A Nation Divided

A man who would be an American president agonized over a situation which could tear the nation apart.

But it wasn’t Abraham Lincoln, and it didn’t concern slavery.  It wasn’t even a division between north and south.  It was George Washington, worried about the east and the west.  The issue was geography: the wilderness which separated original states from the land beyond the mountains to which its citizens were moving.  Would another country try to take this bountiful land from under our noses?

Washington was concerned that we could lose the area on the western side of the Appalachian Mountains to France or Canada, or both, if a better way across those mountains was not figured out.  According to author Peter L. Bernstein in Wedding of the Waters (2005), pioneers moving west didn’t really have an allegiance to the east; with abundant natural resources, western territories could soon wield power on their own.

Patomack Canal company logo

GW’s solution was simple: build a canal system which would hasten travel between the two areas.  He succeeded in engineering the Patowmack Canal to bypass rapids and waterfalls, and began it in 1785.  The waterway was meant to connect the Potomac River with the mountains, but it went bankrupt after he died.

Image result for Patowmack Canal George Washington

The Great Falls of Virginia.  C&O Canal Trust

Conditions for constructing a canal were somewhat in better in New York than Virginia (even though Thomas Jefferson thought even that would be next to impossible).  The United States bought approximately 1/5 of our current land area from France in 1803 via the Louisiana Purchase.  In 1825, due to Governor DeWitt Clinton’s persistence, creativity, and Irish immigrants’ hard labor, the Erie Canal succeeded in marrying the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes.  It was possible to travel east to west and west to east in a fraction of the time it took on horseback, or rivers, whose depth and other natural obstacles prevented a smooth path between settlements.

Image result for Erie Canal

The Erie Canal.  cbsnews.com

Five miles an hour seems like a snail’s pace, but at that rate of speed provided by the Erie Canal and horses which pulled the packet and freight boats, travel time was significantly reduced.  Passengers and goods could go 363 miles in a comparatively short time.  Citizens settled in new cities and frontiers while farmers sold their surplus crops.  And the United States economy boomed.

Then…the railway system came on the scene.  It copied the same route, with trains giving a much faster option for getting from here to there.  Soon the Atlantic Ocean would be linked by tracks not only with the Great Lakes but with the Pacific Ocean; the Erie Canal, even though expanded, fell into disuse.

It was a vital chapter in our history, though.  It needs to be remembered for both its economic contribution, and the thought that it may have saved a “divided” country.

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The notion that the Erie Canal saved the early union is just one I’ve uncovered studying for my new book.  I’ll be sharing others along the way, and project that I may be ready to publish in another year.  Canals have a loooooooong history, for sure.

Superhighway

http://www.eriecanal.org

George Washington proposed it, but Thomas Jefferson thought the timing was wrong.  He said in a hundred years, maybe.

Was it possible for our new nation to create a superhighway of water across New York State with shovels and picks and wheelbarrows?

When a man named DeWitt Clinton lost the presidential election to James Madison in 1812, he started pushing for the Erie Canal in earnest.  Becoming governor of New York helped quite a bit.  With hand tools and an ingenious tree stump remover, men dug the “big ditch” 350 miles through the wilderness from Albany to Buffalo, connecting the Hudson River to the Great Lakes.  At a cost of $7 million, it was completed in 1825; during the next ten years, tolls paid back the price.

Not only did the Erie Canal move goods to market, but people to the west.  In one of his last letters, Jefferson realized, “This great work will immortalize the present authorities of New York, will bless descendants with wealth and prosperity, and prove to mankind the superior wisdom of  employing the resources of industry in works of improvement rather than destruction.”

Railroads, autos, trucks and airlines have replaced  this transportation wonder of the early Ninetenth Century.  But the Erie Canal jumpstarted the American economy and gave thousands the chance to travel to new places to begin new lives.

Ohio and Indiana followed suit with their own canal system from Toledo to Evansville, after the Erie was built.  However, there was not time to make up the millions that had been borrowed.  The steam locomotive, the “iron horse,” took over.  It is very notable that  the Wabash and Erie Canal holds the distinction of being the second longest in the WORLD, only topped by the Grand Canal of China.

Hmmm.  Might be a good subject for a book.  Do you think?  Let me know…I’m working on the notes now.