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The two great thoroughfares of American commerce in the first half of the nineteenth century were the Cumberland Road and the Erie Canal. The first generation of the new century witnessed the great burst of population into the West which at once gave Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin a place of national importance which they have never relinquished. So far as pathways of commerce contributed to the creation of this veritable new republic in the Middle West, the Cumberland Road and the Erie Canal, cooperating respectively with Ohio River and Lake Erie steamboats, were of the utmost importance. The national spirit, said to have arisen from the second war with England, had its clearest manifestation in the throwing of a great macadamized roadway across the Alleghenies to the Ohio River and the digging of the Erie Canal through the swamps and wildernesses of New York.

Both of these pathways were essentially the fruition of the doctrine to which Washington gave wide circulation in his letter to Harrison in 1784, wherein he pictured the vision of a vast Republic united by commercial chains. Both were essentially Western enterprises. The highway was built to fulfil the promise which the Government had made in 1802 to use a portion of the money accruing from the sale of public lands in Ohio in order to connect that young State with Atlantic waters. It was proposed to build the canal, according to one early plan, with funds to be obtained by the sale of land in Michigan. So firmly did the promoters believe in the national importance of this project that subscriptions, according to another plan, were to be solicited as far afield as Vermont in the North and Kentucky in the Southwest. All that Washington had hoped for, and all that Aaron Burr is supposed to have been hopeless of, were epitomized in these great works of internal improvement. They bespoke cooperation of the highest existing types of loyalty, optimism, financial skill, and engineering ability.

Yet, on the other hand, the contrasts between these undertakings were great. The two enterprises, one the work of the nation and the other that of a single State, were practically contemporaneous and were therefore constantly inviting comparison. The Cumberland Road was, for its day, a gigantic government undertaking involving problems of finance, civil engineering, eminent domain, state rights, local favoritism, and political machination. Its purpose was noble and its successful construction a credit to the nation; but the paternalism to which it gave rise and the conflicts which it precipitated in Congress over questions of constitutionality were remembered soberly for a century. The Erie Canal, after its projectors had failed to obtain national aid, became the undertaking of one commonwealth conducted, amid countless doubts and jeers, to a conclusion unbelievably successful. As a result many States, foregoing Federal aid, attempted to duplicate the successful feat of New York. In this respect the northern canal resembled the Lancaster Turnpike and tempted scores of States and corporations to expenditures which were unwise in circumstances less favorable than those of the fruitful and strategic Empire State.

In the conception of both the roadway and the canal, it should be noted, the old idea of making use of navigable rivers still persisted. The act foreshadowing the Cumberland Road, passed in 1802, called for "making public roads leading from the navigable waters emptying into the Atlantic, to the Ohio, to said State Ohio and through the same"; and Hawley's original plan was to build the Erie Canal from Utica to Buffalo using the Mohawk from Utica to the Hudson.

Historic Cumberland, in Maryland, was chosen by Congress as the eastern terminus of the great highway which should bind Ohio to the Old Thirteen. Commissioners were appointed in 1806 to choose the best route by which the great highway could reach the Ohio River between Steubenville, Ohio and the mouth of Grave Creek; but difficulties of navigation in the neighborhood of the Three Sister Islands near Charlestown, or Wellsburg, West Virginia, led to the choice of Wheeling, farther down, as a temporary western terminus.

The route selected was an excellent compromise between the long standing rival claims of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia to the trade of the West. If Baltimore and Alexandria were to be better served than Philadelphia, the advantage was slight; and Pennsylvania gained compensation, ere the State gave the National Government permission to build the road within its limits, by dictating that it should pass through Uniontown and Washington. In this way Pennsylvania obtained, without cost, unrivaled advantages for a portion of the State which might otherwise have been long neglected.

The building of the road, however satisfactory in the main, was not undertaken without arousing many sectional and personal hopes and prejudices and jealousies, of which the echoes still linger in local legends today. Land-owners, mine-owners, factory-owners, innkeepers and countless townsmen and villagers anxiously watched the course of the road and were bitterly disappointed if the new sixty-four-foot thoroughfare did not pass immediately through their property. On the other hand, promoters of toll and turnpike companies, who had promising schemes and long lists of shareholders, were far from eager to have their property taken for a national road. No one believed that, if it proved successful, it would be the only work of its kind, and everywhere men looked for the construction of government highways out of the overflowing wealth of the treasury within the next few years.

