National Geographic : 1990 Nov
By JOEL L. SWERDLOW Photographs by BOB SACHA Living Link to Our Past HOMAS JEFFERSON, who envi sioned an America stretching to the Pacific, said the Erie Canal was impossible. It would have to cover more than 350 miles and raise and lower boats nearly 600 feet. The whole idea, furthermore, seemed silly. Canals connect something with some thing. The proposed Erie would connect New York City with wilderness. The young state of Ohio and the territories of Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana held only scattered settlements fighting Indian wars. But under New York Governor De Witt Clinton - whose engineers spent years study ing British canals-the Erie became what is still the most ambitious state-funded project in American history. Construction began in 1817 and was completed in 1825. Soon thereafter the cost of shipping grain from Lake Erie to the Atlantic dropped from $100 to $10 a ton. The Erie is part of the "winning of the West" mythology Americans learn in school. After the image of a mule-drawn canalboat, however, the Erie drops off our radar screens. No canal school of painting rivals the Hudson River school, even though the Erie is often as beautiful. Our major writers, furthermore, consistently denigrate the Erie. James Feni more Cooper called it "artificial," and Her man Melville said it fostered "corrupt and often lawless life." But I've loved the Erie since the late 1950s, when I was a teenager growing up in the central New York city of Syracuse, known in the canal's heyday as the Venice of the West. Today the Erie Canal is a living link to our past. Historically it has had two stages, each defined by the barges' source of power. First Stubborn throwback to the canal'smule-power era is led off the towpath in Medina, New York, by driverMike Waild. In 1825 the 363-mile Albany-to-Buffalo waterway opened America's West to commerce. Later mechanized and partly rerouted,then neglected, it has now been renewedfor recreation.