On the Erie Canal

October, 1827 — Erie Canal, New York

“Governor, I hardly think this is the time to be making the acquaintance of a new lady friend.”

At five and a half feet tall Senator McMartin is a man of average height, but DeWitt Clinton is nearly a head taller.

“Duncan,” he directs an irritated expression at the smaller man, “I have no intention of importuning the lady, nor of causing any kind of untoward scene. If you don’t trust my sense of propriety, you might at least trust my age. I am merely an elderly gentleman who finds himself—” the governor directs his gaze toward the woman standing alone some distance beyond the landward end of the pier beside a surprisingly small pile of luggage, “interested by the prospect of a well-to-do woman traveling unescorted toward the frontier. As who would not be? Do your job, will you?” The large governor scowls down at him but his expression softens as he looks toward the well-dressed, solitary woman again. “Take her my card.”

The woman in question is standing halfway down the pier amid a modest pile of trunks, wearing a stylish cream and floral traveling dress and bonnet.

“Governor—” But, seeing the look on the governor’s face, Duncan silences himself and sighs. And turns, tight-lipped, to carry the governor’s card.

~

Arias looks up in amusement at the looming governor. With a thought she could cause him to forget her entirely, but if she wanted to move anonymously through the human world then she wouldn’t have spent twenty-five and one-half dollars on a dress. She wanted to meet members of the upper classes of New England society. She did not imagine that this might include the governor of New York!

“But governor—”

“DeWitt, madame, I insist!”

Arias smiles. Even beings at her level are still subject to physical death. Even Warrior-class beings can be destroyed. Indeed, even the Great themselves proved to be quite mortal. Every physical being in this universe is subject to death. But only human males, when they first begin to feel the chill breath of Age upon their necks, get this charming nostalgia for the time, thirty years earlier, when they could bow and talk and smile and seduce a woman.

“DeWitt,” she nods. “Am I to understand, then, that the governor of New York considers his own state to be too perilous for the sojourns of an unaccompanied woman? I would have thought that you would be the first to claim that our fair state is enlightened above all others!”

“Indeed, madame, indeed,” the governor laughs with real humor. “Although I fear that full enlightenment may yet be some way off. The last time I made this trip, for example, there was one point at which some young ruffians a hundred or so miles upstream saw fit to hurl a pitchfork so that it only narrowly sailed over our boat!”

“But that is scandalous!” Arias exclaims. “Surely they did not know that the governor of their state was a passenger!”

“Certainly not!” Clinton answers, scowling. “Had they any inkling of that fact I am sure they would have thrown their rakes and hoes as well! Ha ha ha!” He laughs merrily and only gains control of himself with reluctance. “But truly, madame, although I have no doubt that you can take care of your own concerns, and in spite of the magnificent enlightenment of the good people of my state, I beg you to travel along with us. You will have more spacious accommodations in the company of Mrs Jane Porter, the wife of old Augustus Porter who is lately pretending to be a businessman rather than a judge. I think I can assure you without any doubt that you will arrive rather sooner and eat vastly better. Finally, madame, I now have no doubt whatsoever that I would find your company and conversation infinitely more stimulating than taking notes on the passing flora and fauna, which was my plan until this moment. Do not doom me to a fortnight of journaling! Please, madame,” the large governor smiles and presents his hand, “do not make an old man beg.”

Laughing softly, Arias places her gloved hand in his. The aging governor bows over it, keeping his eyes on hers.

“In fact, Governor,” she says, “I have read excerpts of your first journal which the newspapers published.”

“Indeed, madame?” This is not what he had expected.

“Of course, sir. And I will take it as my solemn duty to my fellow Americans and literary countrymen to prevent you from writing another.”

The large governor throws his head back and laughs.

~

The governor’s large head and shoulders appear at the top of the ladder, his mostly gray but still quite thick mop of hair disarrayed by the breeze.

“May I join you mistress?”

He is not, Arias realizes, standing on the first rung of the ladder. He is simply standing on the deck and holding on to the ladder’s top.

Arias laughs. “I am flattered, governor, that you feel a need to ask my permission to climb to the top of your boat while we are sailing on your canal through the forests and fields of your state. But certainly, sir, please come ahead.

Smiling broadly, Governor Clinton climbs the few rungs and steps to the top of the cabin roof. The vessel rocks noticeably with his motion.The entire boat is a terribly narrow thing at no more than seven feet wide, but nearly eight times that in length. Normally this boat would be carrying as many as two dozen passengers, each having paid their fifteen dollar fare—a significant sum, the amount that a common New England laborer might hope to earn for a month’s work—to travel in relative comfort the three hundred and sixty miles of canal from Albany in the East to Buffalo upon Lake Erie in the West. This journey, however, chartered by the governor, is carrying only the governor, Arias, Mrs Selkirk who is the wife of a wealthy Albany businessman now setting up a grain-shipping business in Buffalo, and the elderly General North and his wife Mary. Down in the main cabin, the women’s territory is separated from that of the men by a simple velvet curtain.

