by Louise Fiske
On July 4th, 1817, ground was broken for the Erie Canal at Rome, N.Y. Two hundred years later, 2017, is the celebration of the bicentennial of this historic event. Proposed in 1808 and completed in 1825, the canal links the waters of Lake Erie in the west to the Hudson River in the east. An engineering marvel when it was built, some called it the Eighth Wonder of the World.
In order to open the country west of the Appalachian Mountains to settlers and to offer a cheap and safe way to carry produce to a market, the construction of a canal was proposed as early as 1768. However, those early proposals would connect the Hudson River with Lake Ontario near Oswego. It was not until 1808 that the state legislature funded a survey for a canal that would connect to Lake Erie. Finally, on July 4, 1817, the construction of the canal began. In those early days, it was often sarcastically referred to as “Clinton’s Big Ditch”. However, two years after construction began, the first section of the canal, between Rome and Utica, saw the beginning of commercial traffic. Use of the canal expanded as other sections were completed. When finally completed on October 26, 1825, it was the engineering marvel of its day. It included 18 aqueducts to carry the canal over ravines and rivers, and 83 locks, with a rise of 568 feet from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. It was 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide, and floated boats carrying 30 tons of freight. A ten foot wide towpath was built along the bank of the canal for the horses and/or mules which pulled the boats and their driver, often a young boy (sometimes referred to by later writers as a “hoggee”).
In order to keep pace with the growing demands of traffic, the Erie Canal was enlarged between 1836 and 1862. The “Enlarged Erie Canal” was 350.5 miles long, 7 feet deep and 70 feet wide, and could handle boats carrying 240 tons. The number of locks was reduced to 72. Most of the remaining traces of the Old Erie Canal are from the Enlarged Erie era.
The Eire Canal project and the innovative financing involved in its construction had an enormous impact on the constitutional development of New York State. Because of the huge capital outlay, canals generally received either direct or indirect financing by state governments. With the state’s appeal for federal funding rejected and thrown back on its own resources, one of the New York’s major contributions to the canal era was to demonstrate that it was possible to finance large public works through the sale of state bonds. In addition, the state constitution adopted in 1821 provided that the tolls plus the revenue from two reliable sources of state income, salt and auction duties, were to be deposited in a sinking fund, known as the canal fund, for the ordinary servicing of the debt.
The success of the Erie Canal led to numerous proposals for lateral or branch, canals. Beginning in 1825 the sale financed their construction by selling bonds, or as they were then called transferable certificates of stock.
August Belmont was a financier. Born in Alzei, Rhensih, Prussia he started his banking career early by working at the entry level for the prominent House of Rothchilds at the tender age of fourteen, working his way up to positions in Frankfort and Naples then becoming their American representative in New York in 1837.
His time in America proved fruitful; he advanced in his position and entered high society, became an American citizen and married the daughter of Commodore Matthew Perry of Newport, Rhode Island. He entered politics as consul general of Austria at New York in 1844; he resigned this position six years later in protest of Austria’s political position against Hungary. In 1853 he served at The Hague, first as Charge-de Affaires then as the resident American Minister. He returned to the United States in 1858 and resumed his lucrative career in banking and politics, which took him to the Democratic National Convention as a delegate in support of Stephen Douglas in 1860.
He was later named Chairman of the democratic National Committee and was a very strong supporter of the Union during the Civil War. He used his considerable influence in the banking trade to sway opinions of merchants in England and France to the Union cause. He remained as chairman of the National Democratic Committee until 8 years prior to his death. In 1867 the first “Belmont Stakes” horse race took place in Jerome Park, New York. Older than both the Kentucky Derby as well as the Preakness Stakes race, the grueling endurance run remains a prestigious event to this day and a permanent jewel in horse racing’s “Triple Crown”. His sons, August Belmont (the Younger) and Perry Belmont were pillars of political and financial society with the former following much in his father’s footsteps and the latter studying law and serving in the United States Congress.
Belmont Monument at Island Cemetery, where August Belmont is interred in Newport RI.