For thousands of years prior to the early 1800s maritime transportation was dependent on sailing ships. In the first few decades of the 19th century however, entrepreneurs in New York helped revolutionize the industry so that one hundred years later sailing ships were an anachronism that hardly existed, except for show.
In the latter part of the 1700s the development of the Boulton & Watt steam engine in England made it theoretically possible to power a boat. Before 1800 a number of inventors, including New Yorkers such as Nicholas Roosevelt, John Fitch, Robert R. Livingston, John Stevens III and others, experimented with boats that used such steam engines. Before Robert Fulton made his first run in the North River steamboat (later renamed Clermont) in 1807 more than a dozen steamboats had been constructed in the United States with varying degrees of success. There were difficulties in making such craft commercially viable.
Robert R. Livingston, a prominent, wealthy and powerful New York politician, a lawyer by training and at one time Chancellor of New York State, obtained a charter from the New York State legislature that granted him a monopoly on steam transportation in New York waters if he could build a steam powered vehicle that could run from New York City to Albany at four miles per hour in 30 hours. For several years he was unsuccessful and the legislature extended his charter several times.
After the victory of Democratic-Republicans in the 1800 Elections Thomas Jefferson appointed Livingston Minister Plenipotentiary from the United States of America at the Court of Versailles (as French ambassadors were then called). It was there that Livingston met Robert Fulton. Fulton had been living in England and France for the previous 20 years where he worked as a portrait artist and became interested in engineering. He had promoted a number of canal ideas (England was then in a “canal mania”), was part of creating a popular diorama in Paris, and most recently was trying to sell the French Navy an early submarine concept.
There is no doubt that Livingston knew Fulton by reputation from his involvement in steamboat experiments and he undoubtedly described the difficulties he was having in New York. Fulton felt that the steam engines were powerful enough, but felt the hull designs were inadequately streamlined. Livingston hired Fulton to experiment with new designs. In August of 1803, Fulton’s design left the dock on the Seine and sank. Fulton moved to England and continued to experiment with streamlining naval architecture, developing some of the first torpedoes used with limited success in the 1804 Raid on Boulogne. When the French Fleet was destroyed at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Fulton’s designs were shelved.
Returning to New York, Livingston and Fulton established a shipyard at Corlears Hook in Manhattan to build a boat that could meet the requirements of the New York Legislature. After considerable trial and error in which Fulton would insist on numerous expensive alterations, and Livingston would complain about the cost, they had a prototype which they thought could work. On August 17, 1807 to the jests of many New Yorkers, their North River steamboat belched smoke and began its way up the river.
After a stop at the Livingston estate in Columbia County, it made the turn at Albany and returned to New York in less than 30 hours – it was the beginning of the end of the reign of sailing ships. Fulton and Livingston were soon running steam ferries from what is today Fulton Street in Brooklyn to what is today Fulton Street in Manhattan.
In the early 19th century, transatlantic travel was somewhat chaotic. Although there was a growth of goods shipped to and from Europe following the War of 1812, generally international sailing ships did not sail on a fixed schedule. Instead, merchants would to wait until the ship was filled with cargo and then announce a sailing date. This could take some time and limited the about of perishable goods that could be shipped.
In 1817, two enterprising Quaker ship owners took an advertisement in the local newspapers announcing that at 1 pm on January 5, 1818, their ship was going to leave South Street for Liverpool whether or not it was fully loaded. Two weeks later another ship would leave South Street at the same time. Merchants could be assured that the ships would leave on a fixed schedule and the uncertainty of transatlantic shipping was reduced.
On January 5th, a small crowd gathered near today’s South Street Seaport to see Jeremiah Thompson and Benjamin Wright, the proprietors of what would become known as the “Black Ball Line” proudly open the ship’s hull so that all could see that it was only half-filled. Forty-one days later it docked in Liverpool.
Although the ships of the Black Ball Line might sail half-full, the fact that a New York merchant now could be certain that ships would sail on a fixed schedule proved to be highly beneficial. Not the least of improvements was made in the exchange of news, which would reach New York before it did elsewhere in the country. This sometimes gave New York merchants advantages over their competitors in other cities, and tended to centralize commerce in the city.
The Erie Canal
In the early nineteenth century, the country was clearly moving to the West, but the route by which most goods and people traveled was a difficult one. In 1810 it was said to be significantly cheaper to ship wheat from the rich Ohio Valley north to Montreal and the St. Lawrence River and around New England to the Hudson, than it was to haul it overland.
For almost a century certain far-sighted New Yorkers, such as Cadwallader Colden, Elkhana Watson and later Gouverneur Morris, had other ideas — that there could be a water route across New York State to the Great Lakes. In 1794 a private company, the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, of which Phillip Schuyler was President, was formed for the purpose of improving overland transportation to the Great Lakes by water. That company failed in its ultimate goal, as did an effort to secure federal funding for the project from the Jefferson administration.
About this time Jesse Hawley, a relatively obscure merchant in Batavia, NY, became a leading promoter of the idea. While confined to debtor’s prison in 1805 he wrote a series of essays for the Genessee Messenger in which he laid out a detailed plan for the construction of a canal across the state, proposing that it be funded by the federal government with funds from the sale of western lands. Hawley’s plan would ultimately become the basis of the Erie Canal, except that it would be funded by the State of New York, not the federal government. The State Legislature formed a commission, which included Robert Livingston and Robert Fulton, to develop the project. After some frustrating attempts to obtain federal funding (culminating in a veto of the project by President James Madison), the new state commission began to focus on the idea that the State of New York on its own would undertake the project.
