John William Hill (1812–1879)
Watercolor on paper, 1829
Even before independence, Americans dreamed of crossing the barriers of mountains and wilderness. Not until after the War of 1812, however, did these dreams become reality. In his 1815 address to Congress, President Madison proposed establishing “throughout the country . . . roads and canals.” Congressman John C. Calhoun called for binding “the republic together with a perfect system of roads and canals. Let us conquer space.”
Although the national government did little, the states engaged in “a nation-wide craze for canal building.” The biggest, sponsored by New York governor DeWitt Clinton, connected the Hudson River at Albany with Lake Erie in Buffalo—364 miles of mostly wilderness. It would be the longest canal in the world and one with unique engineering problems. Many feared that “Clinton’s Big Ditch” would bankrupt the state, but heavy traffic in the first sections financed the canal’s completion. The transportation revolution in America had begun.