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Building the Erie Canal Was Messy: It's Worth Remembering That!

The iconic Erie Canal is one of those pieces of Americana that exists today largely in the imagination. The Brooklyn Bridge, which joined Manhattan and Brooklyn in 1885, or the Panama Canal, which joined the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans in 1914, are experienced today much as they were built. The original Erie—just forty feet wide and four feet deep by 363 miles long--which in 1825 joined the Hudson River to Lake Erie and thus the Eastern seaboard with the vast unsettled continental interior, has not existed since a substantial enlargement completed on the eve of the Civil War. The current and third incarnation of Erie, completed in 1918 and ingloriously dubbed the New York State Barge Canal (until recently), is a broad, deep channel for motorized craft, nearly all of them now pleasure boats. Wooden barges heavy with pioneers and pioneer commerce, pulled by mules along rutted towpaths, are a century gone. 

Typical of mythic things, little new thinking has been applied to Erie for a good long while. Frequent juvenile and occasional adult histories retell warmed over stories. The same good long while has seen the decline of American infrastructure, of which the original Erie Canal was the overachieving firstborn.

The canal is undergoing a mini renaissance of sorts rights now. Calls for the creation of a national infrastructure bank to build and (mostly) rebuild roads, bridges, rail lines and other infrastructure cite Erie as the paradigm for American infrastructure creation.

Erie can serve as an example of American resolve and ingenuity—it was designed and built by amateurs through unbroken, disease-plagued territory with crude tools, high casualties, and speculative financing—but little about its actual creation can serve as a model for 21st infrastructure. In fact, blind invocations of the great canal in service of contemporary needs can lead to frustration. Idealizing the past makes the future more difficult: How can we possibly measure up? When the things we’re trying to (re)build now run up against confounding financial, legal, and environmental realities, how do we go forward with confidence lamenting that things were much easier in the past? The answer is that they weren’t. 

It is not generally acknowledged that Erie was a messy thing. But it was, in many ways. 

  • The canal was proposed in anonymous newspaper essays by a bankrupt merchant in debtors’ prison. If his anonymity had been lost, the busted dreamer’s wild notion of a canal across the breadth of upstate New York would likely have been fatally scorned.
  • Benjamin Wright, the country surveyor who emerged as Erie’s chief engineer (and is honored today as the Father of American Civil Engineering), was nearly fired for avoiding hazardous Erie fieldwork and neglecting his Erie work generally for outside jobs. His peers also didn’t like him very much.
  • Conflict of interest was an unborn term in Erie’s day. Men who served as Erie canal commissioners and engineers pursued healthy speculative profit in remote lands made more valuable by the canal’s passage.
  • Waste of public moneys in the service of private interest flowered on the eastern end of the Erie Canal: commissioners and engineers conspired to make the canal unnecessarily crisscross the lower Mohawk River on two risky aqueducts, instead of taking a more direct and much cheaper route between Schenectady and Albany. As one incredulous and knowledgeable observer put it: “crossing the river, in order to pay the county of Saratoga a compliment; and . . . recrossing again to convince the public how easy and practicable a matter it was.”
  • Money was also wasted trying to save money. The spectacular aqueduct carrying the canal over the raging Genesee River at the new village of Rochester was hailed upon its completion in 1823 as “a structure of admirable solidity and beauty” and “the most stupendous and strongest work in America.” Ten years later, the country’s longest stone bridge was “in a state of rapid dilapidation.” In another three years, it was “nearly in ruins.” Why? Against engineering advice, the canal commissioners had ordered the aqueduct built of local but soft and porous sandstone; a new aqueduct of proper but expensive limestone had to be built alongside the splendid wreckage of the first.
  • The canal was an instant success in generating wealth for the state (largely via tolls) and for the nation generally in moving people and manufactured goods west and produce and raw materials east, but it was too small. Just nine years after the canal opened, chief engineer Wright admitted: “in the size of our canal . . . we have made great errors, very great indeed.” The original canal cost $7 million; the tab for the enlargement (to seventy feet wide and seven feet deep) over the next three decades was $43 million.
  • Erie was a fantastic success (despite the cost of two constructions) but its success induced many more failures. The Panic of 1837 and the ensuing six-year national depression were fueled by a collapse in financing for Erie-inspired state and private canal projects that never should have been started. Erie was the herald of the nation’s first technology boom and bust.

The point is not that Erie was a terrible boondoggle. It was not. By joining east to west, Erie was the first bond of a continental union. The point is that it was an extraordinary risk with real negatives that were overwhelmingly minimized by extraordinary positives.

Two centuries later, we’ve become a risk-averse nation. Fearful of catastrophic failure, our greatness slowly ebbs. We deteriorate by a thousand small failures. But, if we recognize the past as having been as messy as the present, we can set realistic and hopeful goals for the future: it becomes easier to do better.