Building the Erie Canal

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  Article taken from "Backsights" Magazine published by Surveyors Historical Society


by Mary M. Root

In 1816, the people of New York City were worried about their economy.  Baltimore and Philadelphia were reaping the gains of the westward expansion.  Their accessibility to the Mississippi-Ohio river system via turnpike was the gateway to western settlement.  This was crucial.  It was estimated that four horses could pull one ton 12 miles a day over an ordinary road and 18 miles over a good turnpike, but they could haul 100 tons 24 miles by water in the same period.  Speed and economy appealed to the settlers faced with moving their families and possessions vast distances.  New Yorkers mulled the problem over and 1817 approved the building of the Erie Canal from Albany to Buffalo.

The Erie project raised the standards of canal-building, and was thus nicknamed the "Erie School of Engineers".  Many of the tools and methods they used were devised as the work progressed.  The men responsible for the design, layout and execution of the canal were amateurs.  Judge Benjamin Wright was appointed chief engineer and James Geddes; a lawyer who had made a preliminary survey of the canal's route, was named assistant chief.  They drew about them a number of very talented young people, among whom were John Sullivan, John Jervis, Frederick Mills, Nathan Roberts and Canvass White.  This group went on to become the foremost canal-builders of the day.  When they signed on, they knew how to survey with the compass, level, and chain, but were in no sense engineers.  Profiting by experience, in a few years they were recognized as the country's foremost hydraulic engineers.

eriecanal.JPG (44068 bytes)Wright and his assistants completed the survey of the Erie's route in the spring of 1817 and established the official length at 363 miles; the descent from Lake Erie was measured at 555 feet.  Two-way traffic was to be achieved by installing eighty-three locks; twenty-seven of them in the first fifteen miles between Albany and Schenectady around the Cohoes Falls.  The work was to be done using horses, mules, wagons, wheelbarrows, hand tools, and thousands of Irish laborers.

Ingenuity also played its part.  They invented the stump-puller, an ingenious device that enabled six men and a team of horses to pull and remove thirty to forty stumps in a day.  Another timesaver they devised made it possible for one man to fell a tree by attaching a cable to the top and winding it up on an endless screw.  Instead of wearing out a team bucking brush, they made the going easy by adding a horizontal cutting bar to the plowshare.  Work proceeded faster than ever.

Canvass White had been sent to England to study their canals and locks.  When he returned, he brought with him new instruments, a sheaf of carefully rendered drawings, and a better knowledge of canal construction - especially locks - than any other man in America possessed.  Armed with this knowledge, the surveyors/engineers were able to design and build locks, dams and bridges that were widely copied on subsequent projects.

The work was completed in 1825.  Cannons had been placed every ten miles along the route.  To signal the opening, they were fired in succession, taking eighty minutes to traverse the route from Albany to New York City.  Soon they would have even greater cause to celebrate:  the canal paid for itself within two years, and brought prosperity to every town along its path.  As a tribute to Wright and his assistants it was written:  "They have built the longest canal in the world in the least time, with the least experience, for the least money, and the greatest public benefit".



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