Canal Fever Transcript

Apr 18, 2024

Back to Canal Fever episode.

Art Cohn: Every one of those communities that could see the success of the canal. Read about the success of the canal. We want one. If it could work over there, it can work over here. Why not? We’ve got water. We’ve got ground we can create a box of water in. How tough can it be?

Amanda Gustin: This is before your time. Presented by the Vermont Historical Society and Vermont Humanities.

Every episode, we go inside the stacks at the Vermont Historical Society to take a look at an object from their permanent collection that tells us something unique about our state.

Then we take a closer look at the people, the events, or the ideas that surround each artifact.

The objects that we’re looking at for these episodes are maps. Each one represents a different moment in Vermont, with questions that spiral out and persist to our present day.

Today’s map describes something that never actually happened. It comes to us courtesy of the National Archives. And it’s a manuscript map, so it was never published.

Drawn by three Army surveyors who spent the summer of 1829 exploring a potential canal route that would have connected Lake Champlain and the Connecticut River.

The map focuses on an area east of Montpelier, and it proposes to use kettle Pond and Peacham Ponds as water sources for a canal route that would have made the final connection from the Winooski River and Montpelier to the Wells River, and from then on to the Connecticut River.

It’s really quite a beautiful map, but it’s hard to understand the scale of what you’re looking at until you see just how small Kettle Pond is by contrast.

Today, Kettle Pond is a centerpiece of Groton State Park. How would it and the city of Montpelier have been different in this alternate history if the canal project had succeeded?

To really understand this map, we have to understand Montpelier and Montpelier as it existed in its earliest days before, it was the city that we know today.

We should also take a moment to acknowledge that Montpelier was settled in the 18 century on unceded Abenaki territory. Though the early European settlers considered it empty.

Paul Heller: I think of Montpelier as frontier, you know, central and northern Vermont was nothing like southern New England. It was very wild, remote.

Amanda Gustin: Paul grew up in Montpelier.

Paul Heller: My name is Paul Heller, and I live in Barre, Vermont.

Amanda Gustin: He’s an historian at Central Vermont who has written many books, including several on the history of the capital.

Paul Heller: When, Jacob Davis, who we consider the founder of Montpelier, came to Montpelier in 1787 with his nephew Parley Davis and a hired man, they were building everything from scratch. They immediately set to building a log cabin.

Parley Davis, by the way, went up country a bit human, up to East Montpelier, and built a wonderful home and farmed up there. But Jacob Davis saw the possibilities of the waterways, the North Branch and the Winooski River. And he settled down in the valley.

Amanda Gustin: Speaking of. It hasn’t always been the seat of state government.

Paul Heller: Montpelier became the capital by default. There was a tussle between the people in the Connecticut River Valley and the people in the Champlain Valley. neither would let the other have the capital. So they compromised on Montpelier. And also Montpelier had agreed to build them a statehouse, which they started when it was made the capital in 1805 and completed in 1808.

Amanda Gustin: Montpelier could also be a pretty lively town.

Paul Heller: Chester Wright was the first settled minister in Montpelier. This isn’t, what he wrote about Montpelier in 1811, and the Vermont evangelical may magazine:

“The first settlers not being disposed to encourage and attention to religious concerns. No religious order was observed in the place for a number of years. The inhabitants, as might be expected, became generally dissipated in the deplorable state of morals was the result.”

“The Sabbath, instead of being observed, is a day of holy rest. Was improved as a season of relaxation from ordinary business only for purposes of amusement, convivial entertainments and public houses, sleigh riding, trading or gambling. And the language of profanity, was the common dialect.”

Amanda Gustin: So now we have a picture of Montpelier around the time these engineers were imagining their canal, and as we were all sadly reminded this summer, Montpelier is situated on a major river – The Winooski – so was used to the idea of water travel. But what exactly is a canal and how is it different from just a regular river?

Art Cohen: My name is Art Cohen. I am a nautical archeologist who’s been studying the history and archeology of the region for almost 40 years. And I think the easiest, way for modern people to appreciate it is to think about, a highly engineered water highway, a box of water that allows boats to travel from point A to point B carrying some type of a load, whether it’s people like a bus or freight, like a tractor trailer.

Amanda Gustin: Art is also probably the person in the state of Vermont who knows the most about canals.

Art Cohn: I’m the director emeritus of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum and an affiliated scholar with the Institute of Nautical Archeology at Texas A&M.

Amanda Gustin: So, of course, we turned to him to ask about this imagined canal and the whole system that it was supposed to be part of.

Art Cohen: It was regulated. It was, inspected like a modern highway. There were rules about size of the vessels, just like the size of the trucks that are allowed on the highway today. And the canals were largely built to, provide larger loads of cargo and goods to move to market from the hinterlands. and were also used to move people.

The only alternative went before canals opened for moving people were stagecoaches, which were operating usually on horrible roads with lots of, jostling and movement. And in heavy rains the roads could be closed.

