Erie Canal

The Erie Canal opened on October 26, 1825, 188 years ago.

Around this same date in 1960, I learned to sing a song about the Erie Canal. My family was spending a year in Gainesville, Florida, and my teacher that year, Mrs. Hunter, encouraged her students in many ways. She pointed out that I could sing, and already had the beginnings of a bass voice, in between squeaks. She often led her class in singing, and she taught us the Erie Canal song.

The song was written by Thomas Allen, a Tin Pan Alley composer, in 1905, presumably to commemorate the use of mules to pull barges, as steam and diesel engines were beginning to take over the mules’ jobs.

The Erie Canal tune is musically interesting because the verses are mostly in a minor key, with a couple of lines in the major feel, finally switching to the relative major for the entire chorus. That means there is a little transition required to get back to the minor verse key.

Like many folk songs, its lyrics, and even its title, have changed over the years. Although it has four verses, I only learned the first. The verse rhyme scheme is AAAABBCC, but the version I remember reverses the next-to-last line of the first verse to make its rhyme scheme AAAABBBC, which I still like better. I presume that change is due to a failure of my memory. I’m pretty sure Mrs. Hunter would not have taught us wrong.

The 363-mile canal itself was quite an engineering and a construction feat. According to the Wikipedia article linked above, there were no civilian civil engineers in America at that time (citation needed, and near-redundancy noted). The canal designers were judges, whose surveying experience came from settling boundary disputes. The thousands of workers were mostly Scots Irish, with German masons brought in to lay the stonework.

Like many publicly-funded projects, it met with opposition, according to the Writer’s Almanac excerpt. One eloquent critic said, “In the big ditch will be buried the treasury of the state to be watered by the tears of posterity.” But the canal provided a critically-needed capability; its estimated traffic load of 1.5 million tons annually was exceeded almost immediately, and another project was begun to widen the canal.

And like many (most!) large-scale construction projects (see also, the transcontinental railroad), it ran into unexpected difficulties. One year malaria killed 1000 workers, and construction was temporarily halted. Leaks developed, and hydraulic cement was used to patch them. Aqueducts were built to manage water flow.

As construction progressed, it opened in sections, because even a small section of open water was faster and could carry more than horse-drawn wagons. When the canal was finally opened, there was a huge celebration.

Similarly, but with less fanfare, my fifth grade year eventually came to a close, and the family moved back to Georgia. I brought back Mrs. Hunter’s encouragement, my new-found enjoyment of singing, and the Erie Canal song. It was a good year.

Was she right? Can I sing? I guess you’ll have to listen for yourself.

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I recommend you check out the Writer’s Almanac excerpt, and then the Wikipedia article if you want more details.

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