Heaven’s Ditch offers an excitingly fresh look at a critical moment in American history.
The Erie Canal was the technological marvel of its age. It grew from one man’s sudden fit of inspiration. As excitement crackled down its length, the canal became the scene of the most imaginative outburst in American history. Men and women saw God face to face, gained and lost fortunes, and lived through a period of intense spiritual creativity.
The canal was the epitome of the can-do attitude of the age of the common man. The visionaries of the era didn’t just dream, they made things happen. They built a 360-mile waterway entirely by hand. They invented new religions and new modes of living. The canal made New York the financial capital of America, brought the modern world crashing into the frontier and stimulated the nation’s commerce for decades to come.
Heaven’s Ditch illuminates the spiritual and political upheavals along this “psychic highway” from its opening in 1825 down through 1844. It tells its story through a fascinating cast of characters: William Morgan planned to expose the secrets of Freemasonry–his fate permanently altered American politics. Charles Finney touched off the greatest revival of religion in our history. “Wage slave” Sam Patch became America’s first celebrity daredevil. William Miller envisioned the apocalypse. Joseph Smith, a farm boy and spiritual prodigy, gave birth to a new and distinctly American religion. Along the way, the reader encounters the very first “crime of the century,” a treasure hunt, searing acts of violence, a visionary cross-dresser, and a panoply of fanatics, mystics, and hoaxers. The climax arrives on the day millions believe the world will end.
Jesse Hawley paced the office of a Seneca Falls miller. The room trembled as rushing water drove the mill’s cogwork. Amid the musty smell of grain, the curly-haired broker spread a map of New York State on a table and sat “ruminating over it, for–I cannot tell how long.” His eyes lit on Niagara Falls. An image burst into his head. He saw the green water of the Great Lakes gushing in a mist-clad roar over that famous precipice. He imagined a great work of man diverting the flow into an artificial river, a canal running across the entire state. He saw a long parade of boats, each stacked with barrels of flour, floating down this channel toward eastern markets. To Hawley, a middleman in the western New York grain trade, it was a vision of wealth.
He had just been complaining to the mill owner about the state’s miserable transportation system. Farming in the Genesee country was productive, yes, but no one could make a profit manhandling heavy barrels along mud-clogged roads or down the unreliable, rapids-filled Mohawk River to reach the nation’s population centers. A canal was the answer.
Five years earlier, at the dawn of a new century, Hawley had joined the trickle of hopeful, daring Yankees who were heading west from New England, traveling beyond the wall of the Appalachian Mountains. Like most of them, Hawley was young, only twenty-seven then. Like many, he came in search of a fortune. Now, in 1805, he was facing bankruptcy.
Water was indispensable for carrying heavy loads. Teams of horses straining to pull wooden wagons could not compete with boats gliding along streams or lakes. Every major city in the nation had access to a river, a coast, or both. A horse that could move two tons along a smooth road could haul fifty tons down a canal, extending water transportation to the interior.
Yet Hawley’s idea was laughable. Three hundred sixty miles of tangled forests and dank swampland, of hills and valleys, separated Lake Erie from the Hudson River. Hawley needed only to consider the Middlesex Canal in Massachusetts, twenty-seven miles end to end. Then the longest canal in America, it had taken nine years to build. At the same rate of construction, a canal across New York State would not be completed until the unimaginable year 1925, when everyone now living would be in their graves.
To Hawley, geography represented both an obstacle and an intriguing promise. The Great Lakes, all but Lake Ontario, stretched halfway across the continent at the same elevation. The Hudson crept inland entirely at sea level. Link the two and you would join the middle of the continent with the coast. The long downhill run from Lake Erie, dropping a foot every mile across the state to Albany, could carry a placid waterway navigable in both directions.
Visions are cheap, flashes of clarity come to all. Translating a vision into reality is always the challenge. Hawley had little formal education and no training in canal design or construction. No one in North America knew much about the subject. Even the English “expert” who designed the Middlesex Canal was often at a loss when calculating levels or constructing locks.
Soon after the canal vision came to him, Hawley watched his business go bust. He fled the state to avoid debtors’ prison. Hiding out near Pittsburgh, he concluded, “All my private prospects in life were blighted.” To pass the time, he wrote two essays for a local newspaper on the subject of his dreamed-of canal. Determined to avoid ridicule and to hide his status as a deadbeat, he adopted the identity Hercules. “I will presume to suggest,” he began, “the connecting of the waters of Lake Erie and those of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers by means of a canal.”