And so by contrast, the smooth water uniform depth canal was, like, I’ve equated it to the development of the internet. It was, a quantum leap in the transportation technology that existed at the time. And as we’ve witnessed the day the canal opened, our whole world changed.

Amanda Gustin: Canals represented a huge jump forward in so many things economics, transportation, culture, and of course, engineering.

Art Cohn: And they really were marvelous feats of engineering. One of the great things about studying the canal is you’re really seeing, a bunch of creative mechanics, mathematicians, schoolteachers, converting themselves into the first Americas, first generation of engineers, and the, problem solving they had to do to make the canal work was extraordinary.

Amanda Gustin: So you can imagine it all, this possibility, all this energy and all those brilliant people. And then came the spectacular success of the Erie Canal.

Art Cohn: All of a sudden, anybody who was not actually on the canal but could see it, you know, 20, 30, 40, 50 miles away and had a stream that went someplace meandering along, went crazy. It was actually called Canal Fever.

Obviously, every place that wasn’t actually on the canal particularly think about every community has its movers and shakers. The guy that owned the mill, the guy that owns the forest. The guy that’s a very successful farmer growing huge quantities of flour. The secret is getting that stuff to market in an economically viable way. And if you’re on the canal, you’ve got it. If you’re close to the canal, you’ve got it.

If you’re not on the canal and not close to it, you are now at a, an economic disadvantage and a business disadvantage. And so every one of those guys, every one of those communities that could see the success of the canal, read about the success of the canal. We want one.

“If it could work over there, it can work over here. Why not? We’ve got water, we’ve got ground. We can create a box of water in. How tough can it be? We can make it work.”

And so their optimism and their wishful thinking drove a lot of very bad ideas.

Amanda Gustin: Bad ideas like joining Lake Champlain and the Connecticut River via canals.

Art Cohn: When we get to our area, Vermont, you’ve got an even better example of canal mania driving feasibility surveys. And thank goodness somebody realized that with the elevations that had to be overcome and the complex engineering of getting water to the canal year-for the whole navigation season. So in the dead of summer, if you’ve got a canal that can float a four foot boat, you got to provide four feet worth of water.

And both of those became major stumbling blocks for the canal that was to connect Lake Champlain to the Connecticut River, as depicted on the map.

The interest in canals was not unlike our own push for broadband internet access. Today. They made a huge difference in the economic prospects of an area. The people in the communities all along that potential route, and they didn’t really know what the route was going to be.

The Winooski River, the Onion River from Lake Champlain to Montpelier was pretty much a given. But how you got from Montpelier to the Connecticut River was what they were initially going to try to figure out.

And so a whole series of surveys were commissioned to look at different routes. And usually those routes had a big river system to support some of it. But it wasn’t quite enough to get the whole way. And it wasn’t necessarily enough to keep it in water once the summer came and you were using water to fill those locks and empty them.

And so as much as Canal Mania drove the surveys, drove the “let’s look at this. We really it. I’m a Montpelier business. If I can get on this water highway, I can geometrically increase my business and become rich.”

Amanda Gustin: People in Montpelier would definitely looking at canals as the next big thing that was going to turn the city into an economic powerhouse.
Yeah, people thought of it as a manufacturing center. You know, today we think of Barre maybe as an industrial center, but that that, aspect to the granite industry was sort of later in the 19th century.

Paul Heller: And Montpelier was they were just making stuff. Their foundries and mills, you know, manufacturing all kinds of things. And the railroad, of course, made, made that much more profitable.

Amanda Gustin: Whole parts of Montpelier were mills or factories, even with slower transportation. Before railroads, people made pretty much anything you can imagine, from shoes to clothes pens in Montpelier. But what would it have looked like to turbocharge that?

Paul Heller: I imagine it would have changed Montpelier, and I think we would have seen maybe a more extensive blue collar workforce, you know, people to work in the various industrial factories. And there would have been a different kind of housing in them, worker housing, smaller buildings, perhaps. you know, Montpelier still has a lot of grand homes, and it gives you a sense of the kind of wealth that it had.

And I, you know, people today, I think, would be surprised at how rich they were in the early 19th century and fortunes were made there. Langdon made a lot of money. Pitkin made a lot of money, and some of it was made through maybe, financial means, but a lot of it was made by manufacturing things.

Art Cohn: So they pushed for it. And to some extent, the community sometimes underwrote the surveys, the communities underwrote it. And part and government might kick in a little bit of money. But those feasibility surveys, looking at the various routes, thank goodness they realized that, it would be like building a stairway to the moon.

Amanda Gustin: The challenges of building the proposed canal derailed the project, pun intended, because it was the next phase of transportation innovation that really opened up Vermont.

Art Cohn: What they didn’t see coming was the next innovation in transportation technology. The railroad. And so almost overnight, the railroads out competed these extraordinary packet boats, which only 25 years earlier were the marvels of their age. Now they were obsolete and they began to disappear by the age of photography. Most of them were already gone, which is why we have very few photographic images of packet boats.

In just a few very short decades. Canals were out, competed as transportation. Vermont was on to the next big thing.

