Ribbon of the North

Luann Bourgeon, Baltimore Sun

Mar. 28, 1835

Boom! Boom! Boom! Smoke fumed the Buffalo sky as the cannons of celebration roared, wakening the city from stillness. Marching band’s clarion along the Erie bank rendered the crispiness of the autumn air. Refreshing! Crowds of thousands, no matter young, old, rich, poor, men, women, white or black all stood the shore, to catch a sight of the marvel of the century, the Erie Canal. The sun glistened from above, adorned it with a golden badge. Buffalo was hailing; in fact, all of New York State was hailing. October 26, 1825 marked the grand opening of the Erie Canal; the first time it ever carried a vessel for a full journey [1]. Seneca Chief entered the Canal, and began its voyage to Albany, New York [1], with De Witt Clinton, the governor of New York, standing on the deck as the captain [4].


Route of the Erie Canal

And then I regained my presence of mind. I was boarding at the Hudson port of the Erie Canal, on my way to spectate the dramatic changes that have happened. Ten years has passed since the completion of the Erie Canal, seventeen years has passed since its construction begun; yet hardly I would ever forget its magnificent opening. Running 353 miles from Buffalo to Albany, Erie named itself the longest inland canal of America [1]. She was not only a blockbuster, but also altered the lives of millions of Americans. Thanks to Mr. DeWitt Clinton, the great man who foresaw the potential profits that the Erie Canal would create and enabled its capacity under tremendously harsh conditions. Difficult, for that canal engineering technology was a nearly unknown science [3] and the Federal Government’s rejection for funding. However, reelected as the Governor of New York State in 1817, Mr. Clinton, broke ground for the construction of the Erie Canal with funding from the State of New York on July 4th as the commissioner [9]. Just few days ago, the New York State decided to expand the Erie Canal, lengthening the width from 40 feet to 70 feet and the depth from 4 feet to 7 feet to accommodate the heavier traffic[1]. Apparently, massive flow of goods has exceeded the tolerance of the canal.

Along my trip occurred numbers of packet boats containing freights, workers were hopping to unload and upload boxes and bags of goods at different ports. A boat driving from the opposite direction heading to New York was unloading its freights at Syracuse. A careless worker accidentally dropped a bag of cotton into the water, sparkles of cotton clouds soon spread across the river.

“You ain’t getting a penny for the day,” said the labor contractor pointing at the young man. Though massive production of cotton and agricultural products have largely lowered the price of items, and the income of a worker has increased to about 10 dollars a month, making mistakes like losing freights apparently still cause great consequences [9]. I got off the boat at Syracuse and decided to learn more about the shipping business on the Erie Canal.

“This ship of cotton and leather goods is from a large plantation farm in Albany, owned by a man named Ethan Hatcher,” said the labor contractor.

“And when did you start this shipping business?” I asked.

“Actually only two years ago. I saw the excellent chances in this business since Erie Canal connects the mid west and New York, of which New York is the economics center of the US [9]. I think it would provide me great opportunities to make some money. And there are quite some people on this river doing the same business like me. The money we make each day is not a lot, usually around 60 cents a day [9], but we make quite frequent trips, usually making one round trip a month, sometimes even twice.”

Clearly, sources of business have been largely explored since the grand opening of the Erie Canal. Due to the vast land of the Mid-west and the migration of population westward, large farming areas were exploited [3]. The nutritiously rich land also provided a nice environment for the growth of crops. Massive production directly lowered the price of the crops and the shipping fees since crops can get to New York straightly through the canal without transferring on land. By 1826, a year after the grand opening of Erie Canal, about 7000 boats were operating on the canal, and the toll revenue was already running over $ 500,000 [9]. And it was all just the beginning.


Packet Boats on the Erie Canal

“Well, not only the canal is quite efficient for goods shipping and traveling, there are many tourists from all over United States, even Europe to have a taste of this enthralling creation, which is almost another wonder of the world.” [9]  The labor contractor added. Indeed, transporting people and goods are nowadays way faster, and costs almost 95% less compare to before the canal constructed [8]. Nathaniel Hawthorne, a literary and theatrical celebrity once commented: “The water of this canal must be the most fertilizing of all fluids.” [9]  

But then again, the thriving of the Erie Canal inevitably attributes to De Witt Clinton, who devoted his lifetime to the construction of the Erie Canal [2]. Though it almost seemed impossible due to the unknown technology of canal at first, he still boldly took the action of starting its construction. His proposal written in 1816 said, “It would convey more riches on its waters than any other canal in the world, to be expended in great public improvements; in encouraging the arts and sciences; in patronizing the operations of industry; in fostering the inventions of genius, and in diffusing the blessing of knowledge.” [9] Mr. Clinton passed away three years after the grand opening of the canal [9], and he probably did not see enough the glory he has brought to the nation, yet his contribution is evident, effective, unforgettable and forever-lasting.

As my trip continued down the canal, ports, ships, freights, workers, labor contractors were numerous. Once impossible and ridiculous, the Erie Canal has and will be having sufficient influences on the lives of New Yorkers, potentially across the nation, and the world. It would take some years to finish the current expansion of the canal, but I believe it would be another milestone for the canal and its people. Mr. Clinton would be delighted to see the changed he has brought to the world. Though it is unsure what new technologies would appear to replace the canals, let us just appreciate the wonderful lives the canal has given us.

[1] Timeline of the Erie Canal: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma02/volpe/canal/timeline.html

[2] De Witt Clinton’s 1816 Memoir:  http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma02/volpe/canal/docs/memorial_1816.html

[3] Taylor, George Rogers. The transportation revolution, 1815-1860. New York: Rinehart, 1951. Print.

[4] The Erie Canal: A Brief History: http://www.canals.ny.gov/history/history.html

[5] 1825: Celebration: http://www.archives.nysed.gov/projects/eriecanal/ec_1825.shtml

[6] Major people at the opening of the Canal: http://library.gc.cuny.edu/erie_canal/who.htm

[7] Erie Canal Opens: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/erie-canal-opens

[8] Stories About the Erie Canal: http://blogs.democratandchronicle.com/penfield/?p=1289

[9]: Bernstein, Peter L. Wedding of the Waters: the Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation.   New York: W.W. Norton, 2005. Print.

Image: http://www.eriecanal.org/maps/NYScanalmap-1896.jpg




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