When the idea of the 363 mile long Erie Canal was first proposed to Thomas Jefferson in 1809, he dismissed it claiming that it could not be accomplished. The Erie Canal was the first large-scale canal in the United States, so there were many critics of the idea. The Santee Canal had been completed in 1800, took 8 years to construct, and was a fiscal nightmare. Additionally, the Middlesex Canal was completed in 1803, but did not pay a dividend to investors until 1819. The Middlesex Canal was also built away from water sources, so two-thirds of the canal dried up. Because these two canals had very limited successes, the large scale of the Erie Canal was presumed to be impossible to complete.
When New York State decided to proceed with the Erie Canal project, the state’s board of canal commissioners offered Englishman William Weston several thousand dollars to oversee the construction of the canal. However, Weston declined the offer because of his old age and his desire to remain with his family. As a result, the board appointed four residents of upstate New York to be principle engineers on the canal project. The four men did not have any experience in surveying the levels of the land, so they had to teach themselves how to calculate the levels of the proposed route of the canal. The four had also never seen a canal, so they learned as they went, passing on their knowledge to younger engineers on the canal. By passing on their knowledge, almost every engineer in the first half of the 19th century learned their profession either on the Erie Canal or from an engineer who had worked on the canal. According to historians, the Erie Canal was America’s first school of engineering.
As the construction of the canal began, the workers invented three laborsaving devices:
- The ground being cleared was often covered with thick forest, so the first invention made it possible for one man to fell a tree without a saw or ax. A long cable was secured to the tree about sixty feet above the ground and the other end was tied to a roller on the ground turned by a gear with a crank. The leverage allowed the tree to be felled much easier and faster than other methods.
- The next invention enabled workers to remove the tree stumps left after the trees were felled. The large machine allowed seven men and a pair of horses to pull thirty to forty stumps in a day.
- The third invention was a sharp plow that was able to cut through roots when pulled by a draft animal. This allowed land to be cleared much quicker than previous methods
This website explains the history as well as the engineering aspects of the Erie Canal. There are also pictures showing the construction and operation of the canal.
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