Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Erie Canal, Politics, Engineering, Nature, Spirit, and America

    The contrast between the divisive behavior of the politicians and the extraordinary achievements of the engineers is the most remarkable feature of the whole story of the Erie Canal. While De Witt Clinton and his opponents were knee-deep in political battles, construction on the canal moved merrily along. It was as though Albany had no reasonto exist except as a city that happened to be located at the junction between the canal and the Hudson.

    America had no trained civil engineers when construction began. No one could have predicted how men with such little experience could overcome the succession of obstacles lying in their path, especially as they had no canal of comparable size and complexity as a model to guide them. They were going to confront broad rivers, chasms, fissures, precipitous cliffs and thunderous waterfalls, deep and narrow valleys, squishy sandstone on which to base great piers and supports, and through it all the dense wilderness, generously populated by wild beasts and barely populated with human beings.

    Perhaps the philosophical motivation embedded in the entire project drove the engineers to high success. Here nature was less an enemy to be subdued than a than a gift from God to be joined in the larger struggle of building a great nation. The wilderness, the waterfalls, the deep valleys were proof of the country's grandeur, which the canal would neither destroy nor remodel. As the engineers perceived it, the canal would only enhance the splendor and dignity of God's gift.

    A visit to the canal today is a spiritual experience, even though much of the old canal is in ruins or has disappeared. The marvelous blend of engineering and respect for nature along the route could have been achieved only with rare imagination in the planning and astounding skill in the execution. In an era when technological change was accelerating at an astonishing pace, this beautiful work by amateurs would become one of the wonders of the world in the first half of the nineteenth century.
From Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation.

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