In April, 1811, the first contracts were let for building the first ten miles of the road from its eastern terminus and were completed in 18191. More contracts were let in 1812, 1813, and 1815. Even in those days of war when the drain on the national treasury was excessive, over a quarter of a million dollars was appropriated for the construction of the road. Onward it crawled, through the beautiful Cumberland gateway of the Potomac, to Big Savage and Little Savage Mountains, to Little Pine Run (the first "Western" water), to Red Hill (later called "Shades of Death" because of the gloomy forest growth), to high-flung Negro Mountain at an elevation of 2325 feet, and thence on to the Youghiogheny, historic Great Meadows, Braddock's Grave, Laurel Hill, Uniontown, and Brownsville, where it crossed the Monongahela. Thence, on almost a straight line, it sped by way of Washington to Wheeling. Its average cost was upwards of thirteen thousand dollars a mile from the Potomac to the Ohio. The road was used in 1817, and in another year the mail coaches of the United States were running from Washington to Wheeling, West Virginia. Within five years one of the five commission houses doing business at Wheeling is said to have handled over a thousand wagons carrying freight of nearly two tons each. The Cumberland Road at once leaped into a position of leadership, both in volume of commerce and in popularity, and held its own for two famous decades. The pulse of the nation beat to the steady throb of trade along its highway. Maryland at once stretched out her eager arms, along stone roads, through Frederick and Hagerstown to Cumberland, and thus formed a single route from the Ohio to Baltimore. Great stagecoach and freight lines were soon established, each patronizing its own stage house or wagon stand in the thriving towns along the road. The primitive box stage gave way to the oval or football type with curved top and bottom, and this was displaced in turn by the more practical Concord coach of national fame. The names of the important stagecoach companies were quite as well known, a century ago, as those of our great railways today. Chief among them were the National, Good Intent, June Bug, and Pioneer lines. The coaches, drawn by four and sometimes six horses, were usually painted in brilliant colors and were named after eminent statesmen. The drivers of these gay chariots were characters quite as famous locally as the personages whose names were borne by the coaches. Westover and his record of forty-five minutes for the twenty miles between Uniontown and Brownsville, and "Red" Bunting, with his drive of a hundred and thirty-one miles in twelve hours with the declaration of war against Mexico, will be long famous on the curving stretches of the Cumberland Road.

Although the freight and express traffic of those days lacked the picturesqueness of the passenger coaches, nothing illustrates so conclusively what the great road meant to an awakening West as the long lines of heavy Conestogas and rattling express wagons which raced at "unprecedented" speed across hill and vale. Searight, the local historian of the road, describes these large, broad-wheeled wagons covered with white canvas as

"visible all the day long, at every point, making the highway look more like a leading avenue of a great city than a road through rural districts.... I have staid over night with William Cheets on Nigger [Negro] Mountain when there were about thirty six-horse teams in the wagon yard, a hundred Kentucky mules in an adjoining lot, a thousand hogs in their enclosures, and as many fat cattle in adjoining fields. The music made by this large number of hogs eating corn on a frosty night I shall never forget. After supper and attention to the teams, the wagoners would gather in the bar-room and listen to the music on the violin furnished by one of their fellows, have a Virginia hoe-down, sing songs, tell anecdotes, and hear the experiences of drivers and drovers from all points of the road, and, when it was all over, unroll their beds, lay them down on the floor before the bar-room fire side by side, and sleep with their feet near the blaze as soundly as under the parental roof."

