A few folks in the Neighborhood ask occasionally about my avatar. Who is that dignified gentleman sitting next to your URL? It’s far too proper for a blog this profane.
Today we give my avatar its due. The dude in the little square on your browser is DeWitt Clinton, a New York politician described once by Columbia professor Kenneth Jackson as “probably the single most important person to ever live in the city of New York.” His achievements helped shape the modern city: the numbered streets, our school system, the development of public museums and civil services. Yet his greatest opus was a 363-mile ditch–a ditch that changed America forever.
On October 26, 1825, after 8 years of work, the Erie Canal was finally completed. Clinton was the mastermind of the canal, pushing for its construction long before funds were earmarked and work began in 1817. This huge artificial river spanned across New York State, making New York City the funnel through which all the resources–and products–of the middle West could pass through to Europe and beyond. From then on, New York would begin a century and a half of almost unstoppable growth, becoming the biggest city in the United States.
It also changed the state itself. Today 80% of the New York State’s population live along the path of the canal, either along the canal itself or along the Hudson towards New York City. Looking at a map, one can see the accumulation of highways, airports, and metropolitan areas all along this early trade route. It was this ditch, this “insanity” of a project (in Thomas Jefferson’s words) that created the modern state.
Finally, the Erie Canal proved how business and government could work together to create great public works for the good of all. In our partisan politics, our crumbling infrastructure and our increasing resentment of the perceived power of our government, it is important to note this incredible event in history, when Americans could put partisanship aside to do monumental things.
Here’s a Powerpoint unit presentation on The Erie Canal that I designed. It includes essential questions, activities, interesting primary quotes and culminating projects. Feel free to use in your classrooms.
Just make sure you credit the Neighborhood for your fine resources.
Mr. D’s History Bookshelf # 8: The Amazing Impossible Erie Canal
For educators like me, history books for the classroom come in two varieties.
The first, one all too many of us recollect, is the somber collection of names, dates, events and explanations followed by even more somber illustrations of very upright white men and stately occasions featuring white men doing what white men were thought to do: stand around, prance in short pants, sign documents, and slay indigenous populations without a hair out of place.
The second was a movement to rectify the stuffy white man by using songs, poems, happy pictures and narrative tools to convey historical events. Many early childhood books fall into this category: the smiling Pilgrim, the smiling Wampanoag (at least before the smallpox), the happy colonists dumping tea while redcoats pout and look cross. Its cute, but some events just can’t be washed over with sappy narrative: Indian wars, insurrections and tarring and feathering a tax collector just don’t warrant smiling cherubs set to rhyme.
Luckily, today’s book selection finds a unique balance between these two views. The Amazing Impossible Erie Canal, by Cheryl Harness, highlights the history, construction and opening of the Erie Canal from 1817 to 1825. Most readers know my penchant for New York history. But I have a real soft spot for the Erie Canal, and Harness’ work helps bridge that love to the classroom.
There’s no exaggerating the importance of this 363-mile long ditch. The Erie Canal was among the most important public works projects in American history. It revolutionized transportation to the Great Lakes and the Middle West of the United States. It established New York City as a center of commerce, business and immigration. Thousands of settlers had a way into the interior of the United States. It was an incredible example of public and private enterprise working together.
Nonetheless, all this impact would fall as flat as your old high school textbook. This is where Cheryl Harness’ magic comes in.
We’ve seen Harness’ work before, in regards to women’s history and biographies. She has a real knack for packing lots of important information, while at the same time weaving a compelling narrative that rarely distracts the reader. Her books are, in a way, like busy local highways: lots of roadside attractions if you need them, but the traffic’s always moving so you can get to your destination.
Erie Canal is no different. Harness’ highway is the 1825 celebrations that opened the canal. As the reader follows Governor DeWitt Clinton (The Neighborhood’s patron saint) on the canal from Buffalo to New York City, page after page is peppered with maps, graphs, pictures, and explanatory text about the building, technology and impact of the canal.
One scene is particularly poignant. As Clinton’s barge, the Seneca Chief, goes from town to town, the townspeople all gather to welcome her. The old veterans of the Revolutionary War, in fact, put on their old uniforms and medals in salute to this great achievement. Its a great example to show how Americans of all generations got together to celebrate, even 180 years ago.
A history book on the Erie Canal could have easily turned into a snoozer with portraits and dry writing. It could’ve also turned into another crappy kids’ pap about that damn song with a mule named Sal. Harness skillfully managed to avoid both. In The Amazing Impossible Erie Canal, she provided that rare breed of picture history that is both fun to read and rich in detailed information.
As for those old “white man” books, save them for college, so that your professors can rip them to shreds.
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