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Another Voice: Erie Canal an example of "excelsior"

By Gil C. Quiniones

Western New York residents are hearing a lot about the Erie Canal this summer. That’s because this Fourth of July also marks the 200th anniversary of the canal’s groundbreaking. In Lockport, which is home to the canal’s final set of locks before reaching Lake Erie, the bicentennial will be celebrated Saturday with a fun-filled event that features food, fireworks and a special performance by the Albany Symphony Orchestra playing on a barge inside a canal lock.

Given its significant contributions to our region, state and nation, the Erie Canal has certainly earned a celebration. The canal was one of our nation’s earliest demonstrations of how transformative public infrastructure could be for society. By linking Lake Erie with the Hudson River in 1825, the canal slashed the time and cost of transporting goods west and, in the process, made Buffalo a critical hub in America’s expansion.

Today, the canal stands as proof that vital infrastructure projects can deliver benefits that are both far-reaching and long-lasting. Nearly two centuries after it first opened, farmers still rely on the canal for irrigation and it continues to be a source of drinking water for upstate communities.

Most recently, the canal has become a destination for visitors from across New York and around the world. The Erie Canalway Trail is in the midst of an expansion that will allow adventure-seekers to bike or hike their way from Buffalo to Albany.

In Albany, the trail will connect to the new Empire State Trail network, which will run north from New York City all the way to Canada.
Yet, as remarkable as it is that a route once cleared by oxen and pickaxes now boasts world-class cycling, hiking, boating and dining, it is even more extraordinary that the canal was ever built in the first place.

In 1809, President Thomas Jefferson famously ridiculed the Erie Canal concept as “little short of madness.” Later, opponents of New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton, a champion of the canal, mocked the project as “Clinton’s Ditch.” But by pressing on and making history, Clinton handed all generations of New Yorkers a public benefit and a monumental legacy to take pride in.

The story of the canal embodies our state’s motto: “excelsior,” which means “ever upward.” As a result, when it comes to taking on big challenges like infrastructure, it is a New Yorker’s determination that sets us apart. Excelsior was seen in 1817 when work began on the canal. Excelsior was on display in the 1950s and 1960s, when the New York Power Authority built the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant in Lewiston, then the world’s largest hydroelectric facility. And excelsior is evident across the state today as bridges, airports, roads and water systems are being rebuilt. These projects will benefit millions of state residents long into the future.

It is easy to deride big ideas as impossible. But as New Yorkers, it is our legacy to think big as we reach ever upward. And if anyone ever doubts what is possible, you should tell them the now 200-year-old story of the Erie Canal.

Gil Quiniones is CEO of the New York Power Authority, which oversees the New York State Canal Corp.

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