Sunday, June 1, 2014

A Lake Erie Canal vignette (Part I)

Just read a nice little anecdote in Archer Butler Hulbert's Historic Highways of America (Vol. 14) The Great American Canals (Volume II, The Erie Canal), pp.44- that ties together some of the ways in which transportation, infrastructure and visionary advancement fit together.

The hero of the anecdote was Gouverneur Morris (Founding Father, representative of the Constitutional Convention for Pennsylvania, Author of the Constitution and signer, etc). He had discussed the idea of mingling the waters of the Great Lakes with the Hudson's in 1777 with then-quartermaster and future Governor of New York Morgan Lewis, as General Schuyler's army was withdrawing from Burgoyne's regiments (pp.43f).

In October of 1795, Gouverneur Morris saw the Caledonia Canal in Scotland and felt inspired, as he recorded in his journal (which Hulbert quotes from Sparky's Life of Gouverneur Morris, p.498f).
... when I see this [i.e. the Caledonia Canal], my mind opens to a view of wealth for the interior of America, which hitherto I had rather conjectured than seen. (p.45)
In the fall of 1803, Gouverneur Morris bumped into General Surveyor Simeon De Witt at in Schenectady, and they ended up spending the evening at the same inn and talking into the night about all sorts of things, including the canal. The event is documented in a letter of De Witt's to William Darby, dated February 25th, 1822 (pp.45f) (which Hulbert quotes from Laws of the State of New York relative to the Canals, Albany (1825), pp.39ff).

I like this scene, the two guys stuck in travel at the same inn, and using the time to exchange ground-breaking ideas with each other about the development of the country, which Morris pursued as improvement with determination

It was from De Witt that James Geddes, who would end up performing the initial survey of the lay of the land for the canal, found out about this meeting in 1804. This event is documented in a letter to William Darby also, dated February 22nd, 1822 (pp.46f), again taken from Laws of the State of New York relative to the Canals, Albany (1825), pp.42ff.

Nothing much happened until December 1806, when President Thomas Jefferson in his state of the Union type address for the Legislative Session of 1807 told Congress to spend any developing surplus on infrastructure improvements and put some canals on the map.
Their patriotism would certainly prefer its continuance, and application to the great purposes of the public education, roads, rivers, canals, and such other objects of public improvement, as it may be thought proper to add to the constitutional enumeration of Federal powers. By these operations, new channels of communication will be opened between the States; the lines of separation will disappear, their interests will be identified, and their union cemented by new and indissoluble ties. (469)
Congress then requested an update on the state of roads and canals from the Secretary of the Treasury in March of 1807, but that report did not reach completion until March 1808.

But the news of the president's speech was enough to get one Jesse Hawley, Esq, a business man, who was then residing in Pennsylvania, to write an essay on an overland connection between Lake Erie and the Hudson under the pseudonym of Hercules (M.Hawley, The Erie Canal, its origin, its success, its necessity, Buffalo Historical Society 1868, p.7; Hulbert, p.47). The first essay appeared in the Commonwealth in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on January 14th, 1807; the essay was reprinted in the Genesee Messenger, in Canandaigua, starting in October 1807, followed by fourteen more essays.

(to be continued)

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