Needless to say, there were many skeptics. For one thing, the longest canal ever constructed had been the Canal royal en Languedoc (later renamed the Canal du Midi), which connected the Atlantic with the Mediterranean. That canal had been constructed by Louis XIV at the height of his power and extended approximately 170 miles. The proposed Erie Canal would be approximately three times as long and need to reach a height of 700 feet in elevation. William Weston, the British engineer, who had worked on the Western Inland Lock Navigation project, though supportive of the idea, was unavailable. Therefore the canal builders would have to rely on two local surveyors — Benjamin Wright and James Geddes — to design this mammoth project.
Another problem was that the source of the capital to build such a grandiose project was unclear. However, with the end of the War of 1812 and the success of such technological projects as Robert Fulton’s steamboat, this was a time of some optimism. DeWitt Clinton, nephew of Governor George Clinton and former Mayor of the city of New York who had run unsuccessfully as the Federalist candidate against Democratic-Republican James Madison for President in 1812, became the head of the Canal Commission. At the time, Clinton was at a low ebb in his career though he did have an idea, which though not original with him, would prove to be an idea whose time had come.
With other supporters of the canal, Clinton decided used a strategy of promoting the project through a broad-based public relations campaign to convince the people of New York to build the Canal on their own. In December, 1815 a group of canal supporters, including many merchants affiliated with the New York Chamber of Commerce and Industry, gathered at the City Hotel in Manhattan to hear DeWitt Clinton read the New York Memorial to the State Legislature urging their support for the canal. It is now considered one of the more important and cogent political documents in the state’s history. Part political argument, part legal brief and part philosophical treatise, it argued that the project was both practical, economically feasible, and would provide the entire state with significant economic benefits. In closing it noted:
“It may be confidently asserted, that this canal, as to the extent of its route, as to the countries which it connects, and as to the consequences which it will produce, is without a parallel in the history of mankind. The union of the Baltic and the Euxine; of the Red Sea and the Mediterranean; of the Euxine and the Caspian; and of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, has been projected or executed by the chiefs of powerful monarchies, and the splendor of the design has always attracted the admiration of the world. It remains for a free state to create a new era in history, and to erect a work more stupendous, more magnificent, and more beneficial than has hitherto been achieved by the human race.”
This Memorial was distributed throughout the state and signed by more than 100,000 people before its presentation to the State Legislature. Much to the chagrin of his political opponents, gubernatorial candidate DeWitt Clinton, and fusion Federalists and Democratic-Republican candidates pledging to build the canal, were handily elected in the election of 1816. Their leading opponent, Martin van Buren, might have had sufficient strength to stop the project, but in what he would later call the most important vote of his political career Van Buren joined Clinton in support of the project. On July 4, 1817 (hardly an accidental date), the first spade of earth for the canal was turned at Rome, New York (near where the Worthen Steel plant is now located), and the people of the State of New York began one of the most daring and successful entrepreneurial public works projects in American history.
At first the construction of the Canal went well. The first 70 miles between Rome and Syracuse went over relatively flat terrain, where the work was completed on time and relatively close to budget. By 1821, at a ceremony for the opening of the middle section, DeWitt Clinton exuberantly proclaimed that the entire canal could be completed by 1823. However, when the canal builders reached the Niagara Escarpment they ran into trouble as their critics had predicted and the work fell behind schedule. Charges and counter charges were made about mismanagement of the canal project, and DeWitt Clinton was defeated in the run for governor in the election of 1822.
As the proponents of the project had predicted however, the builders overcame the problem of the escarpment with a system of 28 mechanical locks at what is now Lockport, NY. The construction of the canal then continued on to Buffalo. Clinton remained as the Chairman of the State’s Canal Commission (by then a largely ceremonial post). In 1824 his political opponents sought to remove him from this position, but a wave of revulsion throughout the state against this move caused him to be reelected as Governor.
In 1825 he led a voyage on the packet boat Seneca Chief from Buffalo to the city of New York to commemorate its opening. On November 4, 1825, there was a formal ceremony at the Battery in Clinton poured Lake Erie water into New York Harbor. At that ceremony New York Mayor Cadwallader Colden (whose grandfather had first raised the possibility of building the canal more than 100 years earlier) stated “not since the pharaohs had irrigated the Upper Nile valley 2000 years earlier had such an important water project been built at an any time in any place in the history of the world.”
The economic impact of the Canal was immediate and beyond the expectations of even its most enthusiastic backers. The cost of shipping a ton of wheat from the Ohio Valley to New York City dropped from approximately $100 a ton to $6 a ton. The port of New York, which carried one third of the nation’s commerce to Europe in 1820, would carry two-thirds by 1860. Tolls on the canal, which had been projected to pay off construction costs in 20 years, did so in seven. By the 1840s canal tolls were paying more than $2 million into the coffers of the State of New York creating a Canal Fund that could back up New York banks. Most importantly, farmers, manufacturers, and merchants along the 500 miles from the Great Lakes to the city of New York now had direct access to the national market. Land values throughout the State skyrocketed and the Canal was soon widened to accommodate increased traffic.
Beyond the economic impact of the Erie Canal, was its political impact. Optimism about the democratic form of government increased as the canal, unlike earlier great public works, had been created by a relatively small democratic government after a public debate on its merits. Leaders, elected by individual citizens, had directed public policy to great success. In Europe and elsewhere leaders of democratic movements could take heart. Although democracies were generally criticized as inefficient and unworkable, their proponents could now cite the success of the Erie Canal.
This is a series of articles on the history of Wall Street in the city of New York. You can read the entire series here.
Illustrations: England, a packet ship of the Black Ball Line; The 1909 replica of the North River Steamboat (Clermont) at anchor; the Erie Canal in 1829; and “The Marriage of the Waters” by C. Y. Turner, 1905, from a mural in the DeWitt Clinton High School in NYC.