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This Week in History:
October 31 - November 6, 1825
Completion of the Erie Canal

October 2010

The monumental Erie Canal project, called a “Sheer Folly” by its detractors, paid for itself in ten years, and fostered rapid industrial growth, making New York the “Empire State,” giving the North an industrial economy more powerful than the slave-based economy of the South. Here, the biggest engineering challenge to the project, scaling the more that 60-foot Niagara Escarpment in Locksport.

This week we celebrate the completion of a major infrastructure project, which linked the Eastern and Midwestern United States—the Erie Canal. This 364-mile, gigantic engineering project came to completion in October 1825, and on Oct. 26, a ceremony was held to launch the official cavalcade of boats which would travel from the western end, in Buffalo, east to New York City, arriving on Nov. 4.

This project is worthy of our attention today for several reasons. First of all, it was a Great Project, outpacing in scope anything else which had been proposed for the growing nation. As such, it corresponded to the vision of nation-building, which the Founding Fathers such as George Washington, had conceived, as they fought to build a continental republic, based on a productive and progressing citizenry. This kind of vision today, would lead us to build transportation corridors with magnetically-levitated trains, not canals, but at that time, this was at the frontier of technological innovation.

Secondly, we should take note of the means by which the canal was financed. First and foremost, the Erie Canal was a New York State project, funded by action of the state legislature through a vote in 1817. Due to ongoing political battles over the concept of Federal funding of infrastructure projects for the general welfare, no credit came from the Federal government. Today, although the states would collaborate with the Federal government in devising and administering the projects, Federal credit would be absolutely essential to carrying it out.

Eighth Wonder of the World

The concept of linking eastern New York State with the Great Lakes was enunciated by President George Washington himself, who, even before the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, to end the Revolutionary War, was looking for a transportation route to accomplish this aim. New York's Governor Dewitt Clinton began fighting for a canal's construction, between the Hudson River and Lake Erie, in 1810. Actual survey work began at that time, but it was cut off by the renewed British attack on America in 1812.

After the war, efforts were made to get the U.S. Congress to pass a bill providing Federal funds for a massive national waterways project, but this failed. Governor Clinton then pushed the bill through the New York State legislature on April 25, 1817, motivating it as follows:

"It remains for a free state to create a new era in history, and to erect a work, more stupendous, more magnificent, and more beneficial, than has hitherto been achieved by the human race."

Governor Clinton also reminded the citizens of New York of the recent conspiracy by Aaron Burr to detach some of the Western settlements from the United States, and of the even more recent activities of the secessionist Hartford Convention during the war with Great Britain. Echoing the earlier warnings of President Washington, Mr. Clinton stated that the most imminent danger to the cohesion of the union lies in the poor communications between the Eastern and Western states. The proposed Erie Canal would provide an easy passage for settlers to Western points such as Detroit and Chicago, and would make it possible for those farmers and mechanics to ship their products back for sale in Eastern markets.

Governor Clinton also heralded the commercial benefits which would result from having the canal available to bring food to the great cities on the East Coast, and anticipated the development of manufactures, as well as towns and cities, along its banks.

Once the bill was passed, New York hired the same lawyers who began surveying the route back in 1810, James Geddes and Benjamin Wright.

At the time the project began, the largest canal in America was the Middlesex Canal, which connected the Merrimack River with Boston Harbor. It covered only 27 miles and was build at the cost of $1 million. The longest canals in Britain and France were barely a third of the projected length of the Erie Canal, and had the benefit of more experienced engineers to do the work.

Celebration of Union

Eight years after the New York State legislature set the project in motion, the Canal was complete. The huge task had been accomplished with a largely untrained workforce, which learned from its experience, and was aided by the development of new inventions and methods along the way. Dealing with the rapid downward slope of the land when the canal approached the Hudson, and with the thick rock ledge which guards the passage from Lockport to Lake Erie, were particularly challenging.

After a signal cannon was fired at Buffalo, on Oct. 26, a flotilla of boats took off, led by Gov. DeWitt Clinton aboard the "Seneca Chief." The signal was relayed by the booming of Revolutionary War cannons, or groups of rifles, all along the length of the Canal, and down the Hudson River, to mark the momentous occasion. It took only 90 minutes for this wave of celebration to hit New York City, letting residents there know that the trip had begun.

The flotilla itself arrived in New York City on Nov. 4, to the thunder of the batteries of every fort in New York Harbor, saluting the accomplishment.

Once arrived in New York City, Governor Clinton's flotilla proceeded out into the Atlantic Ocean, where he poured a barrel of Lake Erie water into the ocean, to symbolize the linking of the bodies of water. A special bottle of the same water was saved to send to General Lafayette in France, where he had just returned from his triumphal tour of America.


The original article was published in the EIR Online’s Electronic Intelligence Weekly, as part of an ongoing series on history, with a special emphasis on American history. We are reprinting and updating these articles now to assist our readers in understanding of the American System of Economy.

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