September 30, 2022

FTV: The Canal Era

     It would have made a great answer on Jeopardy.  For all we know, maybe it was:  “I will take MAP WORDS for $200, Alex.”  “An instrument used for measuring curved lines on a map.”  “Buzz – What is an ‘opisometer’, Alex”  “Correct!”  According to Merriam-Webster (defining words since 1828!), the pronunciation is rendered as ‘op-i-som-e-ter’  from the Greek opiso (backwards) plus the English -meter.  It isn’t a word one will find in common usage, and I will confess to learning the true name of this device when I began thinking about this topic.  One would think a trained Geographer who spent his undergrad days learning the art of pen and paper mapping should have remembered what this thingy was called, but no.  What I do recall is my endless infatuation with maps began with one of these devices.

     Around age nine, I was recouping from a cold at home and must have been driving my poor mother nuts.  Dad came home at mid-day, which he was rarely able to do when he was working as a detective for the Michigan State Police.  He brought with him a Michigan road map and a little device he said I could use to measure the distances between places on the map.  I asked him how it worked, and he said, “Figure it out and if you can’t I will show you after work.  I will give you a hint:  it is about 70 miles from Marquette to L’Anse.”  The map measuring device he gave me (yes, the opisometer) had a wheeled stylus attached to a dial with a red arrow and several semi-circles of numbers.  I played around with it tracing US 41 from Marquette to L’Anse until it became apparent the red arrow was tracking the mileage on one of the scales.  Not only did the map and tool keep me out of my mother’s hair until I returned to school, it also set me on a path being a map-head.

     The pages of every History book we used in school were full of maps so it soon became one of my favorite subjects, right after science.  When the squiggly battle lines were illustrated in map form, I could almost see them moving along with the narration.  Drawing and coloring maps in class no doubt fueled my obsession even further.  Some of my classmates moaned about how boring the history of colonial America was, but I loved it.  The descriptions and maps of how early American industry was conducted with water power generated by the rivers that flowed from the Appalachian Plateau down to the coastal plain fascinated me to no end.  The histories of the great cities that grew up along this boundary (known as ‘the fall line’) made this period come alive for me.

     In his 2014 book The Men Who United the States – America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics, and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible, author Simon Winchester explains in great detail the era in which canals were the happening trend in North America’s early industrial period.  Canals were needed back in the day to bypass the natural barrier to river transportation posed by the Appalachian Plateau to Piedmont fall line.  Winchester’s explanation begins with a sampling of explorers who probed the depths of the North American continent by traveling up its many rivers as far as they could before encountering the aforementioned fall line.  Some of these early explorers are well known like John Smith and others less so like Edward Winslow, Walter Neale, and Simon Willard.  It was only natural that small settlements grew up at these stopping places and not surprising many did indeed grow into large cities.  Towns founded at river fall lines include Hartford on the Connecticut River, and three notable locations in Maine;  Bangor on the Penobscot, Augusta at the rapids of the Kennebec River, Fall River which sprang up on the Quequechan. A host of future major cities like Baltimore, Washington, Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Philadelphia can also trace their origins back to this quirk of American geography.

     George Washington is often touted as ‘The Father of the United States’ and had things worked out differently, he could have held the same mantle for canal construction.  His early military service in the colonial west had won him a land grant at the confluence of the Ohio and Kanawha Rivers.  After retiring from the military and resigning his commission, he grew restless upon returning to his tobacco farm in Virginia.  Washington decided to explore his land grant and organized a river expedition via the Potomac, Monocacy, Conococheague, Cascapon, Antietam, and Shenandoah Rivers.  These rivers petered out as they neared the Eastern Divide (where waters flowed either east to the Atlantic or west toward the Mississippi) making travel more difficult.  It took a final portage from the headwaters of these eastern flowing streams for his party to enter the Youghiogheny watershed, the only river in western Maryland that flows to the Mississippi River.  It was a bumpy ride of shallow rapids and more portages until they reached the present day site of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where the Youghiogheny meets the Allegheny River. 