The fugitive’s conscience soon got the better of him. He returned to the Finger Lake settlement of Canandaigua to face the music: twenty months in debtors’ prison. Broken and destitute, he became convinced that “hitherto I have lived with no useful purpose.” To restore his sense of self-worth, he decided to “publish to the world my favorite, fanciful project of an overland canal.”
Hawley’s “prison” was a Canandaigua hotel room. Confinement did not prevent his imagination from roaming freely. He managed to get hold of books and maps and to bone up on canal technology. Hercules wrote a series of fourteen essays published in the Genesee Messenger beginning in 1807. His choice of a route for the canal and his estimate of its cost were both remarkably prescient.
While he was writing, he learned of another transportation breakthrough. In August 1807, inventor Robert Fulton sailed the first commercial steamboat up the Hudson River, covering the distance from New York City to Albany in thirty-two hours instead of the four days needed by wind-driven schooners. Fulton became an instant celebrity and would soon sign on as an important canal backer.
All eyes were on the future. Hawley said it would be “a burlesque on civilization” to continue navigating farm brooks in bark canoes. Instead, he envisioned settlers rushing along canals to populate the newly accessible interior. He foresaw barges hauling flour, lumber and other produce from the Great Lakes down to the Hudson. Of New York City, he accurately predicted that “in a century its island would be covered with the buildings and population of its city.” Besotted with canals, he discussed waterways branching from his main “Genesee Canal,” and similar projects in other states. He even dreamed of a “marine canal” that would slice “across the Isthmus of Darien,” anticipating by a century the Panama Canal.
The reaction to the publication of his cherished idea was blunt. One critic declared that Hawley’s scheme “lies in the province of fancy, and may be treated as a vision.” Another described it as “the effusions of a maniac.” President Thomas Jefferson judged the idea, “little short of madness.” The future would render a different verdict.
God and Mammon–the two words defined the age. At the dawn of the nineteenth century, Americans were waking to the possibility of salvation and to the allure of wealth. During the era of the Revolution, scarcely one American in ten had professed religious faith, and riches had been the birthright of privilege. Now the spiritual was returning to fashion and the prospect of universal prosperity bloomed. No matter how sinful, a man could find a path to heaven. No matter how poor, he could get his due if only he would dare to grab. “Go ahead!” became a catch phrase. “I’m not greedy for land,” was the motto of the proverbial New England farmer, “I just want what joins mine.”
When they married in 1796, Joseph Smith Sr. and his wife Lucy received a small farm from his family and a thousand-dollar dowry from hers. The couple set bright faces toward the future. Frugal Yankees, they put the cash aside and plunged into the demanding work of hardscrabble farming.
The land in east-central Vermont was rocky and unforgiving. For six years, the Smiths barely scratched out a sustenance. In 1802, now with two young sons, they took a chance. Perhaps the idea was Lucy’s–she was the more enterprising of the two. They rented their homestead and set up a mercantile store in the prosperous town of Randolph, Vermont. Eager for the main chance, they soon spotted an opportunity. Ginseng’s reputation as a tonic and aphrodisiac created an insatiable demand in the Orient. Ginseng grew wild in the Vermont hills. Joe amassed a large quantity of the earth-bitter root in the course of his trade. He and Lucy boiled it in sugar to preserve it, transported a shipment to New York and sent it off on consignment, convinced that their fortune was made. Months later, bad news: a venal merchant had hoodwinked the Smiths. The ginseng treasure had yielded only a cask of tea in return. The chance of sudden wealth had changed to a life-altering calamity.
The Smiths lived in a rat’s nest of credits and debts. They owed urban merchants for the goods they had sold, but were unable to collect the money customers owed them. The ginseng loss caused their store to fail. Determined as a point of honor to fulfill their obligations and avoid debtors’ prison, they drew on Lucy’s dowry. Still short, they sold their farm for eight hundred dollars.
Self-sufficiency required ownership of land. The Smiths, having stepped from the “embarrassment of debt” to the “embarrassment of poverty,” as Lucy put it, slipped into the precarious life of the landless. They would not soon recover. During the next fourteen years they moved seven times from one rented New England farm to another.
