History/Travel

Taming the Mohawk River

Taming the Mohawk River

The Erie Canal was first proposed when Thomas Jefferson was President.  The sheer expense and amount of labor that it would take were much more than Jefferson could imagine, and he described it as a “little short of madness”.   However, the upside for a canal that would open up the west to commerce was immense.  Investors saw a clear return on investment, and DeWitt Clinton, the Governor of New York, supported the project.  Opponents called it Clinton’s folly, but in the end he was proven right.

The Mohawk River, a powerful East-West tributary to the Hudson River, was chosen as a key part of the Erie Canal, and 110 miles of the river were re-purposed as part of the it.  But rivers run wild, and the Mohawk River was no exception.  The engineers designed a series of trusses that stepped the river down while also regulating the flow.  These were effectively dams that looked like bridges.  Each had a lock for boat traffic, seen on the right in the photo below.  Today these trusses are massive steel and concrete structures that run the length of the Mohawk River.  While the barge traffic has given way to pleasure craft, the canal remains an engineering marvel.

There’s no doubt that the Erie Canal was a massive success, and helped bring the resources and natural wealth of the western interior to the east, making cities like Buffalo, Rochester, Albany and New York much richer in the process.  Its hard not to be impressed with the scale of the Erie Canal, but there’s a part of me that would love to have seen what it looked like before 1817, when the first shovels cut into the ground in Utica.  It’s not lost on me that it was the year after Captain Clement died in my “neighborhood” in New Hampshire.  These were big years for the country, finding its place in the world after two wars with Great Britain.  The Erie Canal would fuel the industrial revolution and help the North win the Civil War.  It would be another hundred years before the world realized just how powerful the United States had become when we entered World War I.  It’s easy to see how much the canal meant for the sustained economic growth of this nation.

The Mohawk River, like the tribe that shares its name who lived alongside it, was forever changed by the rapid expansion west.  Just like the Niagara River, the Colorado River and the Columbia River, the Mohawk River that flows into the Hudson has shrunken from a mighty river to a fraction of what it once was.  The taming of rivers is at once an impressive feat of engineering and a sad tale of man bending natural resources to our will.  I like my rivers on the wild side, but write that knowing that the taming of the Merrimack River in Lowell created that city, and as a side bar made it possible for me to row in college.  So just as I am who I am partly because of the taming of the Merrimack River, so too America is what it is because of the taming of the Mohawk River. 

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