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Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation

Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation

4.6 5
by Peter L. Bernstein

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Upon completion, the Erie Canal stretched 363 miles across New York state from Albany to Buffalo, linking the great port city of New York to the interior of the United States. This work tells the story of the building of the canal and its impact on the economy. The author describes how the canal came to be through looking at the individuals who came with the plan, the


Upon completion, the Erie Canal stretched 363 miles across New York state from Albany to Buffalo, linking the great port city of New York to the interior of the United States. This work tells the story of the building of the canal and its impact on the economy. The author describes how the canal came to be through looking at the individuals who came with the plan, the politicians and businessmen involved with its implementation, and the engineers who saw it to fruition. He sets the narrative of the canal within the overall context of concurrent economic and political developments. Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR

Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Yardley
A great deal has been written about the canal but relatively little in recent years, so Wedding of the Waters is a valuable history lesson for people -- i.e., most of us -- who have forgotten about the canal or never knew about it in the first place. Bernstein, an economist who has written a number of books that attempt with considerable success to address complex subjects for a general readership, gives the story of the canal's conception and construction all the drama it deserves, and -- as is suggested by the quotation above -- puts it into larger perspective. Almost certainly it is no exaggeration to say that the United States wouldn't be what it is today had it not been for the Erie Canal; it was the Interstate Highway System of the 19th century, and its impact was comparable if not even greater.
— The Washington Post
The New Yorker
In the early eighteen-hundreds, the wild idea began to circulate of a man-made waterway that would connect Lake Erie to the Hudson River. At the time, canals were an exciting technology. George Washington was fascinated by them, and spent his last years attempting to tame the Potomac. But geography favored New York, where the Mohawk River Valley offered a natural cut in the mountains. Bernstein’s lively account covers the political debates that surrounded the canal’s financing and choice of route, and also the tenacity of the local workers who completed the project. The inauguration, in 1825, of the Erie Canal sparked a cultural revolution as interior cities became port towns. The number of patents increased, suggesting an intellectual awakening, but there were also fears that mobility could lead to moral decline, and one paper denounced the canal as “the Big Ditch of Iniquity.”<
Publishers Weekly
First proposed in 1808 and completed 17 years later, the Erie Canal was the first great feat of macroengineering undertaken by the infant American republic. As economic consultant Bernstein (Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk) shows in his eloquent account, the canal-stretching 363 miles from the Hudson River to Lake Erie-reshaped not only the economic landscape of the eastern seaboard but the political and social landscape as well. Bernstein vividly relates the political battles fought over the high-priced project and the work of surveyors, engineers and laborers. The canal was in particular an economic engine for New York, bringing down the cost of shipping goods between Buffalo and Manhattan by a whopping 90%. This in turn inspired the development of farms throughout the Great Lakes area and the Upper Midwest. At the same time, prices for farm commodities in Manhattan and other eastern cities dropped steadily, facilitating the growth of industrial workforces and a dramatic shift in the urban-to-rural ratio toward the cities. Bernstein does a first-rate job of examining the social, political and economic impact of the canal both as a construction project and as a viable path linking the Atlantic seaboard with the American interior. 20 b&w illus. not seen by PW. (Jan.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
The Erie Canal stretches for 363 miles, from Albany to Buffalo. Its construction was a major event in American history: by creating a water link between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean via the Hudson River, the Erie Canal dramatically accelerated the development of the American interior, linked the Midwest and the East together in an economic and political unit that would dominate American political life for 150 years, and made New York the greatest city in the hemisphere (and, some would say, the world). It also vastly accelerated the development of American capital markets and for the first time attracted substantial foreign capital to infrastructure projects, which would play a vital role in future industrial development. Meanwhile, all this was carried out by a New York State government in the midst of a chaotic series of changes, as rapid immigration and the arrival of universal (white) manhood suffrage made early nineteenth-century New York City the laboratory of American democracy. Bernstein is at his best when describing the engineering and technological innovations that made the canal possible, and his treatment of the financial engineering necessary to fund this enormous project is also very sound. If he is less successful at recreating the political context of the times, that is at least partly because the politics were so tumultuous. In any case, Wedding of the Waters is an important window into a vital and too often neglected period in the American past.
Library Journal
Bernstein, an economist notable for his popular writing (e.g., the best-selling Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk), links technological feats and bodies of water in the spirit of storytellers David McCullough (on the Panama Canal) and Ken Burns (on the Brooklyn Bridge). With all the enthusiasm of a young scholar, Bernstein traces the story of the Erie Canal by focusing on the impact of personalities such as Scottish surveyor Cadwallader Colden, Irish mechanic Christopher Colles, and popular politician and promoter De Witt Clinton. Bernstein's theme is that the waterway was pivotal in constructing an east-west axis for the movement of goods, people, ideas, and, ultimately, economic growth and globalization. The influx of New Englanders and New Yorkers into such cities as Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Chicago led to urbanization and industrialization, which put the North squarely ahead of the South by the time of the Civil War. This predominantly descriptive text is supplemented by annotations and a bibliography, while eyewitness accounts of what canal travel was actually like add considerably to this handsome book's appeal. Recommended for general audiences. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/04.]-Frederick J. Augustyn Jr., Library of Congress Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Crisp, insightful history of the canal that transformed New York into the Empire State and the US into an economic powerhouse. Stretching 363 miles from Buffalo on Lake Erie to Albany on the Hudson River, the Erie Canal was the technological marvel of its age. Its celebrated opening in 1825 culminated a century of effort by dreamers, tinkerers, merchants, and politicians who sought to build an artificial waterway linking the trans-Appalachian region to the Atlantic seaboard. Bernstein (The Power of Gold, 2000, etc.) deftly lays out those efforts. In the young republic, canal-building often failed. George Washington's attempt to create one along the Potomac River, for instance, was a financial disaster, later prompting Thomas Jefferson to dismiss the idea of a canal to the west as "little short of madness." It took brilliant, hard-nosed New York governor DeWitt Clinton to push the Erie Canal through a thicket of obstacles, including lack of financial assistance by the federal government or any sister state, the War of 1812, and nine years of stalemate in the state legislature. Bernstein also pays full tribute to lesser-known managers and often-anonymous workers who improvised methods of hacking the canal's path through the wilderness. Two project engineers, Benjamin Wright and James Geddes, had been judges and surveyors before assuming their posts, but went on to eminent careers in their new field. Financing the canal proved equally novel, with New York State selling bonds to the public at large and even to foreign financial markets. Along with the canal's well-known effects on the state and national economy (e.g., reducing the trip from Albany to Buffalo from 32 days to 5), Bernstein alsohighlights its social impact and larger national implications as the Midwest became tied to the free North rather than the slaveholding South in a vast commercial network. One corner of the great American panorama enlarged to highlight its starry-eyed visionaries, political machinations, indefatigable ingenuity, and cockeyed optimism. (20 line drawings, not seen)