The main cabin takes up about three-quarters of the length of the Seneca Chief, and its roof has been built strongly enough to support a full load of passengers standing up top, although that would probably capsize the boat. Which would not be a particularly notable tragedy. If this ship should encounter a maritime disaster, its passengers would all be able to stand up on the bottom of the canal and walk to shore—which is never more than twenty feet away. The canal is forty feet wide, and no more than four feet deep.

The main cabin roof also supports a canvas sunshade awning supported by poles that look designed to be removed quickly. Now in the first morning of their journey Arias has been sitting under the awning for some time, watching the landscape pass by. She expects that even the General and his wife will be up here soon enough, but none of the other passengers have arisen early. Arias is pleased to see that the Governor is a bit of an early-bird. It is approaching six o’clock in the morning now, and the eastern sky is brightening. To the west the rolling land still lies in shadow but the color of the trees is so high now, in the middle of October, that it begins to be visible even in the pre-dawn twilight. The air is so still that the huffing breath of the horse-team thirty yards ahead can be heard, as can their heavy footsteps.

Walking slightly stopped under the canopy, the governor takes the seat next to her. When she climbed up here an hour ago, moving quietly, Arias arranged two of the light wooden chairs to face forward, toward the west.

“You rise early, mistress!” the governor says, carefully taking the seat to her right.

“I will only get this chance once, Governor, and who can say if the next few mornings will be fair?”

“Oh, please call me DeWitt! Or, if you prefer, by the name that my sainted Maria gave me: De-Half-Witt.” He laughs boomingly, loud enough to startle into flight a flock of teals that had been sleeping on the water, which makes the governor laugh again. And if anyone were still asleep down below, they probably are not any longer. The birds’ wings flash blue in the growing light as they fly off in the beginning of a wide circle. They are gathering now, preparing to fly south.

“Thank you, DeWitt,” Arias smiles a little primly. “And you may call me Arias.”

“What an interesting given name!” The governor turns his leonine head to look at her in the half-light. “And quite lovely, if I may say. I do not believe I have encountered it before. May I ask your name’s origin, if I may ask, Mrs Arias?”

By referring to her as ‘Mrs’ the governor does not mean to imply any assumption about marital status, but uses the honorific as a class-distinction, like ‘Mistress’, but less formal. It means that he assumes that she directs servants, or slaves: she is of the upper-class.

“It is an angel’s name, DeWitt. A minor angel,” she smiles. “Specializing in herbs, and healing.”

“Indeed!” the governor smiles. “And very appropriate, I am sure! And do you, in fact, have an interest in flora, Mrs Arias? Is it to see the autumn colors that you are concerned to make the best use of fine weather?”

“Please, DeWitt, I am not a wealthy woman. Indeed all my worldly possessions are in the few trunks about this fine vessel.”

This information visibly surprises the governor.

“Good heavens, madame! Is this a one-way trip for you? Are you a pioneer? But surely not as a woman alone?” He still cannot quite bring himself to address her by name, without some form of title, but is happy to have her address him with familiarity.

“I am indeed going alone, DeWitt, but not into the wilds of the West just yet. I am traveling only as far as the capital city of De Troit,” she pronounces it in the French fashion, “to the University of Michigania there, to my appointment as a professor of classical languages and history.”

“Astonishing!” the governor exclaims. “You are a scholar, madame! And will you be teaching?”

“I hope to,” Arias says. “At least, my appointment from a Father Richard says as much.”

The governor laughs. “How the world changes. Papist university dons and lady classicist professors.”

“Do I still have your leave to travel the canal, DeWitt?”

“Madame,” he brushes an unruly lock of hair from his high forehead and looks at her directly, “I begin to believe that I made the canal just for such as you.”

“Oh? Then I was misinformed. I thought it was for the grain farmers?”

“Well, for them too!”

“It is not a Catholic school, though,” Arias says. “The reverend father is merely one of its founders, although, I believe, an important one. I believe it was for his sake that the Potawatomi and Ottawa nations donated a substantial gift of land to the school. I hope you are not opposed to a school for its having a Papist founder?”

“Not at all, madame, not at all.”

“DeWitt.”

“Madame?” he looks at her, startled short of the reverie he was about to launch upon.

“You may address me as ‘most honorable Professor’, or as ‘Arias’. I leave the choice entirely to you.”

Clinton laughs again, like a jovial lion.

“Arias,” he resumes, “I am not in any way opposed to members of the Church of Rome, so long as they do not worship their Pope as a foreign monarch of worldly affairs, as I believe the majority of them do not. In fact I have long championed suffrage for Roman Catholics in the firm belief that they are capable of being as truly American as their Protestant brethren. And I am very pleased to meet a future professor of the university on the edge of the wilderness! This is exactly what I hoped! The spirit that you exhibit, to extend civilization westward—to free that spirit was my dearest wish in all the years when I championed this canal!” The governor waves a large hand toward the bend up ahead. “Truly,” he smiles, “it gladdens me to meet you. And are you a naturalist also? You did not want to waste a moment of taking in the glorious fall colors!”

