How New York became a commercial power house

New York City

Clinton’s Ditch – It’s a Little Short of Madness ‘Thomas Jefferson.’

In the years following the War of Independence the United States of America began to encourage immigrants from all over the world to travel west and to help populate, and build, the New World. And many more arrived as they had no other choices.

As the Napoleonic Wars raged all over Europe, political and religious refugees poured into the ports of the former British colony and began the migration to the west where they had been promised land, freedom and unlimited opportunity. From the East Coast ports settlers pushed west and set up farms and homesteads deeper and deeper into the continent.

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Within only a few decades settlers had moved so far into the interior that they began to find themselves isolated and out of range. Farmers and fur traders found it could take weeks for their produce to reach the big cities by ox cart. As early as 1785 the President, George Washington, had been looking for ways to use the Potomac River as a navigable link with the west.

To the north there were several proposals for ways to link the port of New York to the Great Lakes including a proposal for building a canal from Lake Ontario to the Hudson River. But nobody, it seemed, could justify a need for one, let alone invest in such a project. Jesse Hawley, a flour merchant from Geneva, New York State, had been struggling to move his produce along the dusty cart tracks that made up the commercial trading routes of the day and in 1807 he found himself bankrupted and in the debtors prison where he would languish for nearly two years.

Whilst there Hawley began writing essays, using the pen name of ‘Hercules,’ extolling the virtues of a man-made canal network that would connect Lake Eire to the Hudson River and subsequently New York City. Eventually Hawley’s articles began to appear in the Genesee Messenger providing detailed and eloquent argument as to why such a project would be of huge value to both the State of New York and the nation at large. Although Hawley’s ideas proved credible to some, they were dismissed as the ‘ramblings of a madman’ by most. And it is easy to see why.

In 1807, with the new nation still under thirty years old and paying the price of independence (in commercial terms) a small town flour merchant was proposing that the wealthy citizens of New York City pay for a one hundred and forty kilometre man made canal simply to connect a handful of rural communities with the big city. And that was only the beginning.

The complete project would cover five hundred and eighty kilometres and require cuttings through solid rock, building viaducts over valleys and existing rivers and installing more than fifty locks to cope with the two hundred meter difference between sea level and Lake Erie. The President, Thomas Jefferson, rejected the plan as ‘a little short of madness,’ although New York Governor Dewitt Clinton, who himself had ambitions of becoming President, had other ideas.

Despite much opposition, ridicule and even threats Clinton managed to persuade the Senate to approve the project and provide a budget of seven million dollars, an astronomical sum in 1807. The newspapers immediately dismissed the idea and dubbed the project ‘Clinton’s Big Ditch, or Clinton’s Folly.’ In other words, it was a complete waste of money and a pure indulgence of the Governor alone. The citizens of New York were furious.

Despite such opposition, and the fact that there was not a single qualified civil engineer even living in America at the time, work began, on July 4 1817, on the largest construction project the western world had embarked upon in over four thousand years. One young amateur by the name of Canvass White had persuaded Clinton to allow him to travel to Britain and study the Canal Network.

He returned with enough understanding of locks and viaducts to be of great value to the overall project. Against the tide of public opinion Dewitt Clinton saw the canal as the key to making New York the most important city in America by linking the Atlantic Ocean to both the interior and the Great Lakes. It was vision that would soon turn the whole region into the economic powerhouse of America.

The Erie Canal was completed in less than eight years by fifty thousand labourers using nothing but pick, shovel and minor explosives. Most of them were Irish or Chinese immigrants earning more than five times the money they could expect back home. But it was hazardous work and over one thousand would lose their lives in the process.

Although the canal was opened for trade as each section was completed, the formal opening of the entire project, with great ceremony, was held on October 26 1825. It was a miracle of engineering and was an instant economic success. $15millon worth of goods were transported along its route during the first year alone, the equivalent of nearly $300 million in today’s money.

And it all moved along twenty times faster than it had taken by ox-cart and dirt road. Food prices for the cities crashed by 95%. Major towns and new cities sprang up along the way in the shape of Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo. The frontier people, that had become used to being self-sufficient, were now able to buy anything they wanted, from anywhere in the world and New York City, as Dewitt had predicted, became a boom town.

Wall Street was established as the financial centre of the western world and the city immediately became the nation’s number one port. So much money flowed through New York, as a result of the canal, that the word ‘Millionaire’ was invented in 1840, only fifteen years after it had first been opened.

Jesse Hawley’s fortunes also changed and in 1820 he became a member of New York’s State Assembly and although Dewitt Clinton never realised his ambition of becoming President, as he died suddenly in 1828. But he did live long enough to see the tide of public opinion swing firmly in his favour. Despite previous criticism and ridicule, as soon as the canal had been completed the New York newspapers were celebrating his achievements.

This, of course, may have had something to do with their new, and massively increased, circulations. Dewitt Clinton would possibly have finally felt appreciated by his beloved city when the New Hampshire Sentinel published an article which read;

‘The efforts of Governor Clinton, to advance the best interest of the State over which he presided, are very generally acknowledged both by his constituents and the public abroad. His exertions in favour of the great Canal have identified his name with that noble enterprise, and he will be remembered while its benefits are experienced.’

The piece ended with the words ‘Yield credit to Clinton, and hail him by name.’ A sentiment the great man would surely have appreciated if he had still been alive when it was finally published.

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