Rave Reviews by Jean E. Eustance

Before there were railroads, or interstate highways with massive trucks; flour and other foods, and manufactured goods had a hard time getting to the customers. Western New York State was crammed with all sorts of good things, and they were not going anywhere.  In the 1700s and early 1800s, the roads were hopeless quagmires.

Then various people thought of canals.  It became a dream to make a canal that would run from Buffalo to Albany.  After that, Rochester’s flour (from the Flour City) could be sent down the Hudson River to the markets in New York City. And, once you were on the Great Lakes, you could go the other way and take your goods to the Midwest. Jack Kelly’s book, Heaven’s Ditch discusses this and more.  The subtitle is God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal. DeWitt Clinton and others made the Erie Canal. Find this book in the adult non-fiction section, in the Pine Bush Area Public Library.

New York Governor DeWitt Clinton had the first section of the Erie Canal dug on July 4, 1817, in Rome, NY.  From there it went west and east to connect Buffalo and Albany, going through the Montezuma Swamp, despite the malaria.  It was a massive undertaking, and Irish laborers and others dug the canal by hand.

The book is about more than digging in the mud.  It is about religions that sprang up as the canal opened up a region of Upstate. There is a brief reference to Jemima Wilkinson, “the Public Universal Friend” near Seneca Lake. There is a lot said about Joseph Smith in Palmyra. He discovered the golden plates on Hill Cumorah, and founded the Church of the Latter-Day Saints (Mormonism.)  Charles Finney led religious revivals that were wildly popular.  William Miller founded Millerism, which expected the end of the world, in 1844. (He was disappointed.)  William Morgan joined the Freemasons but later wrote a book telling the secrets of that organization.  Shortly afterwards, he was bundled, screaming, into a carriage and disappeared. 

The book covers a lot of diverse topics.  There was the problem of strong drink, and it really was strong, when people drank whisky instead of water, because water was not safe.  There was the topic of money-digging, or treasure hunts, where the looking was more important than the finding. And speaking of digging, there were the ins and outs of how to build a canal across an entire state.

The chapters are divided into sub-chapters and I get confused as the book bobs from one subject to another.  If you are interested in the religions and religious revivals of the 1800s, or interested just in Upstate New York, this is the book for you.  If you want to know more about the seething life that ran along the area of the Erie Canal, read Heaven’s Ditch.

“I’ve got a mule and her name is Sal. Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal.  She’s a good old worker and a good old pal. Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal…And you’ll always know your neighbor, You’ll always know your pal, if you ever navigated on the Erie Canal.”

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