In 1809, when President Thomas Jefferson reviewed New York’s ambitious plans for a 360-mile canal connecting the Hudson River (and therefore New York Harbor) to the Great Lakes, he called it “little. madness ”and refused to authorize federal funding. Less than a decade later, when politically savvy New York Governor DeWitt Clinton pushed the controversial canal plan through the state legislature, opponents called the project “DeWitt’s Ditch” and “Clinton’s Folly”.
Yet in 1825, barely eight years after the workers set out, DeWitt boarded a barge called the Chief Seneca and took a victory cruise along the newly opened Erie Canal, an engineering marvel unlike anything America had ever seen. The man-made waterway, designed by untrained engineers, included 83 separate locks, two huge stone and cement aqueducts to ply the Mohawk River, and a nifty final ‘flight’ of interconnected locks to raise boats above the river. 70 foot Niagara Escarpment. .
The Erie Canal was built decades before the invention of dynamite to effectively blow through stubborn rocks, or earthmovers and steam excavators to clean up mud, rock, and rubble. Instead, the densely forested land was cleared and the 40-foot-wide canal was dug and the locks were built by the raw labor of about 50,000 workers, including a large contingent of recently arrived Irish immigrants.
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The ‘Erie School of Engineering’
“The Erie Canal was the first major infrastructure project in American history,” says Derrick Pratt, museum educator at the Erie Canal Museum. But the first challenge for the construction of the Erie Canal was that the United States did not have a single college of engineers or engineers born in the country.
“They tried to hire European engineers, but they were either too busy, too expensive, or didn’t want part of this daring project to cut through what was wild at the time to go from the Hudson River to the Great Lakes, ”says Pratt.
The canal commissioners therefore had no choice but to hire an amateur team of self-taught local engineers including a few inexperienced surveyors and at least one local math teacher. The two chief engineers were Benjamin Wright and James Geddes, lawyers by trade who learned to survey while pursuing land disputes.
Wright sent his assistant, a young man named Canvass White, to spend a year in England learning all he could about locks, the brilliant method first devised by Leonardo Da Vinci of raising and lowering ships in order to adapt to changes in elevation.
Back in America, White helped make a key discovery. The construction of the locks, as well as the aqueducts, required what is known as hydraulic cement, a type of masonry mortar that hardened and remained rigid underwater. But the only hydraulic cement at the time came from Europe and was extremely expensive to ship. After some experimentation, White and a colleague named Andrew Barstow identified a local source of limestone which, when properly pulverized and burned, produced lime that could be used to make hydraulic cement cheaply and in abundance.
The men who rose to engineering positions on the Erie Canal – including some who started the project with an ax in hand to clear trees – became graduates of “Erie School of Engineering.” And lent their hard-earned expertise to the next century. of American expansion and innovation. A true school of engineering, now the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, was founded in 1824 in Troy, New York, just off the Erie Canal.
Who built the Erie Canal?
The land was opened for the Erie Canal on July 4, 1817, just outside of Rome, New York. Work began with the 90-mile mid-section of the canal where there were the fewest natural obstacles like rocky cliffs or swamps. Setting a precedent for future public works projects, canal commissioners contracted out construction work to local landowners, who were responsible for hiring laborers to dig the canal to the engineer’s specifications: a ” slanting-sided water prism 40 feet wide and four feet deep, with towpaths on either side.
At first, the entrepreneurs mainly hired local farmers and farmers who were eager to complete this new waterway and have easy access to the lucrative markets along the canal. Wages were 50 cents to the dollar a day, and the work during those early years was painfully slow. From 1818 to 1819, approximately three thousand men and 700 horses worked each day to dig the section of the Erie Canal from Utica to the Seneca River.
According to an 1820 report from the Canal Commission, three-quarters of these early workers were “born among us.” But those demographics changed quickly as work on the canal moved west to a soggy, mosquito-infested area called the Montezuma Marshes. Unable to convince the farmers of the upstate to get rid of this inhospitable territory, the contractors hired teams of freshly arrived Irish immigrants to New York Harbor. Thousands of Irish workers fell ill or died in the swamps from what was called ‘Genesee fever’, but which was in fact malaria.
