Okay, this is a little out of my wheelhouse (pun intended) but we are actively making preparations to conduct a brewing demo at the Herkimer Home State Historic Site in Little Falls, NY on November 5 which abuts the Erie Canal so the topic is at the forefront of my attention. Canals played a major part in commerce in the history of the early United States as they opened the western territories to settlement and trade. But our story WILL begin in the years leading up to the Revolution with efforts of George Washington to promote travel to western Virginia.
During his lifetime Washington devoted much time and energy to the project of building a canal along the Potomac River. Washington’s interest in the canal began when Lord Fairfax of Virginia hired him to survey Fairfax’s western lands. This job took the young Washington along the Potomac into the Ohio Valley, and as he walked through the wilderness, he realized that the river provided the most direct route from the tidewater to the Ohio Valley. Washington saw in the fertile Ohio Valley the potential for western expansion, farming, and development but also that the greatest obstacle to development was poor internal travel.
In 1774, Washington introduced a bill into Virginia’s House of Burgesses to build canals around the Potomac’s five worst obstacles. A boat would be poled down the river and would detour around each obstacle by using the skirting canals and locks. Maryland, which shared jurisdiction over the river, rejected the plan. In 1784, just after the Revolutionary War, Washington resumed his efforts to promote the canal and eventually the Potowmack Canal Company was created in 1785 and Washington was chosen as its first president.
Fast forward to 1780’s when the new nation was consolidating its territory and needed a reasonable and cost-effective path to the Northwest Territories. Gouverneur Morris and Elkanah Watson proposed a canal along the Mohawk River. Their efforts led to the creation of the “Western and Northern Inland Lock Navigation Companies” in 1792, which took the first steps to improve navigation on the Mohawk and construct a canal between the Mohawk and Lake Ontario. The proposal drew attention and some action but was never implemented.
By 1817, however, the need for a reasonable passage to Lake Ontario was pressing (note: Niagara Falls is a landmark obstacle to passage up the St Lawrence as is the fact that the river runs through British territory). Governor DeWitt Clinton proposed a canal to connect the Hudson River to Lake Erie. Dubbed “Clinton’s Folly” or “Clinton’s Big Ditch” the original idea was met with derision but it did have big name supporters including Gideon Granger, Stephen Van Rensselaer, and Gouverneur Morris who helped to ensure that construction began on July 4, 1817.
Opened October 26, 1825, the Erie Canal was an engineering marvel of the day at four feet deep, 40 feet wide, and 363 miles long. It was a major transportation line for all sorts of products like timber, agricultural goods, merchandise, manufactured goods, etc. By 1845 over one million tons of cargo transited the Erie Canal and by 1880 the number had grown to four million.
Eventually the Erie Canal’s utility will be eclipsed by the railroads but it was still in use as late as 1918 and some parts of the Canal are still in use, most of the activity comes from tourists and other recreational users.
When you come to Herkimer (I expect all of you 😊), take a few minutes to remnants of an Erie Canal lock that is on site, and enjoy scenic views of the Mohawk River. Perhaps with a nice mug of Spruce Ale in your hand.