The Erie Canal: A Marvel, Every Inch of the Way

Dorothy Day linked generosity, prayer and protest (she was arrested eight times) to help found the Catholic Worker Movement in New York.

The Erie Canal, New York City’s visionary lifeline to the Midwest, moved earth and heaven as well as cargo. It was, Jack Kelly writes, “itself the product of inspiration, its construction an act of faith,” which may explain why it also stoked the religious and political furor that engulfed the State of New York two centuries ago.

In “Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold and Murder on the Erie Canal” (St. Martin’s Press, $27.99), Mr. Kelly, a journalist and novelist, engagingly juxtaposes the challenges confronting the dreamers who envisioned a link between the Atlantic, the Great Lakes and the apocalyptic caldron brewing upstate. Mormons and Freemasons, joined with Welsh and Irish laborers recruited from Manhattan’s Five Points, carved the canal from rock and mud, thrusting them into a volatile coexistence.

This is the bicentennial of the creation of DeWitt Clinton’s successful Canal Commission (familiarly, the crucial bill came to a vote on the last day of the legislative session), which is as good a time as any to reflect on the canal’s significance not only to the Port of New York, but also in tipping the upper Middle West against slavery by populating it with transplanted New Yorkers and Yankees. This provided a hospitable corridor for the Underground Railroad and, in turn, the struggle for women’s rights.

The Hudson was naturally majestic, and the canal was an engineering marvel, but some early reviews of the voyage and the newcomers who barged into the virgin territory were mixed at best. Herman Melville pronounced the canal “one continual stream of Venetianly corrupt and often lawless life.” Nathaniel Hawthorne branded it “an interminable mud-puddle.”

The association of evangelicals and engineers sometimes seems disjointed, but also suggests the tempo of a nation moving faster and farther west. To signal the launching of the flotilla in Buffalo that would culminate with the marrying of the waters of Lake Erie and the Atlantic in New York, a cannon was fired at 10 a.m. on Oct. 26, 1825. Gunners stationed at 10-to-15-mile intervals triggered their own cannons each time they heard the preceding boom.

“Onward the message went, gun after gun, for an hour and 20 minutes until it reached the Atlantic, more than 500 miles away,” Mr. Kelly writes. “It was the first time that news of an event in the interior had arrived at the coast in an approximation of real time.”

Born in Brooklyn in 1897 and a convert to Catholicism (from Mayflower stock), Dorothy Day coupled generosity, prayer and protest (she was arrested eight times) to help found the Catholic Worker Movement in New York. Its agenda: justice and charity, pacificism and spreading the wealth.

In “Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker:The Miracle of Our Continuance” (Empire State Editions, Fordham University Press, $39.95), gripping photographs by Vivian Cherry invigorate Day’s own description of her agenda’s quotidian demands.

“Some days when it rains,” Day wrote of a soup kitchen on Chrystie Street, “and the cellar flooded and drowned rats and soaking newspapers and old mattresses contribute a peculiar odor of decay, and the walls drip and the banisters are slimy and the lights have to burn all day even on the top floor to dispel the gloom and one of the women has had one of her spells (for several days and nights), cursing and wailing — then it is indeed hard to love one another.”

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