Monday, June 8, 2009

The Erie Canal

Erie Canal at Lockport, NY

I just finished reading a fascinating book on the Erie Canal entitle, Wedding of the Waters, by Peter L. Bernstein. I knew a little about the Erie Canal. Everyone knows a little about the Canal even if it is only the old childhood song with the line, "Low bridge, everybody down, low bridge for we're coming to a town." But the story is much more interesting than a simple song lyric and Bernstein does a great job telling the reader about the political and technical problems that had to be solved before the Erie Canal was completed in 1825.

From the earliest days of this country, knowledgeable leaders knew that the future of the country depended on creating an economical link with the frontiers to the west. Given the state of technology in the late 18th century, that link was obviously a water route. The problem was the Appalachian Mountains, which effectively closed off the lands on the far side of the mountains from trade with the east. One of the earliest proposed river routes was to build a canal and locks based on the Potomac River being connected to the Ohio at Pittburgh. A company called the Potomack Canal Company undertook this task and after a quiescent period during the Revolution was headed up by none other than George Washington. As Bernstein writes in his book:

In 1785, after completing a trip all the way from Mount Vernon to Pittsburgh and then down the Ohio River, he [George Washington] expressed his urgent concerns to the governor of Virginia:

“I need not remark to you, Sir, that the flanks and the rear of the United States are possessed by other powers - and formidable ones too: nor need I press the necessity of applying the cement of interest to bind all parts of the Union together by indissoluble bonds - especially of binding that part of it which lies immediately west of us, to the middle States. For what ties let me ask, should we have upon those people, how entirely unconnected with them shall we be, and what troubles may we not apprehend, if Spaniards...and Great Britain...should hold out lures for their trade and alliance? That will be the consequences of their having formed close commercial connexions with both or either of those powers?...The western settlers (I speak now from my own observations,) stand, as it were, upon a pivot. The touch of a feather would turn them any way.”

The effort to open the Potomac went on until after Washington's death in 1799 but was a failure. The company even had to resort to slave labor when the low-paid immigrants deserted the dangerous and difficult job in droves.

In contrast, the New Yorkers saw the perfect opportunity to build a canal connecting the Hudson River with the Great Lakes by using the Mohawk River valley, the only northern valley running east and west through the Appalachians until you go as far south as Georgia. Years of proposals, surveys, and acrimony went by trying to get people behind the building of a canal. The State of New York finally proposed building such a canal with federal government money and was turned down, not once, but twice -- the first time by Thomas Jefferson who virtually laughed at the absurd idea and later by James Madison. So like good citizens, the State of New York decided to pay for it themselves.

Image: Profile of topography of Erie Canal

Imagine digging a 363 mile long, 40 foot wide by 4 foot deep ditch with only hand shovels, horse-tools, and a little blasting powder. And what was known as Clinton's Ditch (for De Witt Clinton, champion of the Canal and governor of New York) had to go up and down 675 vertical feet using 83 locks. The kicker to me is that at the time, there were zero civil engineers in America. Two of the men who took leading roles in designing and building the canal were judges who had a little surveying experience to help them settle boundary disputes.

The canal was completed on-time and essentially on budget. The entire bond debt that the State incurred was retired in 1836, years ahead of schedule. The cost of shipping wheat and other bulk materials from the west dropped by 95 percent. It not only made commercial trade with the west economically feasible but it also opened the gates to settling cities like Cleveland and Chicago. It would be hard to find a single project that had as much impact with the possible exceptions of the Transcontinental Railroad and the Panama Canal. I am not sure these even measure up.

Bernstein goes on to make the point that the Erie Canal not only connected the regions within the United States, but it also connected the United States to Europe through vast grain shipments that allowed Britain in particular to feed the hungry workers of the industrial revolution cities.

Given all the noise of late from some quarters about the inefficiency of government spending on infrastructure, I found it ironic to read what Bernstein had to say in his epilogue.

Suppose we had to bet today on which project would turn out to be the more successful effort, geography aside: a profit-seeking venture controlled by one of the great executives and administrators of all time [Washington], or a state-financed project managed by a committee of politicians. The choice would be an obvious one. Thomas Jefferson had reminded George Washington in early 1784, “Nature then has declared in favor of the Potomac, and through that channel offers to pour into our lap the whole commerce of the Western world. [Moreover] public undertakings are carelessly managed, and much money spent to little purpose.”

Yet the privately owned and operated Potowmack Company ended up a financial failure and finished way behind schedule, while the committee of politicians who managed the construction of the Erie Canal would oversee their novel, complex, and gigantic project with high success, bringing it to completion on schedule, at a mind-boggling level of expenditure that came close to the original estimates, and without a single significant blunder or failure along the way. The long odds would have come out the winner on that bet.

Today, the Erie Canal is finally quiet, having been superceded by the New York State Thruway and the St. Lawrence Seaway. A much-modernized version of the canal still carries an occasional load of small freight and pleasure boats. At many places, you can still find the archeological remnants of the original structures. I find it encouraging to realize what people can do when they set their mind to a task. It is also a reminder that even the greatest of endeavors comes laden with naysayers and politics.

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