28 Nov 2004
HS 101BX, American History to 1877
In the early eighteen hundreds, America was in the midst of the industrial revolution. Advances in technology were being realized, populations were growing at a staggering rate, and manufacturing businesses were popping up all over the North. The inferior transportation systems of the past were inadequate, by any sense of the measure, to keep up with this expansion. There was no simple or easy way to transport people, raw materials or manufactured goods from the Atlantic Coast to the Great Lakes. Only small items could be transported at a reasonable price. Farmers and merchants needed a way to conduct business in a more efficient and cost effective manner. The answer to the dilemma was the construction of a canal system. The most famous and successful canal to be built was the Erie Canal. The Erie Canal was designed to link the Hudson River with Lake Erie through the state of New York. The canal was a way to open the western country to settlers and to offer a cheap and safe way to carry produce to a market.
In the early 1800’s, while in a prison in Geneva, New York, a man conceived the actual idea for the construction of the Erie Canal. It was generally recognized that such a canal was greatly needed. This man, named Jesse Hawley, conceived the idea that a canal stretching from Lake Erie to the Hudson River could be built. Hawley wrote 14 separate essays on the virtues of a Canal that would cross the state of New York. The magnitude of the undertaking to build a canal developed much strong opposition by the legislature of New York. For years the project struggled along before sufficient public sentiment could be aroused to demand its fulfillment. The president at the time, Thomas Jefferson, thought the idea “a little short of madness”, however, the idea grew substantial support from New York City Mayor, De Witt Clinton. Opponents to the canal called the proposal “Clinton’s Folly” and “Clinton’s Big Ditch” (“New York State Canal's History”).
The task to build the first canal in New York State was given to the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company. New York State Legislature chartered this company to create an uninterrupted water transportation route from Lake Ontario to the Hudson River. To complete this task, the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company was to attempt to improve and link the Mohawk River, Oneida Lake, and the Oneida River. The Western Inland Lock Navigation Company was not too successful in accomplishing this task. Immense technical and financial difficulties arose, however, in the end, the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company did manage to create a one mile canal that by-passed the Little Falls of the Mohawk River. To finance the project, Western Inland Lock Navigation Company collected tolls for the use of their canal. This attempt to produce revenue barely provided enough funds to keep its locks in working order (“Erie Canal”).
Even with the struggles and limited success of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, many prominent political leaders still wanted a canal system built across New York State. In 1817, DeWitt Clinton became governor of New York State and funding approval of the canal quickly followed (“Erie Canal Time Line”). Clinton convinced the State legislature to authorize $7 million to fund the construction of the canal (“The Erie Canal: A Brief History).
On July 4, 1817, construction of the Erie Canal started when ground was broken at a site near Rome, New York. The actual selection of where the ground breaking would begin was determined because no locks or aqueducts would be needed for the first 80 miles from that site. This would speed up construction and quiet detractors that didn’t agree with the construction (“New York State Canal's History”). During this time in history, no engineering schools existed. Design of the Erie Canal was left up