386: Wedding of the Waters by Peter Bernstein

by Gerard


386.4809747: Bernstein, Peter L. Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005. 381 pp. ISBN 0-393-05233-8.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 300: Social Sciences
  • 380: Commerce, communications, and transport
  • 386: Inland waterway and ferry transportation
  • 386.4: Canal transportation
  • 386.48: Small craft and barge canals
  • +09747: United States—New York

At the beginning of the 19th century, the United States was just getting its feet wet as a nation. One of the many problems in governing the country was simply its size. Getting news and goods from one side of the colonies to another could take an inordinately long time. At the time, water-based travel was the fastest, but boats could get to only so many cities. But in 1807, an interesting idea came along to cut a waterway from New York all the way across the state to Lake Erie. Barges could travel from the eastern seaboard to the Great Lakes. From there goods to be delivered to inland cities or even taken to the Mississippi River system. Peter Bernstein’s Wedding of the Waters tells the story of the planning, politics, and piloting of the Erie Canal.

Bernstein focuses more on the political and economic context of the Erie Canal than on actual efforts that went into its construction, but even those are interesting. The sheer amount of cooperation requires to literally dig a trench through an entire state is mind-boggling and the machinations of such an effort are captured well here. One of the most amazing things to remember is that at this time in the U.S., there were no civil engineers. Sure, there were folks who apprenticed with surveying equipment, but the concept of civil engineering was not yet formed.

Still, once ground was broken in 1817, it only took eight years to finish the project. Once completed, numerous town formed at lock sites and boat travel along the route more than tripled. The War of 1812 rocked the American economy, but commerce along the Erie Canal helped at least in some way to repair the damage. The historical context and the engineering problems posed make for interesting reading. As always, I would have liked more maps and diagrams to show both the project’s path and the machines used. Other than that, though, the book was interesting, and in places, fun to read.