A talk given by
Gretchen K. Pallischeck


Most drivers on Rochester's expressways rush over the concrete bridges that span the old Erie Canal totally unaware of the charming life that exists below them.

A friend and I walk the towpaths along the canal as often as we can, and have, found under those busy streets lies a peaceful world free of competition and stress.

Today I'd like to share with you some of the interesting things I've learned about this historical treasure that is right here in our own backyard.

As I've talked with the gate-keepers on the locks, poured over books in the library and bookstores, and even had conversations with the powers-that-be down in Albany, I've come to appreciate how very important this "marvel of the world" is to the foundation of our country.

From the perspective of today perhaps the most striking element in the history of the Erie Canal was it's nationalism which was expressed most directly in the prevalent belief that the canal would serve as a bond of union to prevent the detachment of the West from the East. So let's go back to the very early days of our country.

George Washington was not only the Father of our country but was acclaimed by early writers as the Father of American canals. At the close of the Revolutionary War, but before peace was declared, he had made a journey through central New York especially to view the possibilities for inland navigation.

He was among the first to note the topographical advantages of the State. He knew that, without some improvements, all the towns and villages along the eastern seaboard would be economically and politically land-locked forever, blocked from easy access to the rest of the continent by the Appalachian Mountain chain. Only New York State had the natural capacity to breach the barrier of those mountains.

Before there was an Erie Canal there were miles and miles of wilderness, swamps, mountains, tribes of Native Americans, waterfalls, great inland lakes, an ocean, and a few intrepid settlers. People were reluctant to go far inland for trading and commerce as it was very expensive and very risky. Travel by road through the frontier was at best tedious and more often grueling.

Remember now, in the early 1800s the scattered settlements in western New York never exceeded 6000 population and most were 3000 or even less. The West was already trading with British-Canada, Unless they were able to penetrate the frontier and link the eastern seaboard with the old Northwest trade of all that articles afloat on Lake Ontario would go on to Montreal via the St. Lawrence. Therefore use of the lake would defeat the very purpose of the canal.

George Washington wasn't the only one who saw the need. In 1742 a surveyor by the name of Cadwallader Colden mused about such a canal. As did Christopher Cole and Jeffery Smith ----two Assemblymen back in 1746 and 1748. The idea also occurred to George Clinton, Gov. of New York, and the uncle of DeWitt Clinton whose name most people associate with the Erie Canal.

It has been said "every great project has to have someone who ignores common sense and just pushes. Someone with the ability to withstand frustrations every single day and still be able to get up in the morning and fight the battle anew." Historians agree almost unanimously that if not for a single individual, namely DeWitt Clinton, there never would have been any Erie Canal. Thus it was often referred to as CLINTON'S DITCH or CLINTON'S FOLLY.

No doubt the waterway had hundreds of inventors. I suppose every pioneer, dragging wagon and family and livestock behind, who came over the crest of a difficult hill---and saw the interminable hills still ahead---probably though a canal would be a wonderful idea.

But it wasn't until 1806 that it finally came to public attention when Jessie Hawley, a failed flour merchant from Geneva, spent 20 months in jail in Canandaigua for a bad debt. While in jail he wrote a series of 14 essays which were published in a local newspaper under an assumed name.

He said nations often pursue phantoms of glory by erecting monuments of national grandeur such as Tower of Babel, the Pyramids, and others. But Hawley proposed a more noble effort ---something more useful--- specifically the connection of the waters of Lake Erie and those of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers by means of a canal. He felt that the growing nation was destined to spawn 10 times as many new states but they must be bound together by water communications which would secure the states from dismemberment. He projected the cost of the work to be $6 million. Twenty years later his forecast was right on the nose!

When DeWitt Clinton began his pursuit in 1809 there were opponents such as Martin VanBuren who would become President, and William Seward who later would take fancy to Russia's Alaskan territory and have a folly of his own. Seward said that even if successfully constructed a canal would financially ruin the states. But later changed his mind when he ran for Gov. of New York --and lost!

The prospect of war made the canal project all the more imperative. In fact, the War of 1812 nearly brought things to a halt. Military demands for achieving a better system of transportation than the roads could provide became evident. And there were other reasons:

  1. the potential productivity of the uninhabited western lands.
  2. the pressing needs for communication
  3. the vision of private and public gain
  4. fear of Canadian rivalry

All these reasons carried the canal project through personal politics to public program. In just 2 years following the end of the war the idea of a canal would snowball into the long awaited law by which construction could begin.

To bring it into being took all of Clinton's political prowess and 15 years of his time. In 1812, aiming at his critics, he wrote: "Things which 20 years ago a man would have been laughed at for believing, we now see---. We must have the hardihood to brave the sneers and sarcasms of men who, with too much pride to study, and too much wit to think, undervalue what they do not understand and condemn what they cannot comprehend."

Appeals were made for federal financing but to no avail. They had a saying-- "Clinton, the Federalist son-of-a-bitch, is taxing our dollars to dig him a ditch."