Joe, who was thirty-one, taught school in winter and farmed in summer. In 1805, Lucy gave birth to Joseph Jr., their fourth child. Six years later, still tenant farmers, they moved to Lebanon, New Hampshire. Lucy, ever an optimist, declared, “There is nothing which we have not a sufficiency of to make us and our children perfectly comfortable.” The three older children were able to attend school, while little Joe Jr. learned his ABC’s at home.
The Smiths’ overriding concern with making ends meet did not mean that they neglected the spiritual. Like many on the New England frontier, they were seekers rather than members of an established church. Lucy’s older brother was a lay preacher and faith healer. The supernatural was palpable to her–her sister Lovisa’s miraculous recovery from illness had deeply impressed her. Her husband had a restless mind and found significance in his dreams. The family regularly prayed and read the Bible together. Like many country people, they made do with a homespun religion heavy on portents and miracles. Their faith would soon be put to the test.
In 1812, typhoid swept Vermont, killing with abandon. All the Smith children became ill. They survived, but a lingering infection invaded the bone of young Joe’s leg. Twice, a physician laid open his shin from ankle to knee. When the festering returned, a group of doctors suggested drilling into the bone, then chiseling away infected sections. The boy bravely insisted that his mother leave the house so as not to be disturbed by his cries. The white-hot pain gave the six-year-old a vivid taste of hell. His father held him while the doctors removed three fetid chunks of his shin bone. The wound finally healed, but Joe spent the next three years on crutches. The doctors’ bills left the family foundering in debt.
Joe Sr. hired out as a laborer, Lucy painted and sold the oil cloths that country people used to brighten drab kitchens. In 1814, most of their crops failed. Only day labor in town and the sale of fruits from their orchard allowed them to scrape by. They knew hunger. The next year, the weather was unfavorable and crops again withered. Discouraged and increasingly desperate, the Smiths rolled up their sleeves to try once more in 1816.
Bond of Union
Although many scoffed, Jesse Hawley’s Hercules essays ignited a firestorm of interest. In February 1808, only a year after he had begun publishing his vision, the New York State legislature ordered that a survey be carried out “of the most eligible and direct route for a canal . . . between the tide waters of the Hudson river and Lake Erie.” They chose James Geddes, a central New York salt merchant and self-taught surveyor, to examine the lay of the land.
Water access to Lake Erie, canal proponents argued, would make New York the portal to a western empire. From there, a boat drawing seven feet could sail all the way to “Chaquagy [Chicago] and then up a creek of that name to the Illinois River . . . and so down to the Mississippi.” The link “would be an indissoluble bond of union between the Western and Atlantic states.”
The idea of union was important in the early republic. “When the United States shall be bound together by canals, by cheap and easy access to markets in all directions,” Robert Fulton said, it would not be possible to “split them into independent separate governments.” Without a transportation network, the country might prove a fragile conglomeration of distant states.
The notion of an entirely inland canal, as suggested by Hawley, still seemed improbable. In the legislature, it “produced such expressions of surprise and ridicule as are due to a very wild foolish project.” Most legislators favored the simpler option of connecting an improved Mohawk River with Lake Ontario, then digging a canal to bypass Niagara Falls and reach Lake Erie. To study the feasibility of such a route would be Geddes’ first priority. He was to look at other alternatives only as money permitted. It would not permit much—the legislators allotted only $600 for the entire survey.
A Pennsylvania farm boy, Geddes had acquired enough book learning to teach school. He then traveled for a while looking for opportunities. In 1794, toting two iron kettles, he moved to the Onondaga region of central New York, an area still shared with Iroquois tribes. The rich brine of local springs could be boiled down or evaporated to yield the salt so valued for preserving meat and other foods. He settled there, married, studied law, and became one of the influential men of the district. He taught himself surveying and delineated plots around the lake.
During the summer of 1808, the forty-five-year-old Geddes set out on his consequential mission. He well understood the basic problem. The rugged ridges and mountains of the Appalachian chain had hampered travel to and from the interior since Europeans had first settled the New World. The high ground stretched in an unbroken line from Maine to Georgia. Almost unbroken. The Mohawk River, which flowed eastward out of central New York, squeezed through a gap in the mountains a few hundred yards wide.
Geddes had a dim notion that an ice-age glacial dam had once blocked the St. Lawrence River. All the water from the Great Lakes had gushed down the path of the Mohawk, crashing through the Appalachians at this very gap, a place now called Little Falls, and on to the sea along the estuary of the Hudson. When the ice melted, the outflow resumed its natural course and the Mohawk diminished to a relative trickle. As a means of transportation, the river was unreliable. As a clue, the Little Falls gap, unique along the eastern seaboard, suggested a water route to the West.
