1.5. PLANNING THE ERIE CANAL

Cincinnati’s rapid growth had pushed Ohio towards statehood that was granted in 1803. In anticipation of the state’s continued expansion, Congress had agreed the previous year to earmark some of the monies gained from the sale of public lands for the construction of a road to improve travel from the Atlantic coast into the trans-Appalachian interior. By the end of 1804 the Federal government had achieved its first budget surplus.  President Jefferson in his second inaugural speech on March 4, 1805, was proud to make such an announcement and followed it up with the proposal that “the revenue thus liberated may be, by a just repartition of [the surplus] among the States… be applied in time of peace to rivers, canals, roads, arts, manufactures, education, and other great objects within each state.”  Note that Jefferson, not in favor of a strong, Federal government, had proposed that the monies be spent not directly by the Federal government, but be directed to the states for their use.  Nonetheless, a year later on March 29, 1806, he authorized the first Federal highway expenditure that was to fund improvements in the old Braddock Road that westward-bound travelers took from Cumberland, MD, at the headwaters of the Potomac River to Pittsburgh on the Ohio River.  This would extend the route of two turnpikes, one from Baltimore and the other from Washington, DC, that had been constructed over time that would link Cumberland to the Atlantic. In addition, Jefferson proposed a new Cumberland Road (what eventually would become the National Road) that was to start at Cumberland but instead of leading to Pittsburgh, jogged westward at Uniontown, PA, toward Wheeling, VA, so as to reduce the travel time on the Ohio.  From here it would run west to the state capitals of Columbus, Indianapolis, and Vandalia, thereby making travel between these cities easier. Construction did not start until 1811 and then had stalled due to lack of funding during the War of 1812.  As its course roughly paralleled the Mason-Dixon Line, adjacent communities in both the North and the South could utilize the road, therefore, antebellum Sectional jealousies played no significant role in hampering the funding of this direct land route between the Atlantic coast and the nation’s central route of water transport. 

The National Road, from Cumberland, MD (1811) to Vandalia, IL (1837). There was no “West Virginia” at this time. (Online)

These early routes to the Ohio River to the West were quite profitable for the Mid-Atlantic ports of Philadelphia (then the city with the largest economy, even though New York City’s population had surpassed it by 1790) and Baltimore as well as the newly established river ports of Cincinnati and Louisville, while the northern Atlantic ports in the Northeast, such as New York City and Boston, did not have water transportation into the trans-Appalachian hinterlands that proved to be a severe economic hindrance to the expansion of their business interests.  True, New York enjoyed easy transportation along the Hudson River as far as Albany, but this route led north, and not west.  Although the Great Lakes route represented a potential all-water passage between the Atlantic and the upper Mississippi valley (the NorthWest), it had two inherent problems.  Goods had to be transferred overland around Niagara Falls, and the St. Lawrence River, the Great Lakes’ outlet to the Atlantic, was completely under British control.  If these impediments could somehow be overcome, however, an all-water route from New York City to the Great Lakes could be forged, tapping the vast potential of the NorthWest by creating an alternative transportation route to the extant routes of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers for the region’s products.  Fortunately, due to a geologic quirk, the only break in the Appalachian chain between the Great Lakes and the Cumberland Gap in Tennessee was the valley of the Mohawk River that flowed west to east through central New York State and joined the Hudson River just above Albany. An all-water route to Lake Erie along the Mohawk Valley had first been proposed as early as November 1784 but had been endlessly debated over the next thirty-two years in the Byzantine corridors of New York State politics.

Route of the Erie Canal, 1825. Geneva, NY, the home of Charles Butler, is at the top of Seneca Lake. (Online)

The national economy had continued on its bright trajectory so that in his annual speech to Congress in 1807 Jefferson again recommended that the surplus be directed towards internal improvements.  Not one to pass up a free dollar, the Senate on March 2, 1807, charged the Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, to draw up a list of public improvements, especially roads and canals, towards which these funds could be directed.  Gallatin returned in April 1808 with his report, whose centerpiece was the proposal of a $20 million, nationwide system of roads and canals, among which included a canal along the Mohawk River to Lake Erie in New York and a canal that would link the Chicago River with the Illinois River.  The New York legislature responded in kind a month later by approving the funds to conduct a survey along the Mohawk Valley canal route to Lake Erie.  In an attempt to transcend New York’s political infighting, a seven-member bipartisan canal commission with representation from all of the state’s regions in play was formed in 1810 to make a highly visible, comprehensive survey of the proposed canal’s prospects.  Among its members were DeWitt Clinton, then the Democratic-Republican Mayor of New York City, Federalist Gouverneur Morris, the state’s beloved revolutionary statesman, and newly elected Democratic-Republican Congressman Peter Porter from Black Rock, located on the outskirts of Buffalo.  In his inaugural speech in Congress, Porter had proposed the use of Federal funds to build the canal at the Chicago River as a link between the Great Lakes (Buffalo just happened to be within Porter’s district, where he and his brother operated a company that controlled the portage business around Niagara Falls) and the Mississippi, in order to form a continuous waterway from Lake Erie to the Gulf of Mexico.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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