American Consequences - June 2019

New York State through the only gap in the Appalachians between Maine and Alabama, was the unique place to construct it. The Erie Canal was the one canal in the U.S. that ever made a profit. Canals are ridiculously expensive to build – requiring impermeable channels, locks to navigate changes in elevation (the Erie had 88), and systems of dams and reservoirs to maintain water levels. The Erie Canal cost $180 million in 2019 dollars – although the inflation calculator doesn’t do that number justice. In the 1820s, laborers were paid $0.80 a day (plus a whiskey ration). And canals are a ridiculous mode of transportation, as a trip to Venice shows. Imagine America crisscrossed by singing gondoliers. But before the Erie Canal had even opened, Benjamin Stickney, an early Toledo area land speculator who had survived the Panic of 1819, was writing effusive letters about canal projects to New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton, foremost promoter of the Erie Canal. Stickney had been a United States Indian agent at Fort Wayne during the War of 1812. He’d explored the Maumee River to Lake Erie and the Wabash River to its mouth on the Ohio River. He got very excited when he discovered that the headwaters of the two streams were only six miles apart in a prairie marsh approximately where Fort Wayne International Airport is today. (Connect through Chicago for flights on Air Canada.) Stickney was fixated on the idea of a canal linking Toledo to the Ohio River. Gov.

given their trustworthiness, might as well have featured a portrait of Benedict Arnold. Inflation and uncollateralized debt naturally prevailed. In an attempt to quell these, the Second Bank of the United States was chartered in 1816 and initiated a credit contraction, calling in the loans that had been made for federal land purchases. Most Toledo land speculations made what pilots call a “ground loop,” going up into foreclosure and returning, with a crash, to the federal government. The panic lasted until 1821, ending just in time for another speculative bubble in still un-peopled Toledo. CANAL MANIA The Erie Canal is to be blamed. Opening in 1825, the 363-mile waterway linked the Hudson River to the east end of Lake Erie at Buffalo. It was a fabulous success, cutting travel time between New York City and the Great Lakes to a mere 10 days and lowering freight costs by an astonishing 95%. It was also a problematic success... The success looked repeatable. It set off a canal mania in the rest of the country. Ohio alone would dig 557 miles of canals. But the success wasn’t actually repeatable. The Erie was a singularity. Canals other than the Erie were, literally, money pits. The need for a low-cost (if slow) freight route between the growing population of the old Northwest Territory and the Eastern Seaboard was a unique need. And the gradually sloping Mohawk River valley, running the length of

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June 2019

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