When canal advocates approached Thomas Jefferson to ask for government financing he said, "A canal 300 miles into the wilderness? It's a little short of madness! The idea is 100 years ahead of its time. You might as well build a ladder to the moon." But even before the canal was finished, end to end commerce on the interior stretches assured colossal success. And Thomas Jefferson, with an elegance characteristic of the man, ate his words.

So with no federal financing and with scant prospect for assistance from other states, New Yorkers had to build the canal alone.

It was not until 1817 that they actually began construction. This was no simple task! There was no adequate engineering training available in the U.S. so the canal became a school of engineering in itself.

James Geddes, who had run the original survey in 1810, became one of the leading engineers with particular responsibility for designing the mechanical structures. David Thomas, a Quaker, was particularly skillful as a map maker. Nathan Roberts laid outmost of the canal line. And the majority of the contractors were native farmers, mechanics, merchants and professional men who resided near the canal.

They produced ingenious answers to the challenge of building a canal which often transversed the wilderness. It's amazing when you think this long stretch of waterway across our State was literally dug by hand. It took 3 men with horses or oxen a whole season to excavate a mile of canal.

Many good things came from the building of this waterway besides just transportation. Wet ground could be dug only by spade and wheelbarrow so a new wheelbarrow was invented. A new method was found for clearing trees from the land. Most of the materials needed for construction were found near the canal. Through repeated experiments they discovered a limestone that produced a cement superior to any found in America. A patent was taken out on this in 1820.

It goes without saying that work on the canal was subject to difficulties and delays. For instance, the line through the Cayuga marshes was dug in water 6-12 inches in depth and sickness struck nearly every contractor.

Several great engineering problems faced the builders of the western section. One challenge was presented by the deep Irondequoit Creek Valley and its glacier formed hills. By hand carting dirt in wheelbarrows, an embankment was created to carry the canal 70' above the valley floor. This Great Embankment at what is now known as Bushnell's Basin was the largest ever accomplished by man.

Crossing the roaring Genesee River in Rochester presented another major problem. Construction of a stone aqueduct spanning over 800' and supported by 11 stone arches was the solution. The operations were not only the most extensive of anywhere on the line of the canal but a brand new city was in the act of creation. And when completed it was the largest structure of its type in the world, bringing visitors from around the globe to view its great expanse.

Near Medina, still another feat was accomplished when the tunnel of the Canal Culvert was created to allow a road to go under the canal. This was done to avoid a very expensive and time-consuming construction of not only a bridge but building up roadways on both sides that would have been needed to carry traffic over the canal.

And then there was the "mountain ridge" that must be scaled and cut through solid rock to make water available for the long level from Lockport to the Genesee.

As an aside here, I want to point out that 8 years before the law was passed to proceed with construction, Nathaniel Rochester had bought 100 acres of land on the river's west side for $1750. He laid them out into plots and sold them for $50 each. This later became Rochester's present downtown area.

Rochester was an example of what the Grand Erie Canal could do for a settlement. At the close of 1815 Rochester was a poor huddle of small houses occupied by 131 inhabitants. These people made a thin living out of the mills which used the Genesee River's abundant water power. Rochester was jeered at as "an emporium of mud and monthly boarders". Traveler made fun of the tree stumps left jutting up out of the streets. A disgusted visitor was heard to declare "No place of its size is so full of outcasts and ne'er-do-wells."

In two years on the strength of the promise that the canal was coming, Rochester tripled its population. It didn't even wait for the diggers to get there, but went ahead on faith and put in 8 basins with docks and warehouses. And when the Genesee water flowed into the canal from Rochester traffic began to move on the canal, and Rochester was the greatest boomtown in the U.S. Rochester canal shipments came to exceed those of any other port west of Albany.

By 1823 the Erie Canal was opened all the way from Brockport to Albany. 106 boats were counted in the Albany basin. Two years later there were 2000 boats, 9000 horses and 8000 men plying the canal in just one month. The canal had become so popular that no political party could openly oppose it and still gain office.

Finally on Oct. 26, 1825 the grand opening of the waterway inspired the most elaborate celebration seen in America since the Revolution was won. As Gov. Clinton and dignitaries left Buffalo there was a sequential salute of cannon fire stationed within earshot of one another across the state and down the Hudson to N.Y. City.

At Weedsport over exuberant cannoneers overloaded their weapon and touched it off, blowing the cannon and themselves to bits. Despite the mishap, news of the opening reached New York in 81 minutes-- the fastest transmission of long distance news that the world had even known. Samuel Morse's "electric telegraph" not yet been invented.

Marriage of the WatersThe boats with Clinton and dignitaries arrived 9 days later, a distance of 500 miles. They had carried 2 barrels of water from Lake Erie which Gov. Clinton emptied into the Atlantic Ocean. This was referred to as the "Marriage of the Waters".

Clinton who never made a dime on the project, died in debt in 1829 in the midst of the states's prosperity. But the legislature, ingratitude for his service, appropriated $10,000 to provide for his widow and 4 minor children.

