Call it a ‘ditch,’ but not a ‘folly’
I was just a rookie reporter covering the Capitol at the time, but I remember well Gov. DeWitt Clinton being pressured to drag his feet on building the canal.
Don’t hold me to the accuracy of any of this, but opponents of the canal kept saying “do another study, Dewie” or “drag your feet, Dewie, drag your feet.” He disliked his given name — thought it was too effete — so they called him “Dewie” or sometimes “Big D.”
Clinton held his ground. Despite all the opposition, he was determined to construct the 363-mile-long Erie Canal from the eastern shore of Lake Erie all the way to the upper Hudson River, said it would mean cheap transportation from the Atlantic to the heartland and unprecedented prosperity for folks along the route. Talk about genius; they built the middle section first so those at the opposite ends would clamor for completion (and that is true!).
“Call it a ‘ditch’ if you must,” Clinton would tell opponents, “but please, please, not the ‘folly’ word.”
And how the protesters did clobber him. Even President Thomas Jefferson called the idea “a little short of madness.” And bear in mind that Jefferson was not just a former president but also a renaissance man and renaissance men are not easily dismissed. Clinton dismissed him.
Back then, they did not have the benefit of famous, uber-liberal movie and TV stars like Susan Sarandon and Matt Damon with their Gulfstream IVs and their dark-windowed Chevy Suburbans to lend their special expertise on environmental disputes. Matter of fact, they did not use words like “environmental,” or even “pollution” all that much. Instead of “pollution,” they called it “stuff that hurts the landscape and is not good.”
Instead of movie stars, citizens had to rely on big names from traveling minstrel shows to tell them what to think. One of these itinerant song-and-dance men by the name of Bobby Bedford warned that, after spending all this tax money for the cockamamie canal, it would be French tourists, not New Yorkers, who would use the thing (damn you, Alexis deTocqueville!!).
The anti-canalers advised Clinton to declare another comment period before launching the project and that might delay it long enough for him to run for president and, of course, kill off the ditch. In those days, a comment period could go for a couple of years due to slower transit and communication. Al Gore was only starting to imagine the Internet and email was a long way off. But Clinton already had run for the White House in 1812 and lost to James Madison so fat chance of that.
One of the antis — and this was a strange story — declared that digging the ditch all across upstate might disturb underground deposits of what he called “natural gas.” In 1815, the only “natural gas” most folks were familiar with had to do with pub grub like fish and chips. But this guy insisted there was this “natural gas” stuff under the earth and the canal could contaminate it.
“Canals are just not safe,” opponents insisted, coming up with all sorts of horror stories. But Clinton knew that canals had been all the rage in England and dismissed the rumors.
“But not everybody will prosper from the canal’s being built,” insisted still others. Clinton issued a six-word press release responding — and this is an exact quote from the governor: “Yeah, so what else is new?”
In 1817, Clinton got the Legislature to cough up $7 million to build the canal; in today’s dollars, that’s a boatload of money. It was finished eight years later and the cost of sending a brass spittoon for Christmas to your cousin Louie in Buffalo dropped by an amazing 90 percent. Clinton went from chump to champ and all across the state they named underachieving middle schools and a handful of gin mills in his honor.
The anti-canalers knew they were down but not out. Their leaders reminded them they must move on; they had only 30 years or so to get ready to protest the building of the transcontinental railroad. “Spike that golden spike,” was their battle cry.
Dewie, DeWitt, The Big D; call him what you will. Such a governor!
John McLoughlin is a freelance columnist and a veteran Capital Region journalist now at NewsChannel13. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach him at JMcLoughlin@WNYT.com.