Engineering a massive canal poses quite the task, even for todays standards. Imagine trying to engineer and build a massive canal in the early eighteenth century. Now that seems like completely impossible. The technology in massive machinery simply did not exist such as there is today. The massive earth movers and shovel trucks that exist today were hand shovels, pick axes, and wheel barrels in the early 1800’s. But what’s the point of having any technology that can move massive amounts of earth in a single swipe if the operators don’t know where to place the machines and how deep to dig? The engineering feat for a canal is truly mind blowing. Especially for Americans that have been taught how to farm and lay fence lines, or at most know how to survey the country side to set property lines when in legal battles. There was no University of North Texas engineering department to teach young adults how to engineer a massive canal. In the article Engineering the Erie Canal written by John Tarkov, he shows how American ingenuity and hard work can take these ordinary people turn into world class canal engineers.
America was in need of a canal linking Lake Erie to the Hudson River to help grow local economies and convert the old school subsidence way of life into the new age industrialist way of life. The need was there, the land was there, and the funding was there. Only one problem, there wasn’t an engineer willing to help big the canal. Previous canals that were built in America simply fell apart after a few years of use due to poor engineering. An Englishman by the name of William Weston worked as a consulting engineer on the Middlesex canal which linked the Merrimack River with the Charles River. The Middlesex canal proved to be a good design but failed to turn a profit and let down its shareholders. Weston was asked to help build the Erie Canal, which dwarfed the 27-mile-long Middlesex, as the Erie was estimated to be 363 miles long. Weston turned down an offer of seven thousand dollars from the New York Board of Canal Commissioner, stating he was past his age to handle such a task and wished to stay at home with his family. This is where the American spirit of hard work and dedication proves to be one of the most powerful things known to man. Four residents of upstate New York were given the task of building the canal. Benjamin Wright, James Geddes, Charles Broadhead, and Nathan S. Roberts took on the task as principle engineers of the Erie Canal. Three of the men where local judges, and only knew how to survey land when they dealt with during property cases. Through trial and error, asking questions, and listening to suggestions despite ranking; they were able to learn how to do the job correctly and were able to finish the massive canal.
At first the technology did not exist to build a canal that is 363 miles long, forty feet wide, and forty feet deep. The terrain the canal would be cut through was mainly very dense forest, with only a small strip that would need to be blasted from a mountain. The trees posed as a huge problem for the builders. They were hundreds of feet tall and very thick in diameter. Normally a small crew would use saws to cut trees of this size down, but that would take a very long time and really slow down the building process. The engineers teamed up with some local mechanics to invent a new device to make tree trunk removal much quicker and easier. First, a man would climb 60 foot up into the tree and attach a cable that would be ran down to a giant roller that was turned by a crank. As a single worker turned the crank, the leverage of the cable being raised so high up would exert a massive amount of force on the tree, causing it to break off near the stump and come falling to the ground. Now with the main part of the tree down, the tree stump still had to be cut out of the ground. An apparatus that consisted of a pair of sixteen-foot-tall wheels and an axle nearly two feet in diameter with a smaller wheel in the middle that had massive spikes mounted in it would be pulled by a cable and spin to essentially shred the remaining tree stumps from existence. Between these two new inventions, clearing the forest was made into a much easier task.
In order to cut into the ground to begin trenching the canal, another new piece of technology was invented. A massive plow with a sharp iron blade would be pulled by draft animals to cut through the earth and help start the digging process. Along with the new invention; standard plowing, scraping, spades, and wheelbarrows where used to remove earth from the new canal site.
The construction of this canal proved to be a huge impact on the northeast’s economy. The waterway from New York to the Great Lakes opened new markets and industries in the region. The Great Lakes region was primarily subsidiary farming due to the remote nature of the land, but as this new shipping lane formed, many factories where built and the economy boomed.
The construction of the Erie Canal was a huge turning point in the history of American engineering. From proving Americans work ethics, to being essentially the first engineering institution in America, the first American born engineers were produced. Being an engineering student at UNT, this reading was very important to me because it shows where American engineering started. On the ground floor of a massive task that made America a better place. This country is still the best one in the world, and it all started from hard working men like the normal men who taught themselves to become engineers and build the impossible. Referenced from John Tarkov’s passage Engineering the Erie Canal as found in the book Reader in American History, published by hayden- mcneil for UNT.