The Erie Canal was completely built in 1825. Built in New York State, the canal runs from the Hudson River to Lake Erie, which connects the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean. Ultimately, the Canal resulted in a colossal population explosion in Western New York, but perhaps more importantly, it opened regions further to the west for increased settlement. This led to faster transportation routes between the Eastern sea side and the Western interior lands.
This book describes the complicated and fascinating social history of the canal that shrunk time and distance and transformed western New York, brought great wealth to many and opened up the west.
But this progress came at a price and the book explores some of the paradoxes of progress. Carol Sheriff’s book Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress explore both the cultural and social impacts that the building of the Erie Canal had on America. Sheriff discusses in great detail the difficulties that resulted in the building of the Canal.
For example, farms were often divided up, businesses were faced with new hardships, and the canal molded nature in a whole new way. While it of course represented progress, the government also took a much greater role than it previously had. For example, as the market expanded, the government took an active role in intervening with economic development. The beginning of the book starts out, “Oysters! Oysters! Beautiful Oysters,” as the headline of a Batavia, New York newspaper stated in 1824.
The achievement of finding Oysters so far from the sea symbolized an extremely notable achievement that had previously seemed impossible. It was a daily reminder to the people living along the Canal that transportation had effectively changed and had re-shaped the lives of millions of everyday Americans. In addition, one of the most interesting facts given by the author is that many people died from drowning during the building of the canal, even though the water was only five feet deep, because very few people during that time period could actually swim.
In addition, a lot of people died in the night for standing on the top of the boat and getting hit by a bridge – giving a new meaning to duck! One of the main themes that the author addressed was the fact that by building the Erie Canal, the population significantly increased in the New York area. However, the Canal brought all sorts of travelers to New York City, as well as Philadelphia and Baltimore, quite possibly the largest and most populous cities at that time. Towns in New York, particularly Rochester, Buffalo, and Schenectady helped contribute a large amount of both wealth and importance to New York.
The Canal helped to increase trade throughout the rest of the nation by opening eastern and overseas markets. In addition, more ethnic communities, such as the Irish, began forming in some of the smaller towns along the routes of the Canal. Irish immigrants made up a huge portion of the labor force involved in the construction, so it was only natural for those working on the Canal to relocate closer to its actual location. The progress and transformation that the Erie Canal brought also brought a new set of challenges for residents and legislators.
The canal split many farms causing great problems to many farmers who wanted bridges to get to their farms, the low bridges were a hazard to canal passengers and traffic. Water diverted for the canal and locks created water shortages though the region. Leaks in the canal caused flooding on some farms and created mosquito infested ponds, which were fertile grounds for malaria epidemics. The author addressed the fact that because so many immigrants traveled on the canal, genealogists have been trying to find passenger manifestos that include complete passenger lists.
However, this has been nearly impossible, as it was not required by law for these ships to include passenger manifestos, thus making it highly unlikely to determine a solid number as to how many traveled via the Canal. However, because of the immense population growth, crime in these areas also increased. For example, Ditch diggers who lived in shantytowns, who drank and cusses, who tore down fences caused consternation among the inhabitants who feared that the county was creating a permanent underclass.
When the digging was done and the diggers gone they were replaces with another underclass, the boat drivers, who drank, cussed, robbed and whored making the areas adjoining the canal crime-ridden. Overall, this was an excellent and very interesting book. Not only was it well-written, it was actually fun to learn about how much the Erie Canal actually changed the lives of everyday Americans. Rarely do history classes, or the History Channel cover such a small topic, yet it truly changed America between the War of 1812 and the Civil War.