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.44(w) x 9.48(h) x 1.22(d)

Meet the Author

Peter L. Bernstein, the financial historian, wrote nine books, including the worldwide bestseller Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk.

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Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Father_of_5_Boys More than 1 year ago
This was a good book about an underappreciated, and not much talked about, time in our history. The building of the Erie Canal was a monumental undertaking and had tremendous impacts on how this country developed. As the author points out, it had impacts on how other parts of the world developed too, because it opened up the breadbasket that is the Midwest and provided a source of food for industrializing countries in Europe. One of the things that I found astonishing was that there were absolutely no civil engineers in the United States when the canal boom was getting underway. "The results are all the more remarkable because they were achieved at a time when civil engineering was a non-existent profession in the United States...Almost everything was done on an ad hoc basis, with hardly any plans drawn out on paper." - - Amazing. I also found in striking how the economic conditions paralleled some of the things we've seen with the economic turmoil in 2008-2010. Speculators back then were derided as "shavers and brokers" and the nation was being described as an "overgrown and pampered youth...vaulting and bounding to ruin" with the cure "to go back to the simplicity of our forefathers and exchanging...our dissipation for temperance and our vice for virtue". Sounds a lot like today where a big part of the economic problem was people living beyond their means and buying houses they couldn't afford. - - - An interesting thing about that though was that "the impact of the business depression on the cost of both constructing and financing the Erie Canal was as favorable as it was unexpected". Makes me wonder if now is the time we should be reinvesting in infrastructure projects.
Guest More than 1 year ago
From a modern perspective, a ditch allowing barges to travel between Rust Belt cities in upstate New York hardly seems the stuff of high drama. But well-regarded economist and historian Peter L. Bernstein accomplishes the tough task of making readers care about the Erie Canal, the massive public works project that he believes changed the course of U.S. and world politics and trade. This compelling study portrays the waterway as a project involving enough risk and adventure to make a dot-com entrepreneur pale. Bernstein girds its history with ample modern-day perspectives to keep you interested. He does bog down at times in the arcane convolutions of early nineteenth century political disputes, but still spins a mostly fascinating yarn. We recommend this book to anyone looking for insight into this pivotal point in America¿s - and, perhaps, the world¿s - economic development.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book fully delivered on its promise of, 'The epic account of how one narrow robbon of water forever changed the course of American history.' As we stand at the real beginning of the Information Revolution, this book gives thought-provoking insight to how the execution of 'big' ideas can and does change history.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I live in an area that the Erie Canal runs through and have all my life. I will never look at the Canal the same again. This book was complete and insightful. I could hardly put the book down it was so well written. The book really does a great job of weaving together the whole picture of the wide influence of the Canal.