Erie-canal 1840 map

Meanwhile New York, the other great rival for Western trade, was intent on its own darling project, the Erie Canal. In 1808, three years before the building of the Cumberland Road, Joshua Forman offered a bill in favor of the canal in the Legislature of New York. In plain but dignified language this document stated that New York possessed "the best route of communication between the Atlantic and western waters," and that it held "the first commercial rank in the United States." The bill also noted that, while "several of our sister States" were seeking to secure "the trade of that wide extended country," their natural advantages were "vastly inferior." Six hundred dollars was the amount appropriated for a brief survey, and Congress was asked to vote aid for the construction of the "Buffalo-Utica Canal." The matter was widely talked about but action was delayed. Doubt as to the best route to be pursued caused some discussion. If the western terminus were to be located on Lake Ontario at the mouth of the Oswego, as some advocated, would produce not make its way to Montreal instead of to New York? In 1810 a new committee was appointed and, though their report favored the paralleling of the course of the Mohawk and Oswego rivers, their engineer, James Geddes, gave strength to the party which believed a direct canal would best serve the interests of the State. It is worth noting that Livingston and Fulton were added to the committee in 1811.

The hopes of outside aid from Congress and adjacent States met with disappointment. In vain did the advocates of the canal in 1812 plead that its construction would promote "a free and general intercourse between different parts of the United States, tend to the aggrandizement and prosperity of the country, and consolidate and strengthen the Union." The plan to have the Government subsidize the canal by vesting in the State of New York four million acres of Michigan land brought out a protest from the West which is notable not so much because it records the opposition of this section as because it illustrates the shortsightedness of most of the arguments raised against the New York enterprise. The purpose of the canal, the detractors asserted, was to build up New York City to the detriment of Montreal, and the navigation of Lake Ontario, whose beauty they touchingly described, was to be abandoned for a "narrow, winding obstructed canal... for an expense which arithmetic dares not approach." It was, in their minds, unquestionably a selfish object, and they believed that "both correct science, and the dictates of patriotism and philanthropy [should] lead to the adoption of more liberal principles." It was a shortsighted object, "predicated on the eternal adhesion of the Canadas to England." It would never give satisfaction since trade would always ignore artificial and seek natural routes. The attempting of such comparatively useless projects would discourage worthy schemes, relax the bonds of Union, and depress the national character. But though these Westerners thus misjudged the possibilities of the Erie Canal, we must doff our hats to them for their foresight in suggesting that, instead of aiding the Erie Canal, the nation ought to build canals at Niagara Falls and Panama!

The War of 1812 suspended all talk of the canal, but the subject was again brought up by Judge Platt in the autumn of 1816. With alacrity strong men came to the aid of the measure. De Witt Clinton's Memorial of 1816 addressed to the State Legislature may well rank with Washington's letter to Harrison in the documentary history of American commercial development. It sums up the geographical position of New York with reference to the Great Lakes and the Atlantic, her relationship to the West and to Canada, the feasibility of the proposed route from an engineering standpoint, the timeliness of the moment for such a work of improvement, the value that the canal would give to the state lands of the interior, and the trade that it would bring to the towns along its pathway.

The Erie Canal was born in the Act of April 14, 1817, but the decision of the Council of Revision, which held the power of veto, was in doubt. An anecdote related by Judge Platt tends to prove that fear of another war with England was the straw that broke the camel's back of opposition. Acting-Governor Taylor, Chief Justice Thompson, Chancellor Kent, Judge Yates, and Judge Platt composed the Council. The two first named were open opponents of the measure; Kent, Yates, and Platt were warm advocates of the project, but one of them doubted if the time was ripe to undertake it.

Taylor opposed the canal on the ground that the late treaty with England was a mere truce and that the resources of the State should be husbanded against renewed war.

"Do you think so, Sir?" Chancellor Kent is said to have asked the Governor.

"Yes, Sir," was the reported reply. "England will never forgive us for our victories, and, my word for it, we shall have another war with her within two years."

The Chancellor rose to his feet with determination and sealed the fate of the great enterprise in a word.

"If we must have war," he exclaimed, "I am in favor of the canal and I cast my vote for this bill."

On July 4, 1817, work was formally inaugurated at Rome with simple ceremonies. Thus the year 1817 was marked by three great undertakings: the navigation of the Mississippi River upstream and down by steamboats, the opening of the national road across the Allegheny Mountains, and the beginning of the Erie Canal. No single year in the early history of the United States witnessed three such important events in the material progress of the country.

