Tarkov- Engineering the Erie Canal by David Barney

Towards the beginning of the 19th century, the United States had demand for the construction of public works but a lack of domestic engineers to carry out these tasks. Often engineers from Europe had to come to the United States in order to construct public works, such as canals. The construction of the Erie canal would mark a major change in engineering and education in the United States.

Skepticism was prevalent for canals in the United States due to the failures of the previous Santee and Middlesex canals. These canals were constructed slowly, over budget, and lacked quality. Therefore, the idea of constructing a canal 363 miles long was too ambitious.

The oversight of the Erie canal was to be left in the hands of American residents as there was a lack of availability of oversees for engineers. The four men assigned for the task, Benjamin Write, James Geddes, Charles Broadhead, and Nathan S. Roberts, had to learn how to build a canal despite never seeing one. One skill these men did know was surveying. They would each work together to apply their surveying skills to the construction of a canal. As the men who designed the canal had to learn how to construct one on their own, their endeavors have been called the first engineering school in America by several historians.

The engineers of the canal had to solve several issues for the canal to be completed in a timely manner. The eastern part of the canal would be one of the most difficult parts to construct due to more changes in elevation than other sections of the canal. There was also difficulty in building a canal through the wilderness of New York. One way this problem was addressed was by the invention of a new type tree felling device, a stump puller, and a plow that used a sharp plate of iron to cut roots in the path of the canal. Another problem was a steep rise for the canal in the town of Lockport. The town has five locks that raise the canal 60 feet.

The construction of the Erie canal had resulted in a major shift in America. The Midwest now had a link to the eastern states which led to food prices dropping for eastern states and more machinery going to Midwestern states. Also, the Erie canal transformed several parts of New York and the Midwest from a wilderness into inhabited areas. Following the completion and success of the Erie canal, the demand for canals rose. Demand for canals resulted for a larger demand for technical professions in America. Canals have been important for engineering starting in America.

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The second article is about the Morrill Act which was first enacted in 1862. The act led to the donation of public land to be used to construct land-grant universities in every state. The act came as a result of the demand for education and scientific pursuit in the United States. Most colleges were established to teach agricultural and mechanical studies, but most expanded to other areas. While the Erie canal marks the start of engineering studies in America, the Morrill Act would expand education by establishing several mechanical schools, including Virginia Tech.

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10 Replies to “Tarkov- Engineering the Erie Canal by David Barney”

  1. Nice summary on the Erie Canal and the efforts of planning it. Being from upstate NY and living in Syracuse, which wouldn’t have existed without the Canal. I can vouch that the wilderness wasn’t an easy thing to get through, and I’m sure the harsh winter weather made it even worse trying to construct. In downtown Syracuse, there’s the Erie Canal museum, which was actually a Weighlock station that dates to 1850.

  2. David,

    Great job with this blog post. I never knew how influential the Eerie Canal is to the United States. I like how you explain the ambition behind this public work, and how it correlates to its influence.

  3. I really like your summary of Tarkov’s article. I had no idea that engineers from Europe would come to the United States to construct public works; I feel like that isn’t something discussed very often. You said that some of the previous canals didn’t turn out as they were expected, where these canals designed by Europeans as well?

  4. Great summary about the Erie Canal. It also had a great economic impact on New York. According to History.com, “As the gateway to these resource-rich lands, New York soon became the nation’s economic epicenter…” Ever since it opened, New York had a large population boom between 1820 and 1850. But not only New York was impacted, of course. The whole country benefited off of this. To learn more, you can refer to this link. It includes a nice short video: https://www.history.com/topics/landmarks/erie-canal#section_3

  5. It is really mind-boggling to think that the engineers working on the Erie canal had never actually seen a canal, yet were able to successfully construct one! Also, I found the stump puller to be interesting (and I think the name is amusing, very straightforward). I found this quick video of a stump puller like the one used to build the canal. The historian in the video claims the stump puller was the most important invention surrounding the creation of the canal!

  6. Nice summary! The mention of engineers constructing canals is the part of your summary that I found most interesting. Canal building really influenced the development of engineering as a career. The first time that we have heard the term ‘engineer’ in class and applied to society was during canal construction in the 19th century. The importance of engineers is highlighted through your summary.

  7. David,

    I enjoyed your summary, and the tie-in with the Morrill Act, which ultimately lead to the creation of Virginia Tech! I find it so astounding that what was considered a grand engineering feat at the time was completed by self-taught “engineers” and everyday people.

    I attached an article that offers a nice summary of how the Erie canal affected American engineering and the economy, especially in leading to the expansion of engineering education.


  8. David,
    Great job summarizing the article. I personally think it’s very interesting to find that the need for engineers for public creating could have had such a profound effect on the educational systems in America. Reading about the 5 locks and 60 foot elevation change within just peaked my curiosity. I did some research and found that in total, the Erie canal has 36 locks and and elevation difference of around 550 feet.

  9. The impact of the Erie on the Midwest is actually really interesting and I remember hearing about this in my Oklahoma history class I had to take in high school. New York was rapidly growing and needed a large supply of food stuffs. So, lowering the cost of food there made it more desirable to live. However, this canal does not just impact these two regions. The Erie canal connected the bread bowl of the US to the Atlantic, opening new trade connections to Eastern cities and overseas. For example, Great Britain’s repealing of the Corn Law resulted in a huge increase of exports of Midwestern wheat to Britain.

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