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Erie Canal’s builders faced physical, political obstacles

Erie Canal’s builders faced physical, political obstacles

“Bond of Union” offers a complete, drily witty account of the design, financing, construction and op

“Bond of Union” offers a complete, drily witty account of the design, financing, construction and operation of the Erie Canal.

Gerard Koeppel, a former journalist and historian of things New York, is well-suited to revisit the story of the canal. In researching his first book, “Water for Gotham,” about the creation of the New York City water supply, he encountered many of the engineers and politicians who were chosen to provide New York’s water because of their success with the Erie Canal.

‘Bond of Union’

AUTHOR: Gerard Koeppel

PUBLISHER: Da Capo Press, 454 pages, ISBN 978-0-306-81827

HOW MUCH: $27.95

Although the canal is an engineering wonder, it is also an inanimate object. To overcome the challenge that such objects cannot speak for themselves, Koeppel lets those connected with the Canal to speak for it. He focuses on eight men who were crucial to the project, the “dreamers, schemers and builders” who “held the keys to the creation” of the Canal — as well as a large supporting cast.

The eight men in Koeppel’s character-driven narrative are: DeWitt Clinton, politician and sponsor of the canal; upstate businessmen and civic leaders Jesse Hawley and Samuel Wilkeson; and engineers Benjamin Wright, James Geddes, Canvass Wright, John Jervis and Nathan Roberts.

The general reader may find this approach does not work in places where lots of political or engineering details are present. For example, the reader may be overwhelmed by the many details about national, state and local politics and politicians.

The character-based format works well otherwise; its effectiveness is enhanced by Koeppel’s witty, jaunty writing voice. I particularly liked the manner in which he develops Gouvernour Morris, one of the nation’s Founding Fathers and a member of the first Canal Board. Koeppel explains Morris’ importance in bringing support to the project but also discusses his lively romantic life, which makes him more of a real person.

Remarkable success

Among books about the Erie Canal, Koeppel’s is noteworthy for showing how astonishing it was that the project was started and succeeded. It was among the first canals built in the United States. One built by the Western Inland Company in segments between Rome, New York and the Capital Region, and another built in Massachusetts, were less well-organized or smaller, than the 363-mile Erie.

To build the Erie Canal required the invention of capital project financing, an engineering organization in a society where the profession of engineering did not yet exist, a way to hire contractors to do the work and tools for undertaking large scale public works in a region that was mostly wilderness.

To help the reader understand how astounding the canal was, Koeppel vividly describes the challenges and perils of frontier life in general, making a living there and travel in the early 19th century.

In addition to the difficult design and construction tasks, Clinton and the canal’s supporters had to keep the project moving forward in the face of well-organized, unrelenting political opponents.

A new insight that I gained was how the Erie Canal was not just a New York issue but a national one. New Yorkers wanted federal aid to build it. However, Virginia politicians opposed such aid; a successful New York canal would undermine their influence in the new national government. Thomas Jefferson liked the idea of canals but dismissed the planned Erie Canal as “little short of madness.”

In 1817, Congress passed legislation to help fund the canal and other projects but President James Madison vetoed it. That New York’s political system could find the means to pull off a project that the contemporary national government could not or would not is nothing short of miraculous.

Clinton and his colleagues, Koeppel eloquently shows, were fighting the equivalent of a multi-front war: They cared for workers sickened by malaria in central New York at one moment, then were off to maneuver in the state capital the next.

Capital Region

There are many good details about work on the canal in the Capital Region. Koeppel describes the challenges of building large aqueducts across the Mohawk and its tributaries. He shows how the canal was a cause of Schenectady’s loss of growth. It diminished Schenectady, he asserts, because it curtailed the Mohawk River shipping that was an economic cornerstone for the city in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

In researching “Bond of Union,” Koeppel consulted many local scholars and research institutions. He acknowledges Phil Lord, a canal expert and Charles Gehring and Bill Starna, scholars specializing in the Mohawk Valley, American Indians and the Dutch experience in New York. He researched in the State Library, State Archives and Adirondack Museum.

The last book I read about the Erie Canal was “The Artificial River,” by Carol Sheriff; I missed Peter Bernstein’s more recent effort, “The Wedding of the Waters.” I am not sure how much overlap there is between Koeppel and Bernstein’s books but Koeppel and Sheriff approach their subject differently enough that you could read both and not feel overfed on canal history.

Koeppel ends with a short, smoothly flowing chapter about what happened to the major characters and what happened to the canal once it was constructed. It was such an influence on New York that, when Governor George Pataki submitted concepts for the New York state quarter to the U.S. Mint, an illustration of a canal boat and mule was one of the more favored designs. The Mint said the design was too complicated to depict on the small area of a quarter. However, Koeppel reports, the canal and the Hudson River made it to the back of a redesigned quarter, along with the Statue of Liberty.

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