In the years following the American Revolution, waves of pioneers from the original thirteen states poured westward across the mountains, seeking their fortunes in the superabundance of cheap, fertile land in the new territories.
This was more than a little worrisome to the founding fathers, chief among them George Washington. More clearly than most, Washington saw that as the lands beyond the mountains flourished, their commerce would run north-south on the great rivers of the west, there being no economical means of shipping their produce back east.
Certain that in time this would cause the new settlements to fall away from the eastern government and re-form independently, or, worse, join up with the Spaniards, the French or the English Canadians who together surrounded the newcomers, Washington spent the last years of his life in a failed effort to build a canal across the Appalachian chain to create a two-way route on the Potomac River.
A quarter century later – 190 years ago this November – Washington’s dream would be realized, on a scale which even he could never have imagined, when New York governor DeWitt Clinton poured a keg of water from Lake Erie into New York City’s harbor. In doing so, Clinton solemnized the completion of the single defining technological achievement of America’s first half century: the Erie Canal. The epic and amazing story of the canal is to be found in the late, lamented Peter Bernstein’s scrupulously researched and brilliantly written book, The Wedding of the Waters.
Despite fierce and incessant political opposition, and with no funding other than on the credit of New York State, the Erie Canal ultimately ran 363 miles from Lake Erie to Albany; there it emptied into the Hudson River for the 150-mile journey down to New York City. Its 83 locks enabled boats to travel a total of 675 feet up and down from one end to the other. The canal was completed in less time than the original estimate and on budget, paid for itself in a matter of a very few years, and was still (albeit after significant expansion) carrying mountains of grain from America’s heartland bound for the countries of Europe into the 1950s.
The Erie Canal solidified the American union, facilitated the development of middle America as the granary to the world, and set New York City on the road to economic and financial hegemony – all without the presence on the job of a single professional civil engineer. It was, as Bernstein writes, “dug and hacked through dense forests and built over rivers and valleys with nothing more than bare hands, shovels and axes, mules, explosive powder, and crude but ingenious inventions to pull down trees and yank up their stumps.”
The Wedding of the Waters is one of my all-time favorite books of American economic history. But it’s even more than that. It’s a story of that particularly American untutored ingenuity that runs right on through an Edison, a Ford, the Wrights and up to a Harold Hamm in our own day – tinkerers, experimenters, innovators, simply wearing away at a challenge with the tools at hand and their own stubborn belief in themselves. It’s a story to love, told in this instance by a master storyteller.
© 2015 Nick Murray. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission. Nick reviews current books, articles and research findings in the “Resources” feature of his monthly newsletter, Nick Murray Interactive. To download the new 2015 sample issue, visit www.nickmurray.com, and click on “Newsletter.”