1825 One Hundred And Seventy-five Years Ago

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On November 4 the Hudson River steamer Chancellor Livingston , gaily decorated and towing a canalboat named the Seneca Chief , arrived in New York Harbor. The elegantly furnished Washington , filled with New York City dignitaries, hailed the Chancellor Livingston with the traditional inquiry “From whence came ye?”

“An escort from Lake Erie!” was the reply.

“Where bound?”

“To the Atlantic!” And the cheers were deafening, for the brief colloquy showed that after eight years of construction, at the cost of more than seven million dollars, New York State had finally managed to unite the Atlantic seaboard with the continent’s rich interior.

In the 182Os, as had been true for centuries, virtually all long-distance transportation had to take place by water. Railways were still in the future, and roads, where they existed, were bumpy and rutted at best, all too often turning into quagmires of mud. But with a canal, horses could tow boats on an unbroken “road” of unvarying smoothness, allowing freight to travel from Buffalo, on Lake Erie, to New York in half the time and at one-tenth the cost.

The Seneca Chiefs trip from Buffalo had amounted to a 10-day party, with banquets, light displays, bands, fireworks, artillery salutes, and endless speeches at no fewer than 30 towns along the way. After arriving in New York City, Gov. De Witt Clinton, the canal’s doughtiest supporter over the previous ten years, poured a barrel of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic off Sandy Hook to symbolize the “Wedding of the Waters.” Vials of water said to be from the Amazon, Columbia, Danube, Gambia, Ganges, Indus, La Plata, Mississippi, Nile, Orinoco, Rhine, Seine, and Thames were also emptied. Forgetting their quarrel of a decade before, British tars played “Yankee Doodle” and West Point cadets responded with “God Save the King.”

There was a parade, of course, with nearly every church, school, fire company, and social organization in the city represented. Butchers, cobblers, bakers, tanners, and other tradesmen proudly manned floats in their work clothes. As the parade progressed from the Battery to City Hall, coopers assembled barrels, including one labeled “Neptune’s Return to Pan” that would be filled with Atlantic water for the Seneca Chiefs westbound trip; printers produced copies of a ceremonial ode (“The monarch of the briny tide / Whose giant arm encircles earth / To virgin Erie is allied / A bright-eyed nymph of mountain birth”), which were tossed to the crowd of spectators; and many other workers demonstrated their crafts, though not, thankfully, the butchers.

Samuel Latham Mitchill, a distinguished physician and naturalist and a former representative and senator, made a florid speech in which he imagined the spirit of freedom and progress, as embodied in the canal and its waters, evaporating and raining down on the farthest corners of the earth. Through this agency, “at length even the sable and savage tribes dwelling in the tracts bordering on Senegal, the Gambia, and the Congo, shall lay aside their ferocity and enjoy, as we ourselves do, Liberty, under the guidance of the Law.” In fact, since slavery was still legal in New York, the Africans might well have declined the offer.

The Erie Canal’s heyday was brief, for beginning in the 183Os, railroads took an increasing portion of its business. Yet its role in connecting East and West did not end when its freight traffic began to drop. For decades after its opening, virtually every big canal, bridge, road, and railway project in the country was overseen by an Erie Canal veteran or somebody who had trained with one. In this way, the Erie Canal, along with the military academy at West Point, established the profession of civil engineering in America.