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Sean Kirst: A Lockport prophet shaped the Erie Canal from a prison cell

The inscription is almost unreadable, letters covered by moss and soil, stone worn away by years of rain and wind. The tombstone, a tall obelisk, is on a tiny hill in the Cold Springs Cemetery in Lockport, a monument so forgotten a tree limb obscures its peak.

Stare hard enough, and you realize the epitaph begins with these words:

"The first ideas of the Erie Canal ..."

It is the grave of Jesse Hawley, all but forgotten beyond the historians who revere him. Two hundred years ago today, on the Fourth of July, 1817, construction of the Erie Canal began in Rome, N.Y. When it opened eight years later, that 363-mile waterway, dug through the sweat, muscle and diligence of laborers, aided by animals, changed history – not only in this state but for the entire country.

Buffalo, the western terminus, was transformed into an internationally significant inland port, a status that in the 19th century would lift it into a handful of largest American cities. An entire string of upstate communities – notably Rochester and Syracuse – were made prominent by the canal, which finally allowed for a practical way to export local goods to the world market.

Jesse Hawley: Image courtesy of Pam Marlin, a descendant.

Yet the ripples extended farther than one region. The waterway "opened up the continent," in the words of canal historian Duncan Hay, and became the gateway to the American west. It turned New York City into a global economic capital. It shaped population centers and migratory patterns in a way that established a cultural and physical American framework that still exists today.

"There is no more transformative public works project in the history of this nation than the Erie Canal," said John Callaghan, deputy director of the state Canal Corp.

And Callaghan, like so many who know the story, said it is difficult to overstate the role of Jesse Hawley.

"If you want to point to a single person who made a compelling case for the canal and wrote it all down, it was him," Callaghan said.

Most incredibly, Hawley did it from jail.

[A collection of Jesse Hawley's prophetic essays on the Erie Canal]

Imagine.  Hawley, locked up in a debtor's prison at Canandaigua in Ontario County, published a series of essays in 1807 and 1808 that laid out in, in precise and painstaking detail, the route and specifics for a grand statewide canal, according to the late historian, author and economist Peter Bernstein. It would connect Buffalo and Lake Erie with Albany and the Hudson River, providing a direct connection to Manhattan.

Under a pseudonym, "Hercules," Hawley published these essays in the Genesee Messenger, a Canandaigua newspaper. They came to the attention of DeWitt Clinton, who served as an American senator, mayor of New York City and a near-miss presidential candidate. Two hundred years ago this month, when he became  governor of New York, Clinton presided over construction of the canal.

"He never got the credit that he should, but history is starting to pay attention to Jesse Hawley," Callaghan said.

There had been other dreams and visions of a canal, but nothing that approached the sheer logic and structural sense of the case laid out by Hawley. When a state-appointed group of commissioners scouted the potential route in 1810, Hawley's essays were among the key documents they carried.

"Jesse Hawley, bankrupt businessman and jailbird, accomplished more than anyone up to that point in provoking action to build an uninterrupted waterway across the state of New York," Bernstein wrote in his canal history, "Wedding of the Waters."

Today, as evidenced by the forlorn nature of his grave, Hawley is too often forgotten in a state whose prominence owes a great debt to his vision.

In a way, it is a classic upstate-downstate story. DeWitt Clinton, born to a family of influence in New York City, is popularly associated with the inspiration that went into the canal. Hawley – the once-struggling businessman, the guy whose education, as Bernstein put it, "never went beyond a country school" – is rarely mentioned.

To be fair, Clinton made a point of acknowledging Hawley's role, inviting him in 1825 to give an opening address in Buffalo and to ride along on the "Seneca Chief," a canal boat, during opening festivities for the waterway. And even the greatest ideas mean little without power. It was Clinton's political muscle, genius and raw persistence that caused the canal to happen.

None of that diminishes Hawley's foresight.

"He's the one, sitting in prison, who wrote it all down and started to make it real," said Natalie Stetson, executive director of the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse.

The grave of Jesse Hawley in the Cold Springs Cemetery in Lockport: His prophetic writings – eerily similar to the way things would come to be – helped inspire the Erie Canal. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Hawley had a pragmatic rationale for dreaming such grand dreams. Born in Connecticut, he eventually became a flour merchant in upstate New York, drawn to what he called "the culture of the fertile soil."  He went broke for a simple reason, according to Hay, historian for the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor.

"There was all this rich farmland, and he had no means to get his flour out to the urban markets," he said.

In crushing debt – at a time when unpaid bills could put you behind bars – Hawley fled to Pittsburgh, where he wrote his first essay. In it, he described a statewide canal as "a herculean task," which may be why he chose "Hercules" as a writing name. He then returned home to serve a 20-month sentence in Canandaigua, where historians say he was most likely confined to a stark room.

Hawley chose to hide his real name when he wrote, perhaps fearing his imprisonment would undermine any themes he raised. But he continued writing, his work often built upon sheer passion for upstate.

"The Creator has done what we can reasonably ask of him," Hawley wrote. "By the Falls of Niagara he has given a head to the waters of Lake Erie sufficient to flow into the Atlantic by the channels of the Mohawk and the Hudson, as well as by that of the St. Lawrence. He has only left the finishing stroke to be applied by the hand of art, and it is complete!"

The canal happened less through the "hand of art" than the hand of DeWitt Clinton, who was "a voracious reader," Hay said. "This idea caught his eye, and he engaged it."

Callaghan, of the canal corporation, speaks of Hawley as "an amazing American story." While Clinton later fell upon hard financial times, Hawley's life followed an opposite trajectory. The completed canal helped him become a commercial success. He bought land along the canal in what's now Lockport, where he served as village treasurer in a "boom town" nurtured by his beloved canal.

The Niagara County Historical Society still maintains a museum at the Bond-Hawley House on Ontario Street, which Hawley owned for a time before his death in 1842. He lived long enough, as the faded inscription notes on his tombstone, to see another dream – "an enlargement of the great commercial artery" – get underway on the canal.

Torn-Down Tuesday: When the Erie Canal wandered through the West Side

Historians remain intrigued by a mystery surrounding Hawley, Callaghan said.

"The thing that kills us, the thing everybody is trying to figure out, is where he got all the information," Callaghan said.

Locked up in prison, far from any 19th century library, Hawley offered specific details and estimates on canal mileage and construction that would seem to demand access to detailed research materials. He had been friendly with such visionaries as James Geddes, who later was involved in planning for the canal. That leads to speculation as to whether he had allies who helped supply critical documentation.

"How is Hawley so prescient?" Callaghan asked. "Maybe he had some major help. If he did, history is silent on it."

Whether he worked with anyone or not, Callaghan said Hawley's importance is staggering, his vision indisputable. The canal provided a commercial cord that bound together a struggling young nation. Without it, Callaghan said, it is no stretch of the imagination to believe that the United States could have split into two or three separate governments.

"We'd be a different place if not for the canal, and if not for this imprisoned flour merchant," Callaghan said.

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If you're someone who believes in historical justice, this Fourth of July anniversary is as good a time as any to take a ride to Cold Springs Road in Lockport, not far from the route of today's Erie Canal. You'll find a cemetery there with dozens of ancient tombstones, including an obelisk, covered with moss and soil.

Beneath it is a writer who called himself Hercules.

With his upstate essays, from a jail cell, he lifted the known world.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at, leave a comment below, write to him in care of The News, One News Plaza, Buffalo 14240 or read more of his work in this archive:

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