Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

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May 18, 2013

CANAL DISCOVERIES: Who will pay?

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — They knew the Erie Canal was going to cost a lot of money, but in the early 1800s, no one really knew how much, and opinions varied wildly about who should pay the bill. The newly organized Canal Commission was asked for their estimate of cost, and their chairman, DeWitt Clinton, not being one to shy away from a squabble, said five million dollars, and maybe more.

To many New Yorkers, the idea was preposterous. An “Internal Improvement” of this magnitude had never been attempted —certainly, nothing with a cost in the millions of dollars. Previous public works projects had been small, usually attempted to correct a transportation issue or create a dam to control water flow. So, talk of Clinton’s Ditch with a cost over $5 million created an instant controversy.

In the early 1800s, most of the hardworking settlers in upstate New York were going through a period when they hardly recognized money. Banks were almost non-existent and greenbacks and gold-based currency were a rarity. Most people conducted business through barter. Settlers would pay for the materials they needed using their crops in return. 

Without cash in hand, disgruntled settlers questioned whether the New York government would accept crops and handcrafts to cover the tax needed to build the Erie Canal. The proposed $5 million needed might as well have been five billion, because in the mind of the average New Yorker, either one would be equally impossible. A few decades earlier, New Yorkers had joined the other colonies to fight a war over excess taxation, and public sentiment was certainly against allowing the state to institute a new tax to build the Erie Canal.

Canal supporters aided their cause by pushing patriotism. In order to hold our fledgling nation together, our citizens needed to have a bond of common interest. George Washington noted it, and DeWitt Clinton made it his mantra: “As a bond of union between the Atlantic and the Western States, this canal may prevent the dismemberment of the American Empire.” 

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