There is much talk afoot of doing big things in the U.S., from addressing climate change à la the Green New Deal to Medicare for All to the gargantuan deficit spending we have seen bound up with coronavirus relief, with more on the way. America may be getting back to doing Big Things, like the Manhattan Project and the original New Deal.
Two hundred years ago, the biggest initiative any American could imagine – the greatest, budget-busting internal improvement – was a ditch.
More than half a century before the American colonists got serious about their independence, some could already see another problem equally profound and that would ultimately take much longer to solve. From where they were nestled along the Atlantic coast, there were few practical routes inland, which would be the path to growth and commerce.
It was possible to cross the Appalachians by going down and around the mountains, by the plains of Georgia, but impractical. The Cumberland Gap could be traveled on foot and with pack animals, but that was hardly a natural road and there was no ready way to improve one. The same was true of the Cumberland Narrows, although there was, at least, the Monongahela River for part of the route. There were also the Susquehanna and Allegheny rivers to travel to the Ohio Country, and the Mohawk River, which provided a level water route westward. Better to go by water than by foot, if you could.
In 1724, Cadwallader Colden, the Irish-born surveyor general of the Province of New York, became the first of whom we know to advocate improving the waterways of the western part of that colony to better reach the interior, and facilitate greater trade in furs, an early economic engine. For this alone, Colden might have been remembered, if he had not lived into the era of independence as an unabashed Loyalist (and a New York governor, as well as a slaveholder). In 1765, Stamp Act protesters in New York seized his carriage, smashed it and burned the fragments on Bowling Green. Colden died in 1776 – but his dream of a canal lived.
By 1800, American settlers were growing grain in the Ohio Valley but with no easy way to transport it to market at coastal towns and cities. Traveling overland took three weeks or more (which is one reason they distilled the grain into whiskey, for ease of transport). Game was still relatively plentiful in the interior, but there was no way to move it to, say, New York, where better-off diners would clamor for it.
The idea of a canal along the Mohawk River connecting the coast to the Great Lakes was revived. A route was surveyed in 1808. From the Hudson River to Lake Erie, the land rose 600 feet. It would require 50 locks to lift barges westward. It was estimated to cost $7 million, an almost unheard-of sum. President Thomas Jefferson called it madness – but New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton bit, which is why, when construction of the Erie Canal finally began in 1817, financed by 6% bonds, it was alternately known as “Clinton’s ditch” and “Clinton’s folly.”
There was less snickering on Oct. 26, 1825, when the canal was opened, clear for 363 miles from Albany to Buffalo, the first system of transportation between the East Coast and the western interior. With its locks and aqueducts, it was an engineering marvel, longer by far than any canal in Europe or North America, the second-longest in the world (after the Grand Canal in China, at 1,104 miles) – and a wonder achieved with a considerable amount of Irish immigrant brawn.
In the Erie Canal’s first year of operation, tolls exceeded New York State’s construction debt. Other benefits were almost immediately apparent. It cut transport costs by as much as 95%, lowering food costs on the East Coast and allowing early manufacturers to ship goods to the Midwest. People went, too, on packet boats, more than 40,000 in that first year, fueling a boom in travel and western settlement. Evangelical preachers used it to make their circuits. It became a leg of the Underground Railroad, spiriting slaves to Canada. Midwestern wheat was now shipped to Great Britain. And it was that very ditch that began New York’s ascendancy over all other American cities.