of the United States, transportation of goods between the coastal ports and the interior was slow and difficult. Water transport was the most cost-effective method compared to overland routes. However, the Appalachian Mountains were a great obstacle to further transportation or settlement, stretching 1,500 miles from Maine to Alabama, with just five places where mule trains or wagon roads could be routed. Passengers and freight bound for the western parts of the country had to travel overland, a journey made more difficult by the rough condition of the roads. In 1800, it typically took 2½ weeks to travel overland from New York to Cleveland, Ohio, (460 miles) and 4 weeks to Detroit (612 miles).

The principal exportable product of the Ohio Valley was grain, which was a high-volume, low-priced commodity, bolstered by supplies from the coast. Frequently it was not worth the cost of transporting it to far-away population centers. This was a factor leading to farmers in the west turning their grains into whiskey for easier transport and higher sales. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, it became clear to coastal residents that the city or state that succeeded in developing an inexpensive and reliable route to the West would enjoy economic success, and the port at the seaward end of such a route would see business increase greatly. In time, projects were devised in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and relatively deep into the coastal states.

The roots of the Erie Canal stretch back more than two centuries, when pioneers first conceived of a waterway across the New York wilderness. George Washington suggested it during a trip through the Mohawk Valley west of Albany in 1783. A mule could only carry about 250 pounds, but can pull a barge weighing as much as 60,000 pounds along a towpath. In total, a canal could cut transport costs by about 95 percent.

Jesse Hawley, a flour merchant in central New York, had envisioned encouraging the growing of large quantities of grain on then largely unsettled western New York plains for sale on the Eastern seaboard. However, he went bankrupt trying to ship grain to the coast. While in debtor's prison, Hawley published fourteen essays on the idea of the canal along the 90 mile long Mohawk River valley, from the Hudson River to Lake Erie, using the pseudonym "Hercules". The essays were published in 1807 and 1808, appearing in the Genesee Messenger.

Many thought the idea was pure science fiction.

In 1809, when President Thomas Jefferson was asked for federal aid to build the canal, he reviewed New York’s ambitious plans. He dismissed the 360-mile canal connecting the Hudson River (and therefore New York Harbor) to the Great Lakes as "a splendid project and may be executed a century hence, but it is little short of madness to think of it at this day" and refused to authorize federal funding.

DeWitt Clinton, by Rembrandt Peale (1823)

Dewitt Clinton was born on 2 March 1769, the second son born of Major-General James Clinton and his wife Mary De Witt. He was born in Little Britain, New York. He attended Kingston Academy and began his college studies at the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton University) before transferring to King's College, which was renamed Columbia College while he was a student there. DeWitt was in the first class to graduate under the school's new name. He was the brother of U.S. Representative George Clinton Jr. and the cousin of Simeon De Witt. He was also the nephew of two-term U.S. vice president and New York governor George Clinton.

In 1796, DeWitt won election to the New York State legislature before briefly serving as a U.S. Senator. He resigned the position on 4 November 1803 due to unhappiness with his living conditions in the newly built city of Washington, D.C. Returning to New York, DeWitt served three terms as the appointed Mayor of New York City and the lieutenant governor of New York State. During the 1812 presidential election, Dewitt won support from the Federalists as well as from a group of Democratic-Republicans who were dissatisfied with Madison. Although Madison won re-election, DeWitt carried most of the Northeastern United States and fared significantly better than the previous two Federalist-supported candidates.

DeWitt served as governor of New York from 1817 to 1822 and from 1825 to 1828. He believed that infrastructure improvements could transform American life, drive economic growth, and encourage political participation. He heavily influenced the development of infrastructure both in New York State and in the United States as a whole. As governor, DeWitt was inspired by Hawley's articles to support construction of the Erie canal. Many thought the project to be impracticable, and opponents mocked it as "Clinton's Folly" and "DeWitt's Ditch." But in 1817, he persuaded the legislature to appropriate $7 million for its construction, which began on 4 July 1817 at Rome, New York.

On 26 October 1825, just eight years after workers broke ground, DeWitt boarded a barge called the Seneca Chief and took a victory cruise along the newly opened Erie Canal, an engineering marvel, unlike anything America had ever seen. They brought with them two wooden barrels of Lake Erie water collected in Buffalo. Eight days later, in New York City, DeWitt ceremoniously emptied the Lake Erie water into the Atlantic Ocean in what has been called "the wedding of the waters."

The man-made waterway, designed by untrained engineers, featured 83 separate locks, two massive stone-and-cement aqueducts to crisscross the Mohawk River, and a final ingenious "flight" of interconnected locks to raise boats over the 70-foot Niagara Escarpment. It was built decades before the invention of dynamite to efficiently blast through stubborn rock, or steam-powered earth-movers and excavators to clear mud, rock and rubble. The thickly forested land was cleared and the 40-foot wide canal was dug and the locks were constructed by the raw manpower of an estimated 50,000 laborers, including a large contingent of recently arrived Irish immigrants. Ox-powered "stump pullers" were built to help lift the stumps out of the ground; a chain was wrapped around the stump and then attached to a series of wheels and a spool nearly 14 feet across and 16 feet high, its cables pulled by a team of oxen. When workers hit stone, they had to start blasting. They used black powder, which is less powerful than dynamite, but still potentially lethal.

A scene along the Erie Canal

The Erie Canal was an immediate success. It greatly lowered the cost of shipping between the Midwest and the Northeast, bringing much lower food costs to Eastern cities and allowing the East to ship machinery and manufactured goods to the Midwest more economically. For instance, before the canal, the cost to transport barrel of flour from Rochester to Albany was $3 and dropped to 75¢ after the canal opened. The canal also made an immense contribution to the wealth and importance of New York City, Buffalo and New York State. Its impact went much further, increasing trade throughout the nation by opening eastern and overseas markets to Midwestern farm products and by enabling migration to the West. The port of New York became essentially the Atlantic home port for all of the Midwest. The canal also helped Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller, who took advantage of the cheaper transportation costs during the summer months when the canal was not frozen, to ship his refined oil from Cleveland to New York City.

Thanks to DeWitt Clinton, due to this project that was once considered to be "little short of madness," and others that followed, such as the railroads, New York would become known as the "Empire State" or "the great Empire State."


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