Irish immigrant labor gradually overtook local workers and anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment swelled along the canal construction route. Irish workers were often paid in whiskey on top of (or sometimes in place of) their meager salary of $ 12 a month. While brawls and skirmishes with locals were a frequent problem, Irish workers have shown themselves willing to do the dirtiest and most dangerous work, including blasting rocks with unpredictable black powder.
Historian Gerard Koeppel, author of Bond of Union: Building the Erie Canal and the American Empire, quotes the words of a popular Irish work song: “We dig a ditch in the mud, through the mud and the mud and the mud, damn it! And the mud is our main employee; In our pants, our boots , down our necks, damn it! ”
Tools used to build the Erie Canal
Much of the planned route for the Erie Canal passed through densely forested wilderness, and the first teams of workers had nothing more than axes, pickaxes and shovels to chop down countless trees and uproot giant stumps. Over time, the canal’s amateur engineers designed brilliant machines to speed up work considerably.
The first was a cranked tree feller adapted from European models. A cable was tied to the top of a large tree and connected to a “worm” which was rattled and cranked by men, horses or oxen until the tree was torn from the ground, roots and all.
Another device was invented by Nathan Roberts, a local math teacher who went on to become one of the Erie Canal’s most legendary engineers. Some trees were too small to be pulled out with the ratchet and had to be cut, leaving their stubborn stumps. Roberts designed a giant stump puller with 16-foot wheels that could be propelled by a team of oxen to pull 40 stumps a day, compared to just four a day using conventional labor.
Farm tools have been reused and redesigned to help with the monumental task of digging the hundreds of miles of canal. A tool called a “plow and scraper” was pulled through the earth by draft horses to break up small roots and loosen hard clay. Another device called a “slide scraper” worked like a modern day bulldozer or bucket loader, scraping up rubble and dumping it into piles of debris.
But perhaps the simplest and longest lasting innovation was devised by Jeremiah Brainard, a canal entrepreneur who made a small fortune selling his patented Brainard wheelbarrow to workers frustrated with the old-style wheelbarrow in shape. box with vertical sides. Brainard’s design had a rounded basin which made it much easier to empty the contents of the wheelbarrow with a good lift.
The last big hurdle at Lockport
The last section of the Erie Canal posed the biggest challenge of all. The Niagara Escarpment, the same raised rock formation that created Niagara Falls, blocked access to Lake Erie.
“The canal engineers had to figure out how to overcome this 70-foot elevation change,” says Pratt of the Erie Canal Museum. “The middle canal lock could only lift between 10 and 15 feet.”
There was a competition to find the best solution and Nathan Roberts, a former schoolteacher, came up with the winning idea: a “staircase” of five consecutive locks, stacked on top of each other. The “theft” of the locks was so successful that the neighboring town was called Lockport, but the challenge was not over.
To provide enough water to fill these locks, a massive canal had to be dug in solid bedrock to reach Lake Erie. Twelve hundred workers, mostly Irish, detonated seven miles of rocks with dangerous black powder. They also built raging fires to heat the rock, which could then be cracked with a sudden quenching of cold water. Special tower cranes were built to remove the endless piles of rubble, and dozens of workers died or were seriously injured from exploding rocks and falling debris.
Against whiskey by stingy entrepreneurs, the Irish gained a bad reputation at Lockport, which was the scene of a violent riot in 1822 between Protestants in Northern Ireland and Catholics in Southern Ireland. But after the completion of the so-called “deep cut” through the boulder, many Irish workers settled in Lockport and established a proudly Irish outpost in upstate New York.
The Erie Canal, fully completed in 1825, was an immediate triumph, transporting goods, people, and ideas between the East Coast and the border colonies of the Midwest and beyond. In 1834, the canal underwent a major expansion – 70 feet wide and 7 feet deep – to better handle an increase in maritime traffic.