One evident indication of the influence of the canal was the appearance of the suffix PORT on the names of many New York settlements, no one of which was near the shores of Lake Erie or Lake Ontario. These became inland water-connected villages: Weedsport, Port Byron, Port Gibson, Fairport, Spencerport, Brockport, Newport & Middleport.

The scope of commerce on the canal surprised everyone including Clinton. He presumed most of the trade would run eastward and it did, transporting wheat, flour, beef, wool and lumber. But there was an unending succession of emigrant-laden boats moving westward. It would seem that most of Europe and all of the East Coast was gushing into Buffalo. And the same fate awaited Cleveland, Detroit,and then Chicago. New York officials would boast, it wasn't the Calvary that won the West. It was the Erie Canal!!

Settlers flocked westward. Forests gave way to sawmills, hamlets turned into villages. Boat building began to flourish in anticipation of their use on the canal. Land speculators accompanied the canal everywhere .

The waterfront of every canal town was crowded with taverns, hotels, and places of business that served a transient population. It was declared that gambling, drinking, profane swearing and licentiousness were making the far-famed Erie Canal a "school of corruption." A Rochester newspaper contended that for all the prostitution, gambling and all species of vice practiced on the canal, the "Big Ditch" should be called "Big Ditch of Iniquity".

Many fights and altercations broke out on the Erie Canal. One such occasion occurred at the Exchange St. bridge in Rochester. Such a large crowd gathered to watch that the structure gave way and plunged 50 spectators into the muddy canal.

The region opened and served by the Erie Canal was also a breeding ground for revivalism, evangelism, abolitionism, Mormonism, etc. Women of the region enjoyed greater leisure than women further west but they had less opportunity for the secular pursuits of women in the east so they gave themselves to revivals and social reform. Thus in 1835 the Erie Canal Temperance Society was organized to induce boatmen and canal passengers to shun strong drink.

There also was an interest in learning that flourished along the canal route. The Erie Canal had actually begun to serve as a highway of education even before fully completed. Thus we have Rensselaer School for Scientific Education established in Troy, and Union College in Schenectady. Clinton had visions that institutions of learning one day might be found in Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, Brockport and Buffalo. Of course, we know these visions became a reality.

Each year the facilities of the canal were strained more heavily. Many New York farmers moved on to richer fields in Ohio, Indiana, and other western states. New Yorkers in Clinton's' time realized before the Erie Canal was 10 years old that they had made a dreadful mistake in construction--- they had made it too small. So in 1836 they began the creation of the "enlarged" Erie Canal, rerouting it slightly here and there.

About this time railroads were coming into being and were threatening to replace the canal with more rapid means of transportation. They followed the level route along the Hudson and Erie Canal. But they served the passengers best (You can imagine what it must have been like traveling in boats loaded with both humans and animals!) But the canal could not be surpassed for carrying freight.

So as the Erie Canal entered its golden age the coming of the railroads foreshadowed its decline. Railroads were competing for business. New Yorkers knew the state could not afford another modernization. By now it had already been enlarged twice. So they voted in 1959 to give the canal to the federal government.

By 1980 the system was old, the structure in disrepair, and nobody seemed to care.

The Barge Canal has been pronounced by many eminent authorities to be one of the greatest engineering works of the present age, rivaling from an engineering viewpoint the work done by the government in Panama. But the Barge Canal is 10 times as long as the Panama Canal.

Low Bridge, Everybody DownThe Erie Canal was both a product and a symbol of the great age of American expansion between 1815 and 1862. New York had made the longest canal in the least time, with the least experience, for the least money--and of the greatest public utility of any other in the world.

Today, although the focus has shifted from commerce to pleasure, much of the equipment at the locks date back to 1918 and is meticulously maintained, often by second and third generation locktenders. Towpaths, once trodden by mules and horses are now grass-grown or transformed into pleasant hike or bike trails. The legend of the grand Erie Canal flows as strongly today as it did when it was opened in 1825.

The world has changed since then but along the canal the pace today is just as leisurely as in the days of mule-drawn packet boats and "hoggee" mule drivers.

Those glorious days of a snail-paced life at 4 miles per hour have all vanished. None-the-less, the colorful and unique life styles along the Erie Canal, the canalers' personal experiences, and their nautical fantasies were captured in stories and tall tales or transposed into lyrics. Since early 1900's school children and adults have sung these words across America and around the world.

"I've got an old mule and her name' is Sal
15 miles on the Erie Canal
She's a good old worker and a good old pal
15 miles on the Erie Canal."

Why has this refrain echoed through decades to a time when people can travel millions of miles through space? Why does "Clinton's Big Ditch" still intrigue us? Perhaps the answers lie in the ageless allure of traveling on the water and in the timeless appeal of legends. Whatever the reason, be it serious or light-hearted, fictional or factual, the legacy of the Erie Canal lives on. And it's right here in our own backyard----a treasure to enjoy!!!!


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