The colors are becoming brilliant. As the first rays of the sun begin to strike distant hilltops, the ship is going around a bend in the river where the southern bank permits a view of many miles. The land is wooded in maple and beech now all aflame in crimson, tangerine, and gold.

“The land is glorious indeed, DeWitt, but I have seen such wonders many times. No, I rose early to view a wonder that is new upon the Earth, and that is our current highway—or should I say low-way?—your magnificent canal.”

“Oh! Oh,” he leans back, placing his hand upon his heart, “now, ma—now, Arias. Do not make fun of an old man’s folly.”

“I do not, sir. I mean just what I say. I consider this canal to be one of the wonders of the world. Indeed, of all time.”

“Oh, please!” he laughs. “I have heard that there is a greater canal, in China at least.”

“There is. It required twenty-five hundred years to build.”

“Ah,” he nods thoughtfully. “Well. Then we did not do so badly as I thought.”

“Yes. They refer to it as ‘HuAng-de di Go?’.”

“Truly? And can you translate the phrase?”

“Of course. It means, ‘The emperor’s ditch’.”

Clinton leans back and laughs hard enough that his substantial mass threatens both the stability and the integrity of his chair.

“Yes, DeWitt,” Arias continues patiently. “There are larger works upon the Earth. In Egypt, there are pyramids. But, to my knowledge of history, there has never been any work so great, carried through in so short a time from concept to completion and use, that was so much the work of a single man.”

“Yes, my shoulders still ache!” He laughs. “There are a few thousand Irishmen who might quibble that the canal was the work of one man!”

“Now it is you who makes light. In all truth, DeWitt, no emperor of China or Rome ever worked so hard to carry forward a project that would so benefit his state. In my journey to my new home in the West, I was glad to be able to travel the new waterway and observe the great work. But I must confess that I chose the time of my departure so that I might meet its maker.”

Clinton stares at her.

“Madame—Arias—am I to understand that you intended to meet me? In Albany?”

“That is the case. But please compose yourself, sir. Your honor is safe with me.”

This causes another paroxysm. “Ah, and yours with me, more’s the pity.” The governor does manage to compose himself, but a light of calculation comes into his hazel eyes. “But I must confess, Arias, I am uncertain whether to feel flattered or alarmed. I hope you have not come to—ask some favor, or whatnot. As a sitting governor I would be remiss—”

“Please, DeWitt,” Arias holds up a hand, “I wanted to meet you and have the pleasure of taking ship with you for the sole purpose of sitting with you here this morning and, as we are being drawn westward on your canal, asking you one question.” Arias gestures toward the bending waterway. “Why did you build this? And I do not mean to ask for a recitation of revenue projections, but rather I wish to know—what was in your heart? What passion made you persevere when your friends doubted and your enemies derided you?” She smiles, “And when a visionary like old Jefferson thought you ‘more than half mad’?”

For once Clinton does not laugh. He does smile slightly as he regards his unusual traveling companion, but it is quite a serious expression.

“By God, madame, I begin to wish that we had met some years ago.” He smiles more broadly. “And you should be glad that we did not! But I will answer your question. Gladly! For it is one seldom asked, I think, even by myself.”

The governor falls silent for a while, watching the two horses on the northern bank pulling the boat along at a respectable pace of five miles per hour. The sun is higher now and only the western sides of the hills are still in shadow. A crisp and brilliant October morning blooms.

“Do you know,” Clinton says at last, “It was not my own idea, at the first. In fact, I had it from a man, a remarkable man, whom I never had the pleasure to actually meet. I first heard from him,” Clinton frowns with the effort of memory, “I believe it was toward the end of my first term as mayor, in the City.”

“Do you mean New York City, sir? If so, don’t let your associates in Albany hear you name it thus!”

“Yes, yes,” he laughs. “Ah, but I fear I will always think of it as The City!

“But one day I received a letter signed by the nom de plume of ‘Hercules’, and with the return address of a debtor’s prison in the village of Rochester! As you may imagine, this piqued my interest. I open the letter and in it read the most astounding plan—complete with sketches and analysis that seemed to me worthy of any professional engineer or surveyor—of a canal that would stretch from Albany in the east, to Lake Erie in the west!”

“In all the years that I pushed for the canal, I never became overly angered or frustrated by the short-sightedness or obstinacy of my opponents. This has been remarked upon by others, especially in light of the hot-headedness of my youth. Heavens!” Clinton looks at her, briefly grinning. “I can honestly say that if I had, in my youth, received one tenth part of the insults and slander to which I was subjected during the canal debates, I would have been fighting duels every week! In fact, I suppose that it was my very patience with the canal’s opponents that ensured eventual victory. And what was the source of that surprising patience? Why, the knowledge that I had heard every one of their skeptical jibes and derisive dismissals first in my own mind! I was the very first of the canal’s opponents, and it was only the continued correspondence of a failