Everyone has heard of the Panama Canal and the Suez Canal, but not many know the twisted story of how and why they were built. And there are hundreds of other canals around the world that all have their own history of toil, political maneuvering, and folly.




The canal that started in a jail cell

Jesse Hawley was a small businessman in Geneva, New York, and was facing the prospect of getting even smaller. He had certainly tried, but his flour business was struggling. The problem always seemed to come down to transportation. Flour was bulky and low cost, and in the early 1800s, difficult to move any great distance and still make a profit. The roads were bad and horse driven carts uncertain and dependent on the weather. Water transportation along the rivers could carry bulk cheaply, but the waterways ran mostly north to south. How could Hawley get his flour, mostly produced from grain in the western New York area, eastwards to his markets closer to the Atlantic coast, and move it in sufficient quantity and affordable cost? The problem just wouldn’t go away or get better. If only there was some sort of canal, Hawley thought, to connect the waterways so that my flour could be moved by barge all the way from Rochester and Buffalo all the way to the Hudson River? From there, the flour could go by water anywhere on the East Coast. So in 1805, Hawley started thinking about how a canal would be a boon for himself and everyone. But the pressures of business occupied his time as he struggled to stay afloat.

In 1807, he lost the struggle and went bankrupt. He was thrown into Canadaigua Debtor’s Prison. For most men, this would have been the end of the story, but for Jesse Hawley, it was the chance of a lifetime. Freed from the day to day struggles of his dying business, Hawley could now concentrate on his old problem of an East-West canal connecting western New York and the Great Lakes area to the Hudson. Hawley researched and planned a way to make his dream a reality.

Then he started to write.

Writing under the name “Hercules”, Hawley write fourteen essays that were published in the Genesee Messenger. The essays, exhaustively documented, thoroughly researched, and highly persuasive, analyzed problem areas and recommended how they could be handled. They also painted a vivid picture of the great benefits the canal would bring to the whole area and the entire nation. Some local politicians and business people saw the force of Hawley’s arguments and began talking up the idea, but when President Thomas Jefferson heard of it, he called the scheme  “madness”. Of course, the project would be incredibly expensive, and the engineering challenges of overcoming the 565 foot elevation differences with scores of locks formidable, so the idea stalled.

But the idea was firmly planted, and Hawley was not the sort to give up easily…or at all. Finally, he received a sympathetic ear in New York Governor DeWitt Clinton, who later became immortalized with his picture on the tax stamp on cigarette packs. Clinton saw the benefits to his state and began to talk it up to the right people and the project was approved. The fact that, by this time, Hawley had been elected to the New York State Senate didn’t hurt either.


Erie Canal route

Construction was just as difficult and expensive as its critics has claimed, and the project was called Clinton’s Folly, or Clinton’s Ditch by some. The technology of the day was strained to the limit, with the necessity of building so many locks, viaducts, and bridges. The excess earth from the construction was used to extend  parts of New York City. but the Erie Canal was finally completed in 1825. It stretched 363 miles from the Hudson all the way to Buffalo, and was hailed as an engineering marvel.


The Erie Canal had pretty much the results Hawley had promised. Transportation costs dropped, and with them, the cost of food in the East Coast cities, freeing capital to produce machinery and other products. This, in turn, provided an economic boom that benefited the entire country.

And it all started with a bankrupt businessman writing in his jail cell.