I am excited to review Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold and Murder on the Erie Canal, by Jack Kelly, a fascinating look at the building and impact of the Erie Canal on American history, commerce and expansion.
Growing Up Near the Erie Canal
Having grown up in central New York, we learned about the Erie Canal, visited places that once were part of the canal and played along parts of the Erie Canal that still existed. We visited the Erie Canal Village and Erie Canal Museum. We rode in a packet boat pulled by mules and sang the “Low Bridge, Everybody Down” song. I still remember parts of it all these years later.
The Erie Canal is just part of Upstate New York culture, and we are pretty darn proud of it. Construction of the Erie Canal began in 1817 and completed in 1825, so we are in the middle of celebrating its bicentennial. Surveying of the land began in 1808 and according to Jack Kelly’s research, the terrain was such wilderness, the surveyor, James Geddes, had to take a team of people with him just to rough cut a path to measure and place his survey markers.
Building the Erie Canal
Canals were very common all over Europe, but in the early 1800s, a revolutionary idea, especially in America. Ridiculed as “Clinton’s Ditch” after New York Governor Dewitt Clinton, many felt building a canal across New York State was a huge waste of money. Visionaries, however, who saw how much the Appalachian mountains along the Eastern part of the United States made it difficult for Western expansion, were interested in the curious break in the mountains in upstate New York near Albany. The idea was if a canal could connect the Hudson River, which was deep enough for seafaring ships to move between New York City and Albany, with points to the west, goods and people could be transported easily and affordably. Vast lands to the west were ideal for farming and feeding the growing number of people living in cities along the Eastern seaboard if the cost of transporting such supplies could be reduced.
The story of how the Erie Canal was designed and built is such a tale of American aspiration and ingenuity. If you’ve ever taken a drive across New York State, you will notice how diverse the terrain. New York was once covered by glaciers that receded creating mountains and hills laced with lakes and rivers, ravines and waterfalls, while the middle of the state just south of the Lake Ontario is relatively flat and swampy. Trying to navigate East-West even today can be tedious depending on the weather, as anyone knows who’s been caught in a rain or snow storm along the New York State Thruway. So imagine trying to create a waterway flat enough to connect the Hudson River with Lake Erie, an area that spans over 360 miles. The terrain actually rises around 600 feet between the banks of the Hudson River and the shores of Lake Erie. This meant building locks and aqueducts throughout the canal to make it feasible by boat.
The engineers taking on the Erie Canal project had little to no experience in building such structures, so much of the canal was built in a trial and error format. Working on the canal was difficult and dangerous, and used a huge immigrant workforce to complete. According to Kelly, it was the first organized labor force of its kind in America.
Influence of the Erie Canal
Once completed, the cost of travel for people and goods dropped drastically. Towns and cities, like Rochester and Syracuse, burgeoned with population growth and new industries. People moved west in droves hoping to cash in on farming and other businesses that could now use the Erie Canal to ship their goods. Immigrants used the canal to move Westward into Ohio and beyond where land was still cheap and the hopes of keeping their culture and religions intact seemed likely. New York City’s population also grew quickly as an advantageous port city.
What’s most interesting about Jack Kelly’s book is his careful weaving of the stories of some of the famous people who came out of this era of Erie Canal expansion. Having lived most of my life in the Fingerlakes region of central New York State, I had always learned that this area was a hotbed for all sorts of political, religious and moral thinking. People like Fredrick Douglas and Harriet Tubman resided in the area. The anti-slavery movement was huge here, as was the Underground Railroad. The first Women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls in 1848. Women’s Right to Vote leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage all lived in Central New York. The Mormons and Church of Latter Day Saints were founded by Joseph Smith in Palmyra, NY. Other forms of Christianity expanded greatly through upstate New York in this same time period. The Masons and anti-Masonic movement got its strength from this region.
After reading Heaven’s Ditch, I finally understood WHY all of this came to be in and around Central New York. The Erie Canal made it possible. Points along the Erie Canal made it one of the easiest places to travel to, and affordably. The canal was used by the Underground Railroad to move escaped slaves along to Canada. Transportation enabled political people to meet and share information. Religious evangelists, like Charles Finney, arrived by the canal to bring huge tent revivals the area. Saving souls was big business at the time of American expansion.
I will say no more, but to recommend getting your hands on a copy of Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold and Murder on the Erie Canal, by Jack Kelly. I will leave the murder part and some of the other more interesting characters up to you to discover. His writing makes the book a fast, interesting read, and if you didn’t already recognize so many of the people by name, you’d wonder if some of the characters are fiction. Heavens Ditch is the best book I have read about what life was like along the Erie Canal in the 1800s.