Focused on the Lake Ontario route, Geddes walked around Oneida Lake, which lay just past the end of the Mohawk River, and traced the streams that led west. He quickly saw a significant impediment to this route. The elevation of Lake Ontario was more than three hundred feet lower than that of Lake Erie and two hundred feet lower than the navigable headwaters of the Mohawk. Many locks would be needed to bring boats down to Ontario and back up again.
Geddes nevertheless dutifully traveled to the Niagara region to examine a route that a canal might take to circumvent the falls. Only then, with winter already coming on, did he turn his attention to the inland path. He had depleted his expenses and had to lay out $73 of his own money to keep going.
The land through which Geddes traveled, on horseback and foot, was still largely a wilderness where isolated settlers had hacked out primitive farmsteads. When the adventurer Estwick Evans walked the region during the same era, he found pioneers living in log huts with dirt floors and wooden chimneys. The backwoodsman was a magician with an axe, but “some of them are no less rude than the wilds which they inhabit.” Their isolation and contact with raw nature left them superstitious. “In this part of the country,” he noted, “many of the people entertain strange notions respecting supernatural agencies.”
Geddes knew that building a canal through this landscape, much of it dominated by undulating hills, would present enormous challenges. Leaving the end of Lake Erie at Buffalo–then a collection of sixteen buildings–the waterway would have to travel north, drop down to the plain that skirted Lake Ontario, cross many miles of varied and often swampy land, and finally descend the steep drop to reach the Hudson River at Albany.
Terrain was one problem, locating sources of water was just as critical. A canal, Geddes understood, was not a stagnant ditch but a dynamic hydraulic system, with water continually flowing in and out. Volumes of water were needed to work the locks. Water was always leaking, canal engineers call it “weeping.” Lake Erie could supply an abundant flow, but Geddes was already convinced that Hawley’s original idea of a long, almost continuous inclined plane across the state would not work. There were too many ups and downs in between. Builders would need to channel water from reliable streams and reservoirs along the way to prevent sections of the canal from going dry.
Hills and valleys always threatened to block a canal. Streams and rivers were obstacles that had to be bridged. The demand that a canal be perfectly level required builders to fill low lands and cut through high ground. The alternative was to build expensive locks to connect sections on different levels. How could men slice through these snarling forests? How could they bring an artificial waterway across miles of mucky marshland? How could they take it over the temperamental Genesee River, so prone to flooding?
Geddes carefully threaded a path through the stern landscape. At times, the scope of the work convinced him that the canal was merely a dream, a temptation that could only end in a colossal waste of money and effort. Perhaps it might be attempted by future generations, but not now.
A gray sky began to blanket the remote land with snow and deep silence. He pushed on. He was sustained by hope, drawn forward by the seductive whisper of something grand. He wrote his report: yes, an inland canal was feasible.
A Mighty Baptism
When Charles Grandison Finney was born in 1792, his parents chose to name him after a character in a popular novel. Like many Americans, they were influenced by the rationalist climate of the late eighteenth century and preferred the name over one drawn from the Bible. “My parents were neither of them professors of religion,” Finney remembered. “I seldom heard a sermon.” They had abandoned Connecticut to move to the New York frontier, settling near the town of Adams at the remote eastern tip of Lake Ontario.
Although barely educated himself, Finney taught school in his hometown. Six feet two, young and athletic, he was “the idol of his pupils.” He joined in their games, but could bring instant order to his classroom with a glance. Finney soon gave in to a bout of wanderlust. For several years, he lived in different parts of New York and New Jersey, teaching school and trying to find a profession that better suited him. He displayed “manners plain and bordering strongly on the rough and blunt,” an acquaintance said, but his “warm heart” won him friends.
In 1818, at the age twenty-six, he returned home and took a job as a law clerk. His imposing physical presence–the prominent forehead, commanding blue eyes, erect posture–suited him to the profession. So did his orderly mind and his gift as a public speaker. He settled into the community. Displaying a “great vivacity of spirt,” he was “self-reliant, but full of kind and tender feelings.” The attractive bachelor spun the ladies around the floor at dances and added to the music with his bass viol.
