Happy 200th Birthday, Erie Canal

Public Domain. Erie Canal at Lockport, 1838, W H Bartlett

This investment in infrastructure transformed a nation.

It is often said that neither side won the war of 1812 but there is one group that lost big: the indigenous peoples who lived west of the 13 colonies and were promised a nation by Great Britain. This was one of the points of the exercise for the young expansionist USA, the “less openly stated aim of pushing the First Nations off their traditional territories, which were now open for white settlement.”

map of canal

Map of Canal/Public DomainBut you had to be able to get the settlers there. So on July 4, 1817, two hundred years ago, the first shovel of dirt was turned in Rome, New York, to dig the Erie Canal, connecting New York City to Buffalo. Nicknamed “Clinton’s Ditch” after New York mayor and later Governor Dewitt Clinton, its biggest promoter, the project was derided by many, including Thomas Jefferson, who said, “Talk of making a canal 350 miles through wilderness is little short of madness.”

It took until 1825 for the project to be completed, which is pretty amazing, considering that it was pretty much dug by hand, and given how long it takes to build a transit line today. According to the Washington Post,

digging the canal

Digging the Canal/ McKinney Library Albany/Public Domain

The work of clearing a path and digging a 4-foot-deep-by-40-foot-wide ditch hundreds of miles long would be done by unskilled workers, many of them Irish or German immigrants. “No bulldozers, no excavators. You’re basically looking at oxen, horses, shovels and pick axes,” said Andrew Wolfe, an engineering professor at State University of New York Polytechnic Institute.

Although they did have some mechanical help, according to the Smithsonian:

...the ad-hoc project brought out the best in frontiersmen. People invented hydraulic cement that hardened underwater; stump-pullers that allowed a team of men and horses to remove 30 to 40 tree stumps a day; and an endless screw device that made it possible for one man to fell a tree. Given the lack of basic supplies, the canal’s completion in just eight years is even more impressive.
Erie Canal at Syracuse

Erie Canal in Syracuse/ Library of Congress/Public Domain

The impact of the canal was profound. A trip across the state that used to take weeks was cut to six days. Buffalo became a key port that delivered and received people, products, and grain to and from the midwest. Upper New York State became an economic powerhouse, supplying New York City with food and manufactured goods, and cities along the canal became rich centres of culture, education, and manufacturing.

credit: Chuck Wolfe

© Chuck Wolfe

We have noted previously that transport by barge on the erie canal uses a tenth of the fuel of a truck also that water power, rail infrastructure, and even canals should not be left to rot when we are trying to reduce our carbon footprint, that If You Really Want To Get Off Oil, Move To Buffalo. Changes in transportation technology from rail to transport truck to air have made the canal obsolete, but each new mode of transport depended on ever more fossil fuel to make them work. The Erie Canal is seriously low carbon, and it reminds us of the importance of infrastructure. Jeffery Sachs wrote:

Each new wave of infrastructure underpinned a half-century of economic growth. Yet each wave of infrastructure also reached its inherent limits, in part by causing adverse side effects and in part by being overtaken by a new technological revolution. And so it will be with our generation. The Automobile Age has run its course; our job is to renew our infrastructure in line with new needs.
Erie Canal

First wave of infrastructure: the canal network/Public Domain

Perhaps those new needs might be met by old tech. Happy Birthday, Erie Canal, an engineering marvel started 200 years ago today, and a demonstration of what an investment in infrastructure can do.