Water Works

In the early 19th century, the Erie Canal helped foster American commerce, and community.

By Wayne Curtis

Buy this book

Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation
By Peter L. Bernstein
W.W. Norton & Co., $24.95

The first cannon sounded in buffalo on the morning of Oct. 26, 1825. Then the next fired within earshot of the first, and the next after that, and on and on, reverberating through highlands and valleys for some 450 miles, from Lake Erie to Manhattan. The last report went off about an hour after the first. Across the breadth of New York State, the cannonade carried a message loud and clear: The Erie Canal was open—all 363 miles and 77 locks of it. East had now joined West.

The building of the Erie Canal remains one of the great mileposts in America's journey from colonial backwater to superpower. The story, told by Peter L. Bernstein in his new book, Wedding of the Waters, isn't unknown, of course, but Bernstein freshens it up by setting it within the larger saga of a young nation striving to find its way. The Erie Canal, Bernstein writes, would "lead to an historic explosion of commerce, ideas and technological change."

That New York and Cleveland and Chicago would be part of the same republic was not always self-evident. Restless Americans spilled across the Appalachians into the western hinterlands after Daniel Boone opened the way with a cart path in 1775. Families moving west brought little allegiance to the old seaboard colonies. Existing trade routes on the rivers and lakes made it easier for them, once settled, to sell what they produced to Spanish traders in New Orleans or British merchants in Montreal rather than to their own countrymen on the eastern coast.

This was a recipe for catastrophic fragmentation. Washington and Jefferson saw it, and so did visionary New York Gov. De Witt Clinton. With Clinton's over-sight and persistence, New York became the gateway to the West, transformed from Any State USA to the Empire State. Philadelphia was the nation's busiest port when the canal first opened. Two decades later New York had overtaken it, and never looked back.

Bernstein—the author of Against the Gods, a history of risk—is an economic consultant. As such, he's enthralled by the intrigue behind the financing of the canal. (The two-second version: "D.C. to New York: Drop Dead!") Others may be less so. Those fascinated by Tonka toys rather than T-bills will wish that he had moved more quickly to describe the remarkable engineering and construction behind the canal. Admittedly, it's easy to get lost in the firsts, longests, and biggests of the canal, but this fact stands out: When it was built, America didn't have a single trained civil engineer. The canal is a monument to ingenuity.

Travelers today tend to view the historic canals—the Erie, the Delaware, the Middlesex, the Chesapeake and Ohio—as odd and inefficient technologies, the eight-track tape of our nation's nascent transportation network. Yet they were marvels when built, and the author is at his best putting the canal into that larger context. The Erie Canal was really the Internet of the era. It stitched together a scattered people and launched the process of converting a collection of former colonies into a country with outsized dreams. Its story is one worth telling again.