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Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation Hardcover – January, 2005

4.1 out of 5 stars 47 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Begun in 1817 and completed in 1825, the Erie Canal stretches 363 miles across upstate New York from Buffalo on Lake Erie to Albany on the Hudson River. A stunning achievement, the canal was hacked through a densely forested pass in the Appalachian Mountains using only axes, shovels, low-grade explosive power, beasts of burden, and some ingenious devices. The engineers and workers created locks, bypassed rapids and waterfalls, and adjusted to countless changes in elevation. When the canal was completed it became one of the wonders of the world. But the canal was much more than a spectacular construction project; it also served to bind a young United States to itself and the rest of the world in one bold stroke. In this thoroughly absorbing book, Peter Bernstein describes in vivid detail how the Erie Canal helped to shape the United States into a great nation by connecting the eastern seaboard and western expanses of America, as well as propel the Industrial Revolution and stimulate global trade, economics, and immigration. It was so important to the development of the U.S., argues Bernstein, that without the canal the detached western territories "would in all likelihood have broken away" and created another, if not several, separate countries. Manifest Destiny would have been denied.

In telling this gripping tale, the author offers a brief history of canals through the ages, explains the foresight exhibited by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson regarding the need for a waterway to the west, and outlines the political wars, financing challenges, and seemingly endless delays and false starts to the project. He also reveals much about the political landscape of early America through his profiles of the personalities and visionaries who devoted their lives to the project, along with the engineers and surveyors, most of whom had little experience designing or constructing a canal of any kind, much less such a massive undertaking. Wedding of the Waters succeeds brilliantly in bringing this rich story to life. --Shawn Carkonen

From Publishers Weekly

First proposed in 1808 and completed 17 years later, the Erie Canal was the first great feat of macroengineering undertaken by the infant American republic. As economic consultant Bernstein (Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk) shows in his eloquent account, the canal—stretching 363 miles from the Hudson River to Lake Erie—reshaped not only the economic landscape of the eastern seaboard but the political and social landscape as well. Bernstein vividly relates the political battles fought over the high-priced project and the work of surveyors, engineers and laborers. The canal was in particular an economic engine for New York, bringing down the cost of shipping goods between Buffalo and Manhattan by a whopping 90%. This in turn inspired the development of farms throughout the Great Lakes area and the Upper Midwest. At the same time, prices for farm commodities in Manhattan and other eastern cities dropped steadily, facilitating the growth of industrial workforces and a dramatic shift in the urban-to-rural ratio toward the cities. Bernstein does a first-rate job of examining the social, political and economic impact of the canal both as a construction project and as a viable path linking the Atlantic seaboard with the American interior. 20 b&w illus. not seen by PW.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (January 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393052338
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393052336
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.6 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #827,544 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Peter L. Bernstein's nine books include the worldwide bestseller Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk. Bernstein is also an economic consultant and publisher of Economics and Portfolio Strategy, a semimonthly letter for institutional investors.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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The Erie Canal was one of the most important and substantial engineering feats of the 19th Century. Bernstein provides extensive coverage of the personal and political events which lead up to the eight year dig. At page 199 he begins a well organized outline of the 300 mile excavation and the 100 plus locks required to deal with the elevation issues. The book had few maps and drawings, and the reader needs a separate atlas to grasp what is happening. Except for that lack, the work is highly recommended.
If you are expecting the equivalent of McCullough's "Path Between the Seas", you will be disappointed. That book deals extensively with the physical aspects of construction on the Panama Canal. Bernsteins book is mostly about the history of the period, the people, politics, and financing of the Erie Canal. The actual dig is treated lightly. It depends on your taste: people or shovels.
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Format: Hardcover
The Erie Canal was the first great 'infrastructure' project in American history. As the author, and many others, point out, it became the first low cost transportation avenue through the Appalachians, catalyzed an enormous amount of economic development, and became a symbol of what an intelligent, active government could do. The author attempts, with modest success, to set the history of the Erie Canal in the context of American and 19th century economic history. This book is largely based on secondary sources, including prior books on the Erie Canal specifically. Since there is nothing novel about the narrative, the success of the book rests largely on the author's ability to integrate prior information. Bernstein is only modestly successful. Much of the narrative is not really about the canal at all but about the political career of the canal's major exponent, the controversial DeWitt Clinton. Bernstein does an adequate job of describing the background events leading to the development of the canal and the political infighting accompanying the canal. The latter is not easy because of the complicated nature of party politics in New York state at this time. Anyone interested in a really good explication of this topic should look to the relevant sections of Sean Wilentz's The Rise of American Democracy. Bernstein is at his best in the concluding sections of the book where he discusses the economic impact of the canal. In terms of the actual construction of the canal, his narrative is sketchy and unsatisfying. Bernstein, an experienced business journalist with an interest in economic history, is clearly out of his depth in this area. As pointed out by some of the prior Amazon reviewers, there are a number of factual errors in the book.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
I was considering buying this book for a birthday present but fortunately happened to see a copy in my local library. It reads easily but has several gross historical and geographical errors which make me wonder about the accuracy of the facts in the rest of the book. The most egregious of these errors (page 66 and elsewhere) places the Cumberland gap near Cumberland, Maryland, when in fact it is at the Kentucky / Virginia border some 400 miles to the southwest. Also, I wonder about the cotton mill in Utica, New York in 1811 (p-150). How did the unspun cotton get from the south to a frontier town in upstate New York at that date ? I feel that there is simply no excuse for any non-fiction book on a historical subject to be marred by errors which could and should have been easily detected.
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Format: Hardcover
As other reviewers have pointed out, Bernstein gives short shrift to the technical aspects of the canal. However, this in no way detracts from the intent of the book which is to detail the particularly nasty politics involved in the construction of the canal as well as the economic ramifications. I am not an economist, nor particularly interested in economics, but this book is fascinating and generally well written. Bernstein's prose flows and most of his digressions are relevant. As a born, raised, and resident Westerner I had no idea of the importance of the Erie Canal to the development of the U.S.

I have two major quarrels with the book. First, my pet peeve about books of history and historical fiction (take note publishers, especially those of Patrick O'Brian): inadequate maps. There is one map in the book--it's in the front matter and not listed in the TOC. It doesn't include most of the pre- and post-canal place names described in the book. The Mohawk River, which features prominently in the story, isn't even shown! For those of us who have only changed planes in New York, this requires dragging around an atlas to read the book. It seems particularly inexcusable when the single map was generated relatively cheaply by GIS--you can see the pixelation of the DEM on the shaded relief of the map. Second, Bernstein uses "[sic]" a lot for nonstandard spelling, and inconsistently. Though historians and writers are divided on this stylistic point, at times it seems a bit churlish, especially when one considers that Webster's "Speller" wasn't published until 1783. It is annoying to read quotations by Washington, Jefferson, and their notable contemporaries with "[sic]" constantly appearing.

Regardless, a fine read on a subject I knew little about.
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