Finney noticed that spiritual seeking had become a pressing topic of conversation in Adams. He admitted to being “as ignorant of religion as a heathen.” As a boy, he had on rare occasions listened to the ludicrous sermons of traveling Methodists and to the tedious preaching of Calvinist Congregationalists. The one spoke of a divine light, which made no sense to him, the other of innate human depravity and predestination, which seemed illogical and unfair.
Now revivals, spates of enthusiastic exhortation by itinerant preachers, were netting new church members. Finney observed one in 1819 that created enough excitement in Adams to inspire more than a hundred residents to offer their lives to Jesus. He became friends with George Gale, a local pastor and choir director with whom he shared a love of music. While Finney found Gale’s Calvinist sermons wearisome, he enjoyed the young man’s company. He also began to court Lydia Andrews, a seventeen-year-old from a nearby town. Her devout Christian faith made him reconsider his own beliefs.
As part of his legal education, Finney studied Biblical influences on common law. He contemplated references to the Mosaic Code, then read more deeply in the sacred book. He began to formulate his own views. He did not reject the precepts of Calvinism out of hand, but he seriously questioned the notion that all of humanity could be condemned for the sin of Adam, or that free will played no role in salvation, as orthodox Protestants in the Puritan tradition believed. His ideas meshed with a widening mood in the country. As Americans pushed out into the frontier, the old dogma loosened and the sovereignty of the individual took precedence.
His growing interest in religion troubled rather than soothed Finney’s mind. He searched his soul. He attended his first inquiry meeting. He tried and tried to fit notions of the divine into his broader scheme of things. Analytical by nature, he wanted to categorize manifestations of the spirit, to make sense of them. In vain. Unease preyed on him. He felt a crisis gathering around him.
The process of transformation led a sinner through recognizable steps, beginning with concern about the fate of his soul. Then came a period of inquiry, a search for a path to salvation. The realization that only God could save him ramped up the person’s anxiety. The mental tension peaked with what was called “conviction,” the awful certainty that without divine intercession he was condemned to eternal suffering. This unbearable trepidation would, through God’s mercy, end in a glorious, life-altering change, the “conversion” that was the essence of the evangelical Christian experience.
The Bible told Finney he must become as a child in order to enter the kingdom of God, but he could not shed his adult pride. He tried to pray, but he was “ashamed to have a human being see me on my knees before God.”
On a mild October day in 1821, the air spiced with the aroma of fallen maple leaves, Finney finished an early breakfast and started toward his law office. The weight of the decision suddenly became too much for him. Anxiety swelled to panic. A terrifying conviction of his sinfulness came over him. He found himself walking north, out of town, into the surrounding woods. He needed seclusion. He was sweating. He resolved, then and there, “to give my heart to God.”
As he plunged through brambles, the lash of a twig left his eye weeping. He lost himself among molten coins of sunlight and shadow. He wanted to understand, to understand. He reached out to take the truth in his arms and clasped nothing. “I was dumb,” he remembered, “that is, I had nothing to say to God.”
He made a rash vow. If God converted him, he would give up his law career and become a preacher. His agitation gradually left him. He breathed more easily. The forest smiled at him. He returned to the village through the same mild sunshine. It was past noon. His mind was “most wonderfully quiet and peaceful.” An intimation of glory had touched him and now hovered around him.
The law office was empty. He sat and played a hymn on his viol. The music entered and lifted him. “I began to weep,” he later remembered. “It seemed as if my heart was all liquid.” He was engulfed by a “mighty baptism of the Holy Ghost.” It was “like a wave of electricity,” he said, “like the very breath of God.” He felt he would die if the ecstatic waves continued. He saw Jesus “face to face.”
A friend from the church choir found him in his office. Finney was no longer embarrassed by his gushing emotion, but the visitor was alarmed and asked if he was sick. ”No,” he answered, “but I am so happy that I cannot live.”
The choir member sought out a church elder. On seeing Finney in the very embrace of conversion, the man gave out a “most spasmodic laugh,” a holy laugh of wonder. Another friend came in as Finney was describing the extraordinary experience to the elder. This man asked for help with his own soul and Finney prayed for him, prayed for another person for the first time in his life. He made up his mind. Yes, he would fulfill his vow.
The next day, Finney encountered a church deacon who had hired him to handle a case in court. When asked about the legal matter, the young lawyer declared, “Deacon Barney, I have a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead his cause, and I cannot plead yours.”