The Erie Canal was the engineering marvel of the 19th Century. It was also the most consequential construction project in U.S. history, as it proved to be the key that unlocked an enormous series of social and economic changes in the young nation. The Canal spurred the first great westward movement of...
The Erie Canal was the engineering marvel of the 19th Century. It was also the most consequential construction project in U.S. history, as it proved to be the key that unlocked an enormous series of social and economic changes in the young nation. The Canal spurred the first great westward movement of American settlers, gave access to the rich land and resources west of the Appalachians and made New York the preeminent commercial city in the United States.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the Allegheny Mountains were the Western frontier. The Trans-Appalachian lands, and especially the Northwest Territories that would later become Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio, were rich in timber, minerals, and fertile land for farming. But it took many weeks to reach these precious resources from the east coast, and the roads that did exist were unreliable and treacherous. Shipping produce and products from the west to the Atlantic was extremely expensive and thus impractical. Then New York Governor DeWitt Clinton envisioned a better way: a canal from Buffalo on the eastern shore of Lake Erie to Albany on the upper Hudson River, a distance of almost 400 miles. In proposing the idea, he stated prophetically, “[New York] city will, in the course of time, become the granary of the world, the emporium of commerce, the seat of manufactures, the focus of great moneyed operations…And before the revolution of a century, the whole island of Manhattan, covered with inhabitants and replenished with a dense population, will constitute one vast city.”
The actual construction of the canal was an awesome feat of engineering, as there were no trained engineers in America at that early time and the diggers had little more than picks, shovels and crude explosive devices to work with. The chief planners of the construction of the canal were therefore surveyors; indeed, surveyor George Washington had once posited that such a canal was feasible. So with dogged ingenuity and the tireless support provided by Clinton, Martin Van Buren and Gouverneur Morris, the project gained the necessary momentum. Construction began July 4, 1817, at Rome, New York. The western section of the canal was finished in 1819. The middle section from Utica to Syracuse was completed in 1820 and traffic on that section started up immediately. The eastern section, 250 miles from Brockport to Albany, was completed on September 10, 1823. Along the route there were 30 dams, 120 locks, and a 450 foot tunnel. The official opening of the canal occurred on October 26, 1825. The event was marked by a statewide “Grand Celebration,” culminating in successive cannon shots along the length of the canal and the Hudson, which took an astonishingly short 90 minutes to reach from Buffalo to New York City.
Ephraim Beach was one of the great surveyors of his day. He was a major surveyor on the Erie Canal, being in charge of the important Mohawk River portion of the canal. He afterwards became the chief surveyor of the Morris Canal in New Jersey. John M. Roof was a young surveyor who worked as assistant to Beach. He kept a Minute Book for Beach containing measurements and other surveying notes relating to his portion, starting on November 26, 1822 and finishing on April 21, 1823. The small book contains 63 pages with text and cites the location as Canajoharie, N.Y. The title Roof gives as “Survey of the Canal & Mohawk River…Eastern Division of the Erie Canal.” The entries follow the canal from place to place along its course, and contain surveying notations, names of abutting landowners, determinations of course, distances to river, width and depth of locks, laying of chains, and much else. At the conclusion Roof says “Finis,” and following that there are some charts.
At the end of the book Roof’s brother writes in 1880: “This book which was recently discovered among my father’s old papers are minutes of the survey of the section of the Erie Canal at Canajoharie and vicinity. Kept by my eldest brother John M. Roof who was one of the engineers engaged in making the survey under Maj. Ephraim Beach, the chief engineer. My brother was 17 years old at the time. In the spring of 1924 after completing the survey of the Erie Canal, Maj. Beach was employed to explore a route for a canal (Morris Canal) in New Jersey, together with my brother as assistant engineer to make the survey. In the month of August following my brother died of malarial fever, my father being present with him the last five days…”
The effect of the Canal was immediate and dramatic. Settlers poured west, and the explosion of trade prophesied by Governor Clinton began, spurred by freight rates from Buffalo to New York of $10 per ton by Canal, compared with $100 per ton by road. Within 15 years of the Erie Canal’s opening, New York was the busiest port in America, moving tonnages greater than Boston, Baltimore and New Orleans combined.
This is the only original surveyor’s book from the Erie Canal that we can find having reached the market, and it is now being offered for sale for the first time. It is an important piece of New York history, financial history, and the history of American westward expansion, and is likely unpublished.
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