Many claiming they have no interest in history are attentive to the sixth-century A.D. predictions of Nostradamus and the fifth-century B.C. Mayan prophecies. If the treasury received $5 every time the media mentioned one of these historic fantasies, our national financial crisis would be resolved.
The Erie Canal
In a time when civilization sometimes feels like a dangerous gamble, it makes sense to remember and celebrate historic successes like the Erie Canal that exemplify our capacity to improve human circumstances. Civilization’s success stories are less dramatic than Nostradamus’s cataclysms, but they have the advantage of being based on facts.
In 1800, the biggest obstacle to national development was the Appalachian mountain range, which made it impossible to move bulk freight such as corn and wheat from the heartland to the East Coast. Mountain roads were rough, long and scarce. The Mohawk River Valley, a channel between the Catskills and the Adirondacks, was the only natural passage through the Appalachians from Alabama to the St. Lawrence River. The Erie Canal was routed through it.
The project’s cost was unprecedented. Private developers tried to build the canal and went bankrupt. A delegation of New Yorkers appealed to President Thomas Jefferson for federal support. Jefferson called the project “a little short of madness” and “said to come back in 100 years because the project would bankrupt the nation let alone the state,” according to Wikipedia.
New York Governor De Witt Clinton took up the cause; he was mocked. But in 1817 Clinton persuaded the New York Legislature to appropriate $7 million.
The canal became one of the most incredible success stories in American history when it opened eight years later. Freight expectations were exceeded immediately. The canal provided a navigable connection between the upper Midwest and Western Europe via New York City, which became America’s leading city, surpassing other Atlantic coast ports including Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
The canal opened large areas of the American frontier to settlement and economic development and drastically cut transport costs. New York is called the Empire State primarily because of this unique connection through the Great Lakes to the Midwestern heartland.
What lessons can we derive from this story?
– Keep national and state government strong. There’s so much anti-government talk these days, it’s easy to forget that both the Erie Canal and the U.S. Constitution were incredibly successful government projects.
– Take advantage of ideas and developments from every nation. The Erie Canal project was inspired by a successful canal project in Britain and was completed using technology developed by the Dutch. Most of the workers were German-Irish and Scotch-Irish immigrants.
Many historic successes came as a complete surprise. Civilization is about identifying and developing natural advantages. There is reason to be hopeful.