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The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862

14 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0809016051
ISBN-10: 0809016052
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The United States was a new republic in 1817. The generation of its original revolutionaries was fast dying; a second war with Great Britain had recently been settled; and expansionism was the mood of the day. The "children of the founders," as Carol Sheriff calls this first 19th-century American generation, sought to make its mark with engineering projects that would further national growth and prove to Europe that the new nation "played a leading role in God's plan to improve the earthly world." It did so in grand style with the Erie Canal, a huge waterway that linked Atlantic seaports with the Great Lakes. Sheriff's vigorous account of the canal's conception and building makes for an epic story and fascinating reading.

From Publishers Weekly

As an early-19th-century public works project, the Erie Canal dwarfed all others in terms of cost, size and imagination. By connecting Buffalo to Albany, the canal opened a waterway between New York City and the Great Lakes, dramatically transforming U.S. commerce and industry. In this work, which began as a dissertation, Sheriff, who teaches history at William and Mary, does an effective job of examining the impact of improved transportation on various segments of society: ditchdiggers, farmers, merchants, canal boat captains, politicians, housewives and missionaries. Most interesting is her finding that many of the motifs that define our current age began with the creation of the canal. From family values to government entitlements, and from government deficits to environmental destruction, today's issues seem to be reflected in this antebellum history. Illustrations not seen by PW.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Hill and Wang (June 12, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809016052
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809016051
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #37,786 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

28 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Rocco Dormarunno on March 7, 2006
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
For too many people, the Erie Canal was simply an artificial waterway that opened the American west (back then) to the Atlantic, and, in the process made New York City a business entrepot. Carol Sheriff, in her book, "The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862" digs a lot deeper to reveal the complexities of "Clinton's Big Ditch". There were the engineering problems to be surmounted. There were financial considerations. There were the legal knots that plagued the Canal Commission. The relationship--even the definitions--of nature, art and technology became blurred to so many people.

But what I came away with the most was the utter chaos and disturbance the building and maintenance of the canal created. This was not a harmonious public work, dug by noble laborers, which enriched the lives and purses of the enitre populace. Instead, as Professor Sheriff demonstrates, there was a great deal of strife between the canal builders and the local residents. The wealth went to the few, and the builders got nothing--not even praise or thanks. This, in turn, created a new class of anonymous laborers which was counterpoint to the ideals of Republicanism. And, as Sheriff points out, DeWitt Clinton would have shook his head in disbelief, had he known this would have happened.

As a whole, however, "The Artificial River" reminds us of the tremendous efforts that went into the making of the Erie Canal. And equally impressive, is the tremendous effort Professor Sheriff put into this well-researched and quickly paced book.
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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful By James Tudor on September 6, 2001
Format: Paperback
The Artificial River was a shock for me. I'll admit, I had to read this book for a 19th century American history class and I wasn't too happy. I felt something about the Civil War would be more interesting. And how interesting could an artifical river be anyways? Fortunatley, I didn't discard the book, but read it and I was completely shocked. Carol Sheriff has completed an amazing feat. This book about the Erie Canal pulled me into its world giving a tremendous feel of the 19th century world. Sheriff provides a look from all classes of society adjusting to the shifts of progress. This book at its core is just that, a society adjusting to rapid progress - progress that brings its perks and pitfalls.
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30 of 32 people found the following review helpful By atelahun on February 20, 2003
Format: Paperback
This book describes the complicated and fascinating social history of the canal that shrunk time and distance and transformed western New York, brought great wealth to many and opened up the west. But this progress came at a price and the book explores some of the paradoxes of progress.

The progress and transformation that the Erie Canal brought also brought a new set of challenges for residents and legislators. The canal split many farms causing great problems to many farmers who wanted bridges to get to their farms, the low bridges were a hazard to canal passengers and traffic. Water diverted for the canal and locks created water shortages though the region. Leaks in the canal caused flooding on some farms and created mosquito infested ponds, which were fertile grounds for malaria epidemics.
Cultural issues came to the forefront. Ditch diggers who lived in shantytowns, who drank and cusses, who tore down fences caused consternation among the inhabitants who feared that the county was creating a permanent underclass. When the digging was done and the diggers gone they were replaces with another underclass, the boat drivers, who drank, cussed, robbed and hored making the areas adjoining the canal crime-ridden.
This book takes you to the time when the canal was being built and is a joy to read.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Jonathan Moore on November 25, 2002
Format: Paperback
`The Artificial River' changed everything and nothing would remain the same. The book begins with these particular words, "Oysters! Oysters! beautiful Oysters," trumpeted a headline in a Batavia, New York, newspaper in 1824. The achievement of oysters so far from the sea symbolized a great achievement that previously seemed impossible. It was a daily reminder to the people along the canal that transportation was reshaping the lives of ordinary Americans. The Erie Canal brought a nation that was divided by mountains and valleys closer together. A distance that took three weeks to travel was instantly shrunk down to a couple days and it economically opened doors of many possibilities to do business. The advancement of technology with the building of Erie Canal shaped a new kind of man that would mold the mountains of nature. These new technologies carried ideas, culture and politics through every stream and corner in the United States.
I do agree that historians have a terrible trend at citing unusual sources, but the book is still good. It is beautifully written and reveals how little people know about the amazing Erie Canal. Sheriff covers the problems of the canal (dividing up farms for example), business, the canal reducing the time to travel and the molding of the canal through nature. It is a great book for someone wanting to know about the Erie Canal and learn about the transportation revolution.
A few neat facts! A lot of people died in the night for standing on the top of the boat and getting hit by a bridge - giving a new meaning to duck! Also, a lot of people died from drowning because they could not swim, even though the canal was only five feet deep.
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