}

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Weekend Diversion: The Erie Canal


It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time in the USA when building a canal was a technological revolution, akin to railroads or even the Internet. On July 4, 1817, construction began on the Erie Canal, and that changed everything.

The video above, from CBS Sunday Morning, talks about the canal, its construction and what it meant at the time. The video begins with the song "Low Bridge, Everybody Down", which was written in 1905, nearly a century after construction had begun, and which, as the video explains, actually had little to do with the canal at the time the song was written. Nevertheless, the song is the main reason I know about the canal, because we were taught it in primary school and it’s stuck with me over all these decades.

The canal was built at all mainly because of DeWitt Clinton, a governor of New York (among other things), who was a passionate booster of the canal, leading opponents to call the canal “Clinton’s Folly” or “Clinton’s Ditch”, among other things. It came it at $140 billion in today’s money.

Funding for the canal had been opposed by both Presidents Jefferson and Madison, but was found, anyway. Construction took about eight years, and once it was up and running cut transportation costs by about 95%. That’s because there were no railroads yet, nor any sailing route through the Great Lakes that didn’t require portage, so the main way of shipping was by pack animal, which was slow and expensive.

The canal led to a big increase in the population of Western New York State, as well as areas farther west, and helped boost the economy of the state and the United States generally, and helped turn New York City into a major world port. In short, it was a huge success.

The canal was expanded several times over the years, and is now largely redundant after the growth of railroads and also the construction of the New York State Barge Canal in 1918. What remains of the canal is mainly used by pleasure craft, though there’s still some commercial shipping.

Because the Erie Canal is largely relegated to the past, it would be easy to forget, and so, it’d be easy to forget how important it once was. I might never have learned about it in the first place if it wasn’t for that song, and the song also helped me remember.

Funny the things primary school helps us remember.

LISTEN: “Low Bridge” by Pete Seeger

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