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Historian tracks legends of Erie Canal

LOCKPORT -- Not all Erie Canal workers kept their money, or even finished their songs about the great "ditch," historian Gerard Koeppel notes.

If diggers didn't spend their wages in the "groggeries" along the canal, "swamp laborers sickened, and untold numbers didn't survive," he said.

Koeppel -- who's been busy boating and researching a new history of the Erie Canal -- has been using the Niagara County Historical Society as a resource.

He plans to speak soon about the canal's impact on the Niagara Frontier. When a date and place are finalized, it will be announced.

The canal, which will be 185 years old next year, attracts more people than ever, as many as 200,000 a year for cycling, walking, jogging, pushing baby carriages, skating and, in some spots, snowmobiling.

"The 2008 trail count confirms that the Erie Canalway Trail is becoming an ever more popular community amenity and draw for tourists and visitors alike," said Robin Dropkin, executive director of Parks and Trails New York. "What better way to experience the magic of the canal and the warmth and charm of upstate communities than from the tranquil, traffic-free trail?"

Carmella R. Mantello, director of New York State Canal Corp., said the Canalway Trail "not only offers tourism and recreational opportunities, but provides an economic boost to hundreds of canal communities," including several in Niagara and Orleans counties.

And the state canal corporation announced earlier this month that it will give clubs belonging to the New York State Snowmobile Association access to canal corporation-owned lands, by permit on a case-by-case basis.

In his new book, "Bond of Union: Building the Erie Canal and the American Empire," Koeppel makes it clear that the canal was the first great piece of American infrastructure, the major bond between the seaboard America and the vast continental interior. He includes 1825 drawings of the "Lockport Deep Cuts" by George Catlin, who documented American Indian culture.

>Why study the Erie Canal?

That was my first response -- why? It took me some time to recognize that without the Erie Canal, there might not be a continental American nation. As I began peeling away layers of myth, I realized that the creation of the canal was as frustrating, contentious and complicated as the building of any great project today. I made it one of my objectives to give people a clear-eyed view of how the canal got built, so they could use the past to be more realistic about our future.

>What did you dig up about the canal?

I did do a lot of digging. I found out many new things about the old Erie Canal -- and that many "old things" about it were wrong.

>You found Jesse Hawley's personal fortunes reborn along with the canal's creation?

All that incredible infrastructure came out of debtors' prison. As the failed first grain merchant of Western New York, Hawley served time in debtors' prison, where he wrote the essays -- published under a pseudonym "Hercules" that proposed an Erie Canal. As a distinguished guest at the opening celebrations, Hawley delivered the most memorable line -- a line that in other Erie books is unaccredited or credited to others: New Yorkers had achieved "an epoch that will be recorded in the tablets of history, as among the greatest events of our nation -- for having in 8 years with 8 million of dollars -- made the longest Canal in the least time -- with the least experience -- for the least money -- and of the greatest public utility of any other in the world."

>What else did you learn about the canal?

Without New York State Gov. DeWitt Clinton, this incredible infrastructure would not have come about. In our country today, we're facing challenges and looking at history. If we're going to build great new infrastructure now, it'll have to be an individual who makes it a project. Committees don't do this.

Also I learned about the true discovery of American waterproof cement. The canal -- and subsequent great works -- could not have been built without cement that hardens in water. The false story of the discovery was planted unwittingly in the granddaddy of canal histories -- the 1906 state-authorized history by Noble E. Whitford -- and has been repeated ever since. But it turns out that Whitford picked up the cement story from an unreliable county history, published a half-century earlier and 30 years after the fact.

>Tell us a little about your research?

My family and I chartered a boat and got that sense of calmness and quiet about the canal. Of course the canal today is very different. My first lead about Andrew Bartow, the true discoverer of American hydraulic cement, came from a small collection of Bartow's unpublished papers.

>Give us a clue about your next topic after waterways?

It'll be about land.

Have an idea about a Niagara County-resident who'd make an interesting question-and-answer column, or an issue worth exploring? Write to: Louise Continelli, Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240 or e-mail

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