     The joining of these two rivers creates the much larger Ohio River which George’s party navigated downstream two hundred miles to reach the land he had been granted by the former English king.  When they reached the spot where the Kanawha River joins the Ohio from the left, Washington explored his land grant before they headed up the Kanawha until they reached its source in the Allegheny Mountains.  Another portage brought them back to the eastern side of the divide where they repeated their bumpy ride downslope in the headwaters of the James River.  Once the party reached the fall line at Richmond, it was back to Chesapeake Bay and up the Potomac River until they returned to his Mount Vernon home.  Washington’s journey brought the realization that the road to western advancement would be easier and faster by water.  He wrote a letter to the governor of Virginia about his concerns:  if the United States did not promote westward expansion, the people already settled along the Ohio may find it to their advantage to trade with the Spanish or French who controlled the lands beyond the Ohio.  As he stated in his letter, “[from his observations] the Western settlers stand as it were upon a pivot.  The touch of a feather would turn them any way.”  Washington began promoting the idea of uniting the eastern rivers with the western routes via a system of canals.

     Washington’s involvement in the Patowmack Company (to build a canal in the direction of Cumberland) and the James River Company (intended to link the Kanawha with the most southerly tributaries of the Ohio) did not guarantee success.  Neither project was completed in Washington’s lifetime and the only thing that seemed to flow through them with ease was money.

By the time the Cumberland project was completed, the tolls scarcely covered the expenses, the technology was outdated, and Washington was long dead.  Washington had the vision but he was no canal designer or builder.  Later attempts would be made utilizing well honed canal building technology from England, France, and Germany.  New investors learned from Washington’s mistakes and were confident they could turn a buck if they played their cards right. 

      Winchester points out how much the Americans had to learn from their European counterparts:  “The engineers had to learn how to dig enormous trenches, removing millions of tons of earth, and how to employ explosives safely to deal with heavy nuisances like tree trunks and embedded rocks.  They needed to know how to puddle sand and clay together on a ditch bottom, making it watertight, and how to concoct the proper formula for a cement that would set and remain strong while totally submerged and so prevent water from leaking away into the canal’s sides.  They also needed to know how to design and build proper pound locks – to impound water between gates to raise or lower a craft passing up or down the waterway.  They would have to fashion wooden lock gates strong enough to hold the immense tonnages of water yet light enough to be opened and closed by hand by passing boardman or by lockkeepers and their wives.  They needed to know how to make and operate the special valves, sluices, and reservoirs that would move the waters into and through the gates, allowing watercraft to pass safely along, up and down the hills through which the canals would be cut.”  They were able to absorb these lessons before the era of functional canals could be put to use in post-revolutionary America.  While the canals crafted by canalsmiths, masons, and carpenters in Europe had (and many still have) an aesthetic appeal, the canals built in America took on a more decidedly industrial look.  American canals were built to be work-horses, not show-horses.

     Some say the South Hadley Canal built in 1792 to by-pass the rapids of the Connecticut River is the first truly functional canal in North America.  It was only a few miles long and as Winchester describes, “it used an enormous water-filled iron bath on wheels, a caisson, in which ships floating serenely inside could be winched on iron rails up the slope by a pair of gigantic chains, the whole mighty ensemble powered by water wheels turned by waterfalls.”  A marvelous bit of work designed and built by an engineer named Benjamin Prescott, it would prove to be less useful as the size of ships plying the canal increased.  Time and rust have removed it from today’s Massachusetts landscape save a picture of the machine engraved on a seal.

     We will skip over the many pretenders to the title of ‘first commercially viable canal’ in North America and go right to the grand-daddy of them all – the Erie Canal.  Back in Britain, schoolboy Winchester learned about the significance of the Hudson-Mohawk Gap.  Explorers and colonials learned early on of the westward path provided by this route:  the N-S running Hudson Valley and the E-W orientation of the Mohawk Valley beckoned travelers to follow them to the west.  The Mohawk River joined the Hudson in upstate New York and was recognized early on as the only opening between the Adirondack Mountains and the Catskills.  Exploiting this passageway west of the Appalachians turned out to be the key piece of the puzzle and developing the Erie Canal through the Mohawk Gap turned New York City into the economic capital of the young United States.

