Construction of the Erie Canal

By Samuel Phineas Upham

The Erie Canal was an important part of New York history and city infrastructure that would have lasting impacts on transportation and the movement of goods. So one is left wondering why the Canal’s construction was left to novice engineers and surveyors. The answer has to do with infrastructure at the time, which is to say there wasn’t much.

Civil engineers didn’t exist, and judges had only set boundary disputes. That’s not serious surveying like the kind needed to plan a canal through a busy city.

So a young man named Canvass White took it upon himself to go to Britain to study their thriving canal system. He footed his own bill for the trip and came back wiser and ready to build. Together with mathematics instructor Nathan Roberts, White was able to launch the project in earnest upon his return.

One of the biggest hold ups, if one could imagine it today, was the clearing of trees. New York was essentially a virgin forest, so it was important to excavate soil and build a path through what was essentially uncharted territory of deep woods. It was the modern marvel of mechanical torque that made it possible to rip trees out of the ground and do the kind of work necessary to build the canal.

The other problem was labor, and immigration was already busy filling that gap. At the turn of the century, the city’s sizable working population was bolstered by Irish immigrants attempting to escape the potato famine.

About the Author: Samuel Phineas Upham is an investor at a family office/ hedgefund, where he focuses on special situation illiquid investing. Before this position, Phin Upham was working at Morgan Stanley in the Media and Telecom group. You may contact Phin on his Samuel Phineas Upham website or LinkedIn.

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