The Erie Canal opened on this date in 1825 with New York governor DeWitt Clinton of New York pouring a keg of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic Ocean. Originally the canal ran about 363 miles (584 km) from Albany, on the Hudson River, to Buffalo, at Lake Erie. It was built to create a navigable water route from New York City and the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes.
The men who planned and oversaw construction were novices as surveyors and as engineers. James Geddes and Benjamin Wright, who laid out the route, were judges whose experience in surveying was in settling boundary disputes. Geddes had only used a surveying instrument for a few hours before his work on the Canal. Canvass White was a 27-year-old amateur engineer who persuaded New York Governor DeWitt Clinton to let him go to Britain at his own expense to study the canal system there. Nathan Roberts was a mathematics teacher and land speculator. Somehow these amateurs built a massive canal that overcame enormous obstacles of engineering, learning as they went.
Construction began July 4, 1817, at Rome, New York. The first 15 miles (24 km), from Rome to Utica, opened in 1819. At that rate the canal would have taken 30 years to complete. The main hold-ups were felling trees to clear a path through virgin forest and moving excavated soil, which took longer than expected, but the builders devised ways to solve these problems. To fell a tree, they threw rope over the top branches and winched it down. Soil to be moved was shoveled into large wheelbarrows that were dumped into mule-pulled carts. Using a scraper and a plow, a three-man team with oxen, horses, and mules could clear a mile in a year.
The remaining problem was finding labor, and increased immigration helped fill the need. Many of the laborers working on the canal were Scots Irish, who had recently arrived in the United States as a group of about 5,000 from Northern Ireland, most of whom were Protestants who had enough money to pay for their own transportation. However, Irish immigrants were usually assumed to be Catholic, and many laborers on the canal suffered violent assault as the result of misjudgment and xenophobia.
Construction continued at an increased rate as new workers arrived. When the canal reached Montezuma Marsh (at the outlet of Cayuga Lake west of Syracuse), it was rumored over 1,000 workers died of “swamp fever” (malaria), and construction was temporarily stopped. However, recent research has revealed the death toll was likely much lower, as no contemporary reports mention significant worker mortality, and mass graves from the period have never been found in the area. Work continued on the downhill side towards the Hudson, and when the marsh froze in winter, the crews worked to complete the section across the swamps.
The middle section from Utica to Salina (Syracuse) was completed in 1820, and traffic on that section started up immediately. Expansion to the east and west proceeded, and the whole eastern section, 250 miles (400 km) from Brockport to Albany, opened on September 10, 1823 to great fanfare. The Champlain Canal, a separate but interconnected 64-mile (103 km) north-south route from Watervliet on the Hudson to Lake Champlain, opened on the same date.
After Montezuma Marsh, the next difficulties were crossing Irondequoit Creek and the Genesee River near Rochester. The first ultimately required building the 1,320-foot (400 m) long “Great Embankment” which carried the canal at a height of 76 feet (23 m) above the level of the creek, which was carried through a 245-foot (75 m) culvert underneath. The river was crossed on a stone aqueduct 802 feet (244 m) long and 17 feet (5.2 m) wide, with 11 arches.
After the Genesee, the next obstacle was crossing the Niagara Escarpment, an 80-foot (24 m) wall of hard dolomitic limestone, to rise to the level of Lake Erie. The route followed the channel of a creek that had cut a ravine steeply down the escarpment, with two sets of five locks in a series, soon giving rise to the community of Lockport. The 12-foot (3.7 m) lift-locks had a total lift of 60 feet (18 m), exiting into a deeply cut channel. The final leg had to be cut 30 feet (9.1 m) through another limestone layer, the Onondaga ridge. Much of that section was blasted with black powder, and the inexperience of the crews often led to accidents, and sometimes rocks falling on nearby homes.
The Erie Canal had a huge economic and cultural impact from the outset. It greatly lowered the cost of shipping between the Midwest and the Northeast, bringing much lower food costs to Eastern cities and allowing the East to ship machinery and manufactured goods economically to the Midwest. The canal also made an immense contribution to the wealth and importance of New York City, Buffalo, and New York State. Its impact went much further, increasing trade throughout the nation by opening eastern and overseas markets to Midwestern farm products and by enabling migration to the West.
The Erie Canal was an immediate financial success. Tolls collected on freight had already exceeded the state’s construction debt in its first year of official operation. By 1828, import duties collected at the New York Customs House supported federal government operations and provided funds for all the expenses in Washington except the interest on the national debt. Additionally, New York state’s initial loan for the original canal had been paid by 1837. Although it had been envisioned as primarily a commercial channel for freight boats, passengers also traveled on the canal’s packet boats. In 1825 more than forty thousand passengers took advantage of the convenience and beauty of canal travel. The canal’s steady flow of tourists, business people, and settlers lent it to uses never imagined by its initial sponsors. Evangelical preachers made their circuits of the upstate region and the canal served as the last leg of the underground railroad ferrying runaway slaves to Buffalo near the Canada–US border. Aspiring merchants found that tourists proved to double as reliable customers. Vendors moved from boat to boat peddling items such as books, watches, and fruit while less scrupulous operators sold patent medicines or passed off counterfeit money. Tourists were carried along the “northern tour,” which ultimately led to Niagara Falls, just north of Buffalo, becoming a popular honeymoon destination. In fact, my wife and I spent our honeymoon there in 1986.
Two villages competed to be the terminus: Black Rock, on the Niagara River, and Buffalo, at the eastern tip of Lake Erie. Buffalo expended great energy to widen and deepen Buffalo Creek to make it navigable and to create a harbor at its mouth. Buffalo won over Black Rock, and grew into a large city, eventually encompassing its former competitor.
Since Buffalo is the terminus of the Erie, Buffalo wings have to be the celebratory dish – the first dish my wife and I had on our honeymoon. At the time we had never heard of them because they were not anywhere near as popular or as widespread as they are now. There are several different claims about how Buffalo wings were invented. One of the more prevalent claims is that Buffalo wings were first prepared at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo by Teressa Bellissimo, who owned the bar with husband Frank. Several versions of the story have been circulated by the Bellissimo family and others:
- Upon the unannounced, late-night arrival of their son, Dominic, with several of his friends from college, Teressa needed a fast and easy snack to present to her guests. It was then that she came up with the idea of deep frying chicken wings (normally thrown away or reserved for stock) and tossing them in cayenne hot sauce.
- Dominic Bellissimo told The New Yorker food writer, Calvin Trillin, in 1980, “It was Friday night in the bar and since people were buying a lot of drinks he wanted to do something nice for them at midnight when the mostly Catholic patrons would be able to eat meat again.” He said that it was his mother, Teressa, who came up with the idea of chicken wings.
Cayenne pepper, hot sauce, and melted butter are the basis of the sauce, which may be mild, medium, or hot. Typically, the wings are deep-fried in oil (although they are sometimes grilled or baked) until they are well browned. They are then drained, mixed with sauce, and shaken to coat the wings, completely covering them in the sauce. To cover the wings completely you should place the cooked wings and sauce in a lidded contained, close it up and shake vigorously until the wings are coated on all sides. Originally Buffalo wings were served with celery sticks and blue cheese dressing. This may seem like a strange combination, but the first time I had it I was a convert. Who knows what the actual story of the origin of Buffalo wings is, but putting together chicken wings, hot sauce, celery, and blue cheese sure seems like a last minute emergency dish made late at night from what odds and ends happen to be around. It’s a winner in my book.