When on vacation, I like to read books set in the places I’m visiting, so this past summer while on a road trip through New York state, I eagerly took the opportunity to read about the Erie Canal. I’m intrigued by canals, their role in history, as marvels of engineering, and visually, as manmade rivers cutting through countryside and industrial landscapes.
Wedding of the Waters fulfilled on all counts, educating me on this fascinating and crucial piece of U.S. history. Author Peter Bernstein extols the important role the Erie Canal played in the the political, social, and economic development of New York state and the westward expanding empire of the United States, as well as bourgeoning cities like Buffalo, fortunate to be included on the route, while other towns, like Black Rock were bypassed and consigned to fade into history.
Construction of the Erie Canal, a monumental (and thought by some a monumentally foolhardy) undertaking, was begun in 1817 and would eventually cover a distance of 363 miles and 565 feet of elevation difference. The canal was officially opened in 1825, celebrated with a grand procession of flatboats traveling from Buffalo to Albany, and then down the Hudson River, where water from Lake Erie was ceremonially poured into New York Harbor. New York City and the Empire State were never the same.
Bernstein gives a thorough and convincing account of the importance of the canal, a vital link between the Great Lakes (and westward expansion) and New York harbor (gateway to the world), so vital to the success of the growing U.S. nation. The story of the Erie Canal is as much a tale of New York politics, an argument over state vs. national interests, the importance of infrastructure to a thriving nation, and the age-old conflict between politicians, doling out patronage and championing pet projects.
Last summer, while traveling the length of western New York, I was thrilled to see portions of the Erie Canal intact and still in use, even if just recreationally. As grand an achievement as the canal was in its day (thousands of 19th-century tourists travelled from far and wide to witness for themselves this modern marvel), it’s humbling to see how narrow the canal appears to us today (even after an expansion of the canal, a massive undertaking that began less than ten years after its official opening.) Busy industrial hubs rose and then faded, following the tide of the canal, which peaked in 1855 and fell off when canal traffic was supplanted by the railroad.
Finally, on a side note, Wedding of the Waters dovetails nicely with my Presidential Reading Project, as Martin Van Buren, a fixture of New York politics prior to his Presidency, was instrumental in getting the necessary legislation passed which allowed for the creation of the canal.