In this modern age of global air travel, overnight delivery and instant messaging, it is hard to imagine the importance of a project that allowed people to travel...

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

by Peter L. Bernstein

W.W. Norton, 448 pp., $24.95

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In this modern age of global air travel, overnight delivery and instant messaging, it is hard to imagine the importance of a project that allowed people to travel at only four miles per hour. But when the Erie Canal opened in 1825, it spawned a change to commerce as revolutionary as the Internet.

By creating a means to travel easily from New York City to the Great Lakes, first via 150 miles of the Hudson River and then via 363 miles on the man-made waterway, the canal helped open up the western frontier to goods, to ideas, and to people. Without the Erie Canal, the United States as we know it might not exist.

In “Wedding of the Waters,” economic consultant and author Peter L. Bernstein tells the story of the construction of the Erie Canal. Like many stories of grand projects, it is filled with politics, chicanery, false starts, technological innovation, dedicated individuals, egos and a little luck.

A need for a canal that penetrated past the Appalachian Mountains had long been recognized in the United States. George Washington favored a route up the Potomac but made little headway.

Many recognized the advantages of the Erie route, but it wasn’t until 1817, after years of political wrangling, that the first dirt and rocks were moved, by human power, as was all the material necessary to build a 363-mile long, 4-foot deep, 40-foot-wide canal. The waterway, complete with 83 locks and 18 aqueducts, allowed boats to gain or lose 675 feet in elevation between Albany and Buffalo, N.Y.

Bernstein does an admirable job of pulling together the disparate elements, but his story bogs down in details, backtracking and tangents. (Although the book could use more than just one map.) This creates a plodding pace that fails to convey the excitement of the canal story and ultimately fails to meet Bernstein’s goal of showing the true importance of this historic waterway.