The Artificial River: the Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1867
© 1997 Carol Sheriff
At the dawn of a new century, the two-decade old American republic stood hemmed in between storm-tossed Atlantic ocean and the towering Appalachian mountains. Beyond them lay the west, sparsely settled but full of potential, stifled only by the dangers and isolation of the wilderness. But then the state of New York summoned the will and resources to create a river where there had been none before, to turn the woods and rolling hills to an avenue for expansion. The Erie Canal opened the west to development and changed the nation’s history, but how did it effect the lives of the people who used it and lived along its course? Such is the question Carol Sheriff attempts to answer in The Artificial River: the Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress.
The Erie Canal was the first major infrastructure project in the early Republic, and changed the relationship between the state government and the people in a variety of ways. First, Sheriff demonstrates, it led to a stronger governmental hand in economic affairs, but the Canal Board allowed people a more direct voice in government than the House of Representatives. “The people” included farmers who were annoyed that access to their land had been limited or the land itself diminished by flooding and the actions of laborers, but the phrase also covered businessmen who were beginning to link their own prosperity with ‘the nation’s” and eager to enlist government financial support in matters that would – quite coincidentally, of course! – improve their own business prospect while furthering the nation’s interests. It didn’t include so much the laborers who made the canal possible – the men who dug the ‘ditch’ by hand an in era without mechanized tools, and the boys who helped run the boats up and down the canal, seven days a week, finding their pleasures in the taverns and brothels when they could, and constantly under attack by the wealthy as the scourge of society or viewed as a band of sinners who needed to be saved from themselves by the burgeoning Temperance movement.
Aside from the government becoming more involved in the affairs of life, the canal’s presence in people’s lives drove home the idea of what was possible. The 19th century would be one dominated by the ever-forward March of Technology. A century earlier, a given technological triumph might be enjoyed only by a particularly wealthy lord or merchant, but in the 19th century progress became a democratic institution. The Erie Canal’s swiftness was not limited to the the wealthy: the locks opened and the river flowed for all, and it became an active link to “civilization” for the initial settlers even as it served as the agent of the west’s own civilization. Indeed, so quickly did the area along the canal become civilized that it was soon taken for granted and its annual winter closings were greeted not with stoic understanding, but annoyance — like that which cell phone users experience when experiencing choppiness. The fact that they have their personal phone which is operating by sending signals into space is utterly lost on them in comparison to the impression that they have been inconvenienced. So when the railroads followed the canal down the paths it blazed through wilderness and rendered the marvelous waterway obsolete within only a few decades, no one thought it strange When Thomas Jefferson first heard the proposal to build the canal, he snorted that it would make a fine project in a century. He could have never imagined how much change would be wrought before then.
The Artificial River differs from most Erie histories in that its focus is not on the politics and history of the canal’s construction and operation but on the people whose lives it touched. There it demonstrates what a transitional period the United States was in, shifting from an agrarian republic run by a relative elite to a bustling, noisy commercial democracy where property qualifications were increasingly passe, and the future of the country was in the now very noticeable working class. It’s very fine history as far as its focus goes, but for a fuller appreciation of the canal I would probably read it along with other books.
Bond of Union: Building the Erie Canal and American Empire, Gerared Koeppel