Bill Badger: A railroad is the go to the basic word. It’s a road. And instead of being on dirt or paving stones or, some other hard surface, it’s on rails.
Amanda Gustin: Bill Badger is from Rutland. He’s a founding member of the Rutland Railroad Historical Society and a retired architect. And he has a wealth of knowledge about railroads in Vermont.

Bill Badger: And the first railroads were developed in England. They were moving coal, and they were they were using horse drawn wagons. And somebody got the brilliant idea that if they put down rails, in this case, wooden rails with, turned up edges on the inside to keep the wheels on that it was much more efficient, less friction. And you could the horse could carry more, could pull more.

And, that developed into a better form of transportation than a horse. They were already using steam engines, not locomotives, but engines in the, coal mines to pump water out. So they had these steam engines and they just started playing around with the idea of putting that form of power onto a mobile platform and moving it, moving along under its own power.

And first, it was specifically for coal. And then as railroads developed in, in the U.S. and in certain extent in England. Also, if water was still the main form of transportation. So a city like Baltimore or New York or Boston might build a railroad out into the country.

And that was feeding material from the city out to the hinterland and bringing in products, agricultural products and stuff, into the city. So it was really it was an extension of the existing ship culture of the people. And that was where the first railroads were built.

Amanda Gustin: He explained that railroads were more flexible than canals, and perhaps most importantly for Vermont, they were year round and they could go up hills.

Bill Badger: The other thing about canals is there are a lot more difficult to build than a railroad. You got to build a ditch. It has to be level because water has this nasty habit of wanting to be level. and as soon as you get to a any kind of change of elevation, you have to build locks and step the boats up. And they were slow, you know, a mule towing a boat, walked about two miles an hour.

So even on a long day, I read on the Erie Canal, they were doing 18 hour days, and they would make 36 miles a day. Even an early railroad train at 20 to 25 miles an hour was, you know, 10 to 15 times faster than the canal. You don’t have to worry about, freezing in the winter. You could go in spite of being steel on steel, there’s a certain amount of friction. You could go up a grade, 1%. Even up to 2% more for secondary lines.

So you could go over obstacles, especially if you kind of wound around and kept the grade down. You could go over mountains without having to build locks.

Railroads were so much easier and cheaper to build, in fact, they could be temporary.

You wouldn’t build the canal and not hope for some longevity out of it. But railroads you could build up into the woods as a logging railroad, and its lifespan might be five years. And when that was logged out, you pull the rails up and you threw it down somewhere else.

The rich lumber company came from Pennsylvania to Wanakah in New York, and then up to Manchester. 1913 1915 built a huge mill and built a railroad up the Lye Brook hollow into timberland up above that nobody had really been able to access.

They’d been accessing it with the railroad coming up from the south, but hadn’t gotten all the way up the Deerfield, Deerfield River, River. So they built this switchback that wandered up the mountain. It only lasted four years because somebody grossly underestimated the amount of timber up there. And then the mill burned.

Amanda Gustin: Railroads quickly became the point of access to the larger world for so much of Vermont, and they made it possible for larger scale industry to ship product beyond New England.

Bill Badger: So sharp little sawmills in Townshend in places like that could market their lumber elsewhere, not just be a local thing. there were stories on the West River. This a small railroad that, you know, if a farmer had a few dozen eggs going out and he was short one, and they would wait for the hen to cooperate.

But the the point is whether or not it was true. The point is that, you know, it. It allowed people to market whatever it was to do whatever they were going to do and market it beyond local needs and also for people to come in, buy stuff, bring materials in.

If you had a country store in Jamaica or you probably got material from the railroad, there was a great big building in downtown, Readsboro. The Readsboro was famous for chairs, a the huge chair factory, and the Housatonic Wilmington Railroad that. But out to the Boston Maine Housatonic.

All that chair business probably would not have been practical were it not for the railroad and, this big building that was in downtown was a store, and the back dropped off and there was a little door and loading dock at the back of the store and the Housatonic Wilmington would drop off of car of material for the store. So they were getting it direct from the railroad.

Amanda Gustin: Railroads, and more specifically the refrigerated railroad car also had an impact. You probably don’t even realize we talked about it in a previous episode. Go give it a listen. But the short version is that they’re at least partly responsible for the change from Jersey to Holstein cows on the dairy farms of Vermont.

All of the things we’ve talked about today, the way Montpelier became a city, the way canals boomed and then busted, and the transportation revolution of the railroad that all came out of one map for a canal that never existed.

Amanda Gustin: Before Your Time is presented by Vermont Humanities and the Vermont Historical Society. This episode was produced by Amanda Kay Gustin – That’s me. Ryan Newswanger, and Noel Clark. Thanks to our guests Paul Heller, Art Cohn, and Bill Badger. Special thanks for the support of this limited series goes to the Lake Champlain Basin Program and their Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership Corridor of Commerce granting program.

Amanda Gustin: Visit our website before your to find a scan of the map and other images and sources related to this episode. And if you like what you hear, please tell your friends about this podcast. Thanks for listening.