Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation
By Peter L. Bernstein
Norton, 2005, 352 pp.
The Erie Canal stretches for 363 miles, from Albany to Buffalo. Its construction was a major event in American history: by creating a water link between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean via the Hudson River, the Erie Canal dramatically accelerated the development of the American interior, linked the Midwest and the East together in an economic and political unit that would dominate American political life for 150 years, and made New York the greatest city in the hemisphere (and, some would say, the world). It also vastly accelerated the development of American capital markets and for the first time attracted substantial foreign capital to infrastructure projects, which would play a vital role in future industrial development. Meanwhile, all this was carried out by a New York State government in the midst of a chaotic series of changes, as rapid immigration and the arrival of universal (white) manhood suffrage made early nineteenth-century New York City the laboratory of American democracy. Bernstein is at his best when describing the engineering and technological innovations that made the canal possible, and his treatment of the financial engineering necessary to fund this enormous project is also very sound. If he is less successful at recreating the political context of the times, that is at least partly because the politics were so tumultuous. In any case, Wedding of the Waters is an important window into a vital and too often neglected period in the American past.