     The names of many early supporters of the ‘build a canal through the Mohawk Gap’ movement are lost to history, but as far back as 1788, an former indentured servant named Elkanah Watson commented, “A canal communication will be opened, sooner or later, between the Great Lakes and the Hudson.”  This was no idle rumination;  Watson had survived the dangerous trip to the headwaters of the Mohawk and back.  He immediately saw the potential of the idea and became an early promoter of the canal.  Watson was also well regarded enough to climb the social register far enough to be served tea in bed by George Washinton himself while he was the General’s guest at Mount Vernon.

     Perhaps the most influential early backer was Jesse Hawley, a flour merchant from Canandaigua, NY.  In 1805, his complaints about the cost and difficulty of shipping his flour to the bakers in New York City became a campaign.  There was at that time a series of by-pass locks on the rapids of the Mohawk, but the fees charged by the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company were, in Hawley’s eyes, “Outrageous.”  The benefit of a proper, full scale canal dedicated to shipping cargo to and from the agricultural lands up state was the the message Hawley delivered to anyone he could reach.  Hawley was sent to debtor’s prison for two years in 1807 and from there, he wrote a series of 14 columns under the pen name of ‘Hercules’ pushing the cause in the weekly Genesee Messenger.  Ironically, his term in prison was spawned by bills he owed to the very company whose outrageous fees he was forced to pay to send his product to NYC.  From prison, he became a voice arguing not for himself, but for the economic future of the state:  “This port [New York] would shortly after be left without competition in trade except by that of New Orleans.  In a century its island would be covered with the buildings and population of its city.”  Of the many people who read Hawley’s articles, New York City mayor DeWitt Clinton (and later a revered governor of the state) would be one of the most powerful backers of what would become the crowning jewel of state funded infrastructure.

     After he convinced the New York Senate to provide $7 million in seed money, the naysayers began calling it ‘Clinton’s Folly’ and ‘Clinton’s Ditch’.  In 1817, a full ten years after Hawley began penning his essays, the first shovel full of dirt was turned over in the town of Rome, NY, halfway between Lake Erie and the Hudson River.  The building commenced with a lavish celebration and it took eight years to cut the sixty foot-wide route through the virgin forest and build the necessary locks and gates.  The dirt removed from the canal was piled and trampled into a towpath along the northern edge of the canal.  Some cost for the project was raised when a weigh station was set up at Syracuse to extract a twelve and a half cents per bushel of salt that city sent down the canal.  There were no complaints about the tax, but people in Syracuse were known to remind the rest of the state that the Erie was ‘the canal that salt built.’

     The City of Buffalo, NY campaigned heavily to terminate the western end of the 363 mile canal by connecting it to the creek from which they took the small lakeside town’s name.  On October 26, 1825, a celebration the likes of which had not been seen before commenced.  A series of artillery pieces placed within earshot of each other began a volley that traveled from Buffalo to Sandy Hook, New Jersey and back again – acting like a two hour long starting pistol if you will. A long round of orations began (starting with the now free Jesse Hawley) before the tow horses began to pull the first convoy of narrowboats on their way.  It took a week to reach the 83rd and final lock in Albany before the convoy was discharged into the waters of the Hudson.  When they reached the mouth of the Hudson on November 4, the celebration continued as now NY governor Clinton poured a bucketful of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic Ocean.  Two weeks later, officials in Buffalo would repeat this ‘wedding of the waters’ by pouring a keg of ocean water into Lake Erie.  Journalist William L. Stone reported America was envied because, “[they had] built the longest canal in the world in the least time, with the least experience, for the least money, and to the greatest public benefit.”

     Railroads and highways would eventually replace the economic benefits of the Erie Canal but the impact the waterway had on the newly minted United States can never be doubted.  One can only speculate how history would have played out had the naysayers promoted the ‘Clinton’s Folly’ line loudly enough to have the entire project scuttled.  Infrastructure, it seems, has always had the power to make or break a country.  As the old saw goes, “Those who ignore history’s mistakes are prone to repeat them,” however, history can also show us the way forward.  It will be interesting to see if our new found enthusiasm to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure will be taken up with the same fervor as the building of the Erie Canal.  Will we commit ourselves to repairing what we have let fall apart, or will we penny pinch until it is too late to fix that which is in need of fixing?  Only time will tell. 


Top Piece Video – Could not lay hands on a decent canal song, so how about a little chain gang music?