The Trials and Successes of the Erie Canal
Part 2: Clinton and His Folly
The man in question was DeWitt Clinton, the governor of New York. The year was 1808. Clinton was a forward thinker, who saw the promise of the canal system and who wanted to get as much as he could for his beloved state of New York.
He was also an experienced politician, someone many of the people of New York State knew, both by name and by reputation. He had served as a state assemblyman, a U.S. Senator, and mayor of New York before becoming governor. He served as the state's chief executive from 1817 to 1823 and from 1825 to 1828, and he had run for U.S. President in 1812, narrowly losing to James Madison.
In Clinton's hands, the Canal would become a reality.
It was not a new idea. As early as 1699, a French engineer had suggested linking Lake Erie and Lake Ontario via canal. And in 1724, a man named Cadwallader Colden (later a lieutenant governor of New York Provice and an enemy of American Independence) proposed the very same idea that Clinton did nearly 80 years later: dig a canal from Lake Erie to the Hudson River. The technology wasn't quite there in 1724, though, and the idea faded.
As steam enging technology emerged, however, the idea of the Erie Canal came to the forefront again, this time in a letter from steamboat expert Robert Fulton to President George Washington. The very next year, 1798, the Niagara Canal Company appeared, with the express goal of building a canal between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.
Ten years later, it was Gov. Clinton who made the famous announcement of what many people had foreseen for years: the creation of a large waterway linking the Midwest and Europe. (He didn't exactly intend it to be that, but that's what it eventually became.)
His patience would be seriously tried, as funding and desire for the project both waned. The War of 1812 also intervened. The northeastern U.S. was certainly a battleground during this war, and so any construction on a canal in New York would have to wait. Building finally began, on July 4, 1817.
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