What days the ancient "Long House of the Iroquois" now saw! The engineers of the Cumberland Road, now nearing the Ohio River, had enjoyed the advantage of many precedents and examples; but the Commissioners of the Erie Canal had been able to study only such crude examples of canal-building as America then afforded. Never on any continent had such an inaccessible region been pierced by such a highway. The total length of the whole network of canals in Great Britain did not equal that of the waterway which the New Yorker's now undertook to build. The lack of roads, materials, vehicles, methods of drilling and efficient business systems was overcome by sheer patience and perseverance in experiment. The frozen winter roads saved the day by making it possible to accumulate a proper supply of provisions and materials. As tools of construction, the plough and scraper with their greater capacity for work soon supplanted the shovel and the wheelbarrow, which had been the chief implements for such construction in Europe. Strange new machinery born of Mother Necessity was now heard groaning in the dark swamps of New York. These giants, worked by means of a cable, wheel, and endless screw, were made to hoist green stumps bodily from the ground and, without the use of axe, to lay trees prostrate, root and branch. A new plough was fashioned with which a yoke of oxen could cut roots two inches in thickness well beneath the surface of the ground.

Handicaps of various sorts wore the patience of commissioners, engineers, and contractors. Lack of snow during one winter all but stopped the work by cutting off the source of supplies. Pioneer ailments, such as fever and ague, reaped great harvests, incapacitated more than a thousand workmen at one time and for a brief while stopped work completely.

For the most part, however, work was carried on simultaneously on all the three great links or sections into which the enterprise was divided. Local contractors were given preference by the commissioners, and three-fourths of the work was done by natives of the State. Forward up the Mohawk by Schenectady and Utica to Rome, thence bending southward to Syracuse, and from there by way of Clyde, Lyons, and Palmyra, the canal made its way to the giant viaduct over the Genesee River at Rochester. Keeping close to the summit level on the dividing ridge between Lake Ontario streams and the Valley of the Tonawanda, the line ran to Lockport, where a series of locks placed the canal on the Lake Erie level, 365 miles from and 564 feet above Albany. By June, 1823, the canal was completed from Rochester to Schenectady; in October boats passed into the tidewaters of the Hudson at Albany; and in the autumn of 1825 the canal was formally opened by the passage of a triumphant fleet from Lake Erie to New York Bay. Here two kegs of lake water were emptied into the Atlantic, while the Governor of the State of New York spoke these words:

"This solemnity, at this place, on the first arrival of vessels from Lake Erie, is intended to indicate and commemorate the navigable communication, which has been accomplished between our Mediterranean Seas and the Atlantic Ocean, in about eight years, to the extent of more than four hundred and twenty-five miles, by the wisdom, public spirit, and energy of the people of the State of New York; and may the God of the Heavens and the Earth smile most propitiously on this work, and render it subservient to the best interests of the human race."

Throughout these last seven years, the West was subconsciously getting ready to meet the East halfway by improving and extending her steamboat operations. Steamboats were first run on the Great Lakes by enterprising Buffalo citizens who, in 1818, secured rights from the Fulton-Livingston monopoly to build the Walk-in-the-Water, the first of the great fleet of ships that now whiten the inland seas of the United States. Regular lines of steamboats were now formed on the Ohio to connect with the Cumberland Road at Wheeling, although the steamboat monopoly threatened to stifle the natural development of transportation on Western rivers.

The completion of the Erie Canal--coupled with the new appropriation by Congress for extending the Cumberland Road from the Ohio River to Missouri and the beginning of the Pennsylvania and the Chesapeake and Ohio canals, reveal the importance of these concluding days of the first quarter of the nineteenth century in the annals of American transportation. Never since that time have men doubted the ability of Americans to accomplish the physical domination of their continent. With the conquest of the Alleghanies and of the forests and swamps of the "Long House" by pick and plough and scraper, and the mastery of the currents of the Mississippi by the paddle wheel, the vast plains beyond seemed smaller and the Rockies less formidable. Men now looked forward confidently, with an optimist of these days, to the time "when circulation and association between the Atlantic and Pacific and the Mexican Gulf shall be as free and perfect as they are at this moment in England" between the extremities of that country. The vision of a nation closely linked by well worn paths of commerce was daily becoming clearer. What further westward progress was soon to be made remains to be seen.