Book Review of Wedding of the Waters

Book Review Published in Transportation Journal Summer 2005

Wedding of the Waters, by Peter L. Bernstein.

W.W. Norton and Co, 2005

ISBN 0-393-05233-8

Most readers understand why economics is known as the “dismal science” and few would be drawn to a story about a 19th Century canal. Peter L. Bernstein is an economist who has written a book about the Erie Canal which is both informative and interesting.

Wedding of the Waters examines the genesis, construction, financing, and operation of the waterway which would change the nature of commerce in the United States. Most importantly, the author establishes clear links for today’s policy makers between the Canal project and 21st Century infrastructure issues. Money, politics, and technology are the themes used by Bernstein in telling the story. In fact, by changing names and dates, this could be a contemporary story.

The book is divided into five parts, each consisting of four or five chapters.  Part I, “The Visionaries” traces the background of the canal era. The MidiCanal in France and the Bridgewater in Britain are described as marvels of technology for their time. For example, while Britain was blessed with deep water ports for ocean trade, inland transportation was primitive. The BridgewaterCanal enabled faster, easier transport of coal from the mining regions to Manchester resulting in a 50% drop in the price of the fuel. Part I  also provides a fascinating view of George Washington as shrewd businessman using leadership and surveying skills to promote his beloved Potomac River as the major east-west artery in America. Washington feared that the formidable Appalachian mountain range would disrupt national unity without a good transportation link between the Atlantic seaboard and the then western colonies. The political climate and form of government of the time required that the Potomac project be a private enterprise and it ultimately failed.

Politics and war are the subjects of Part II, “The Action Begins”. A $3 Million surplus in 1804 provided the opportunity for improvements in infrastructure, specifically roads and canals. Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin promoted the idea of improved transportation as an instrument of economic development. He predicted to Congress that increasing the volume of goods able to be traded between the states would result in greater national wealth at a time when the U.S. was just starting to become a nation. Gallatin’s report established early justification for public financing of infrastructure projects, opening the way for the Erie Canal. These chapters provide clear parallels with the U.S. of today. Then, as now, foreign policy intervened to reduce domestic spending. The surplus became a deficit as the military budget increased due to the impending War of 1812.  President Thomas Jefferson appeared indifferent to the Erie Canal project and his political opponents charged him with favoring the Potomac route. East- west unity of the former colonies was deemed critical to the survival of the new nation. Finally, Part II includes a good description of the scope of the Erie Canal project.  The plan was for a 363 mile canal over difficult topography, in a country with no other canals longer than 50 miles, and where civil engineering was not yet a profession. The contrast between bickering politicians and competent engineers is striking.

Part III, “The Creation”, describes the construction of the Erie Canal. Technological advances included workers’ inventions for clearing stumps and moving earth. Waterproof limestone was developed outside of Syracuse and an important new American industry was born. During construction the nation undergoes an economic cycle which compares with the internet boom of the 1990’s, followed by a predictable bust.  The boom and bust cycle would complicate the financing of the Erie Canal requiring New YorkState politicians to take action.   The driving forces of the project were NY politicians DeWitt Clinton and Gouveneur Morris. Their personal stories are woven throughout the book, as is the rivalry between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton.

In Part IV “The Stupendous Path”, the Erie Canal is completed, setting off massive celebrations and worldwide publicity. A trip on the Erie Canal was the ultimate adventure ride in the pre- Disney United States.

The success of the Canal becomes immediately apparent in Part V, “After the Wedding”. Traffic grew to 7000 boats in 1826. Toll revenues were $500,000 which was five times the interest on Canal bonds. The entire debt was paid by 1887, and the greatly reduced freight rates made more goods available to more Americans.  Quality of life issues arose as industrialization took hold in America while greater personal mobility disrupted societal norms traditionally centered on farm and family.  These changes coincided with the 2nd Great Awakening wave of revisionism and evangelism. There was some persecution of Catholic immigrants now coming into areas previously closed to them and led by Canal laborers. Readers may find similarities with today’s post- industrial and increasingly religious America.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Erie Canal transformed New York into the Empire State. By the mid 1800’s telegraph lines had sprung up along the path of the Canal and along railroad lines. The collapsing effect of time and distance on the 19th Century economy was as dramatic as the effect of air freight and the internet is on contemporary commerce.  The Canal helped to change the primary U.S. axis from north-south to east-west. The economic power of cotton- producing slave states gave way to free- labor industrial states. As new mid- west cities developed, farming moved further west and became a profit making enterprise. The goal of uniting the U.S from east to west was achieved.  The 1800’s economic transformation of the U.S. had even further reaching consequences. Drastically reduced costs of transportation from the mid-west to the Port of  New York opened European markets to American grain. Sped by European crop failures and the repeal of British “Corn Laws”, the United States became the granary of the world. The Erie Canal, an ambitious technical and financial undertaking that was conceived to help unite a fragile new nation, eventually led the way to what we know as globalization.

Mitch Kostoulakos, CTL