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Industrialisation and the Erie Canal

When you are brought up in America, you are brought up on the history of hard work. There are so many immigrants that have died to build this country, it's in our bloodstream, it's in our DNA as Americans. We don't want their lives to go in vain, because of that, we usually work harder than anybody else.

Sean 'Diddy' Combs, Musician.

And one of the places where they worked and died was on the Erie canal.


In 1825, the Industrial Revolution reaches America. In upstate New York, Americans dig by hand one of the biggest construction projects in the Western world in 4000 years. This man-made, nearly 600km river cuts through the wilderness to connect the Atlantic Ocean with the middle of America. There isn't a single qualified engineer on the project, or in the entire country.

The man behind it is Governor DeWitt Clinton. The project will turn the North into an economic global economic powerhouse but the press believe it a doomed project and label it, 'Clinton's big ditch'. He has no doubt they're wrong.

It is a work more stupendous, more magnificent, and more beneficial, than has hitherto been achieved by the human race

The work is well paid, with Irish immigrants earning five times more than at home, but deadly. They use gunpowder to blast a path through the rocks. The highly combustible mix of nitrate charcoal and sulphur requires the right proportion. The wrong mix is fatal. To cope, workers drink. An English observer notes the crews are so reckless that on the signal for blasting, the workers just hold their shovels over their heads for protection from flying rocks.

After eight years of digging, and nearly a thousand dead, the canal opens in 1825, $50m of goods flow along its length every year. Villages become cities. New York City quadruples in size, becomes the country's number one port, and Wall St takes off a global financial centre.

The North, however, is complicit in the South's slavery. Northern factories house power looms that industrially turn cotton into cloth. But these factories give new opportunities to women. Lowell, Massachusetts is 'the city of spindles'. And 85% of the workers are single women aged between 15 and 25. It is a female (and a fashion) revolution. By 1850, men's clothing is the largest manufacturing industry in New York city.

And all this the work is lit by whale oil. Before crude oil and electricity, whale oil lamps lit the industrial revolution. Whaling is one of the North's biggest industries, bringing in $11m a year. With half of all whaling ships lost at sea, crews can't afford to discriminate, and it's one of the few industries where blacks are promoted on merit. (Indeed, the modern harpoon is invented by an ex slave, Louis Temple.)

But the two economies of America, one modern and meritocratic where women and blacks are employed, the other, backward, and supported by slavery, cannot co-exist for long.

Did you know?

There's so much money made in New York after the opening of Erie Canal, that in 1840, a new word, 'millionaire' is invented., NASA still uses whale oil. The Hubble space telescope runs on it., 50,000 men dug out 11million cubic yards of rock to build the Erie Canal, so called because its final connection was to Lake Erie. The last stretch had walls of limestone, sometimes 20ms high which stretched over the last 50kms.