How the Erie Canal Changed the World

Michael Keene is an author and historian.
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By Veronica Volk

Michael Keene is author of the book, The Psychic Highway: How the Erie Canal Changed America. He describes how this sprawling transportation system changed the world, not just by transporting goods and people, but also ideas.

With so much written about the Erie Canal already, what made you decide to write this book?

Although much has been written about the Erie Canal as a means of transportation little has been explored as to its importance as a method of communications.  As Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft called it 150 years later, it was, "The Super information Highway" of its time!

Why do you refer to the Erie Canal as the "Psychic Highway?"

Because of the canal's geographical connection to the major social, religious and political movements of the 19th century and to what Charles G. Finney called, The Burned Over District, many 20th century historians and scholars have pondered the canals possible, "psychic properties" in accounting for this phenomena. I decided to piggy-back on the concept. Besides, the Erie Canal has been called "Clinton's Ditch" so often I figured we were due for a change.

How did the canal revolutionize communications?

By virtue of the increase in speed of not only transporting goods but also of people, the communication of "ideas" also greatly increased. Those New Englanders who were still restlessly searching for greater social, political and religious freedom, used the canal as their gateway west.

You mention some iconic figures in your book. What role did the canal play in some of their stories?

Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglas, Sojourner Truth, Charles G. Finney to name a few -- all had two things in common, they lived in upstate New York and the Erie Canal was their means of transportation. And they changed America.

How did a grain merchant in debtor's prison predict the canal's development?

Perhaps the greatest of the canal's visionaries was Jesse Hawley, who described in great detail, while sitting in debtors prison no less, not only the canals various construction techniques, and its eventual path, but even in calculating the cost of the canal within 90 percent of accuracy. This was all the more remarkable when you consider he wrote about these things 20.years before the actual construction of the canal. How did he know this? Visionaries by definition are always "ahead of the curve"!

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