On July 4, 1817, a boisterous throng of citizens paraded out of their small village in central New York before sunrise. They were armed, but not for war. Many had been up all night celebrating the holiday and the impending grand event. They proceeded to a flat, marshy meadow studded with hemlock and birch a mile south of town. Each carried a shovel.DeWitt Clinton, who had taken office as governor three days earlier, understood that the state was gambling its future. The canal commissioners had decided to rely on American amateurs to oversee the construction. Benjamin Wright, the chief engineer, had never built a canal. James Geddes had proven himself as a surveyor but was also a novice regarding hydraulic science. The other engineers recruited for the project had even less experience.
Geddes, in an impressive demonstration of his expertise, surveyed a hundred-mile circle around Oneida Lake. Measuring up and down hills and across valleys, he found that on completing the circuit, his calculations were off by less than an inch and a half. In an age of rough-and-ready approximations, it was a remarkable feat.
Now, as the ruddy July sun flamed over the horizon, cannon fired from the arsenal in town: time for the ceremonies to begin. Village president Joshua Hathaway declared that they were about to undertake “one of the grandest objects that ever has and perhaps ever will grace our nation.” Men impatiently gripped their shovels as state canal commissioner Samuel Young spoke of the “unborn millions” who would have access to the markets of the world. His sentiment was an expression of high optimism. The odds favored the skeptics.
The citizens of Rome gathered around a butternut-wood stake labeled “No. 1, True Canal Line,” which marked the beginning of the massive digging project. A second resounding cannon boom marked the end of the speechmaking. Magistrate John Richardson had won the bid to dig the first section of the canal and would enjoy the privilege of scooping the initial shovelful of earth.
Commissioner Young handed a spade to Richardson. The contractor plunged it into the soil. The gesture touched off a frenzy of flying dirt. Everyone in attendance began to dig, “each viewing with the other,” said the Utica Gazette, in the pure joy of participating in history.
This story was roughly excerpted from Heaven's Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal by Jack Kelly. It's available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound.