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Viewpoints: Erie Canal’s bicentennial should remember Canada

By Janet Dorothy Larkin
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS

Canada’s role as both friend and benefactor of the Erie Canal deserves to be remembered during this year’s bicentennial of the canal’s historic groundbreaking at Rome on July 4, 1817. From its embryonic beginnings to its celebratory completion in 1825, the Erie Canal benefited from Canada’s contribution and support.

However, the history of the Erie Canal in New York State and the nation has long been told in terms of conflict and rivalry with Canada, especially in relation to the War of 1812 and its aftermath. According to this view, inadequate transportation facilities during the war, and rampant smuggling of American goods across Lake Ontario to Canada, despite the threat it posed to the war’s outcome, amply demonstrated the need for an all-American canal that would bypass Lake Ontario and avoid the Canadian problem.

As the popular saying goes, the rest is history. New York State built its 363-mile long Erie Canal from the Hudson River to Lake Erie, deliberately circumventing Lake Ontario and the British Canadian provinces. In honor of this year’s bicentennial, it is time to set history right by acknowledging Canada’s positive role in the building and success of New York State’s most iconic waterway.

Canada’s enthusiastic coverage of the historic wedding of the waters ceremony that signified the Erie Canal’s formal opening in October 1825 can be attributed to the spirit of Canadian-American friendship and goodwill that characterized the 19th century canal age. When the Erie Canal founder, DeWitt Clinton, ceremoniously poured a keg of Lake Erie water into New York’s Atlantic harbor symbolizing the “marriage of the waters” between east and west, a Canadian newspaper felt compelled to report on the auspicious occasion.

Having learned that Clinton’s flotilla arrived in New York City less than a week after departing the Buffalo Harbor at the far western end of the Erie Canal, the Canadian Herald conveyed the news that two British sloops, the Kingfisher and Swallow, “fired salutes on the approach of the flotilla.” This “gratifying compliment,” the Herald continued, was returned by all the steamboats in the harbor and the sloops of war were given a resounding “three cheers.” The captain of the Swallow even served an elegant breakfast to honor the occasion, and “emblematic devices” like “the American eagle on one side and on the other the British crowned lion” were tastefully displayed on board the vessel. Picking up on this remarkable story, a local Buffalo newspaper reported that the British sloop “fired a national salute of 24 guns” and even had “the American ensign displayed at the foretop as a mark of respect.”

Though Clinton and the canal commission ultimately ruled in favor of an all-American canal between Albany and Buffalo, Canada’s importance to the larger canal policy of New York State was in no way diminished. In fact, the state’s growth and prosperity had long been grounded in trade ties to Canada. While examining the most viable route of the future Erie Canal in 1810, Clinton was struck by the large shipments of salt, teas, coffees and other merchandise that shipped from Oswego on Lake Ontario to the Canadian ports of Kingston, Toronto and Queenston on the Niagara River. So strong was the pull of the Canadian market that the New York canal commissioners admitted after the war to “the difficulty of diverting the fixed currents of trade” from this well-known source. It was because of these historic trade ties that New York State, on the heels of the Erie Canal’s completion, built the Oswego Canal (1826-1828) that not only connected Lake Ontario with the Erie Canal at Syracuse, but opened a major international waterway between the United States and Canada.

The Erie Canal benefited from Canada in untold ways. Following the canal’s unearthing at Rome, laborers from Toronto, both male and female, crossed the international border to work on the channel. A few Canadians invested in the New York Canal Fund, while numerous others looked forward to the commercial benefits that the Erie Canal promised. Anticipating the canal’s opening, the Canadian Niagara Gleaner wrote, “It can hardly be doubted that, in peace, a trade will be carried on between the United States and Canada. The termination of the canal being immediately on the frontier, the canal boat can cross the river, and either deliver such articles as may be intended for that country, or bring in the articles that may be intended for Canada.” The Erie Canal, especially in the Niagara-Great Lakes Basin, promoted import and export opportunities, while also stimulating commercial, realty and cultural development on both sides of the border.

The Erie Canal also benefited from the increasing numbers of Canadians who utilized the canal for both business and pleasure. As a result of the canal, transportation costs fell dramatically and travel time from New York City to the Niagara Frontier was reduced from three weeks to six days.

During the wedding of the waters ceremony, the Canadian Niagara Gleaner noted with fascination that the “sound of the cannonading on the completion of the Grand Canal was heard at Albany 3 minutes before 11.” New York canal operators advertised competitive fares in the neighboring province for people traveling from Albany to Niagara, and packets, freighters, locks and line boats became new conversation pieces as canal travel absorbed Canada’s attention. Thanks to the American canal, wrote the Gleaner, a “travelling mania” is upon us.

Canada likewise gained from the Erie Canal’s experience. In 1824, when the neighboring province began construction on the Welland Canal between Lakes Ontario and Erie, they turned to the United States for support and encouragement in their undertaking. The canal’s timing was planned around the Erie Canal’s completion as American engineers, laborers, technology, animals and capital would be available to assist in Canada. The inspiration behind the Welland Canal was William Hamilton Merritt of St. Catharines, Ontario, who was affectionately dubbed the “DeWitt Clinton” of Canada. Upon news that the Erie Canal was rapidly making its way toward its celebratory completion, Merritt jumped aboard an Erie Canal packet en route to Rochester, Utica and Albany where he consulted with engineers and builders who were eager to come to Canada to work on “Merritt’s Ditch.”

Like many of his countrymen, Merritt admired the American entrepreneurial spirit. During his many visits to Albany on canal business, Merritt consulted with some of New York State’s most notable politicians and financiers, including Clinton, who complimented Merritt on the superiority of the Welland Canal. Clinton’s biographer, David Hosack confirmed as much, writing that Clinton’s plans for internal improvements “were not subscribed by geographical limits or even by national policy,” and his generosity and interest in Canada’s Welland Canal “was highly reflective of Clinton’s countenance and faith toward all such important works.”

So enamored was Canada of Clinton and his Grand Erie Canal, that upon hearing of Clinton’s untimely death, the Welland Canal Intelligencer wrote “his genius was his own – grand and peculiar” and his death has left not only New Yorkers but Upper Canadians “deeply stricken with a sense of great loss.”

Coincidentally, the Erie Canal’s bicentennial overlaps this year with the Friendship Festival that annually recognizes the unique bond of friendship and peace between Canada and the United States. As New York celebrates the 200th anniversary of the groundbreaking of the Erie Canal, let us hope that Canada’s role as both friend and benefactor of this vital waterway is remembered. At such a critical juncture in world affairs, it is imperative that both countries celebrate their shared culture and history.

Janet Dorothy Larkin, Ph.D., lives in Orchard Park. She has taught history at several universities, specializing in early 19th century American history with a focus on U.S.-Canada borderland. Her book “Overcoming Niagara: Canals, Commerce and Tourism in the Niagara-Great Lakes Borderland Region, 1792-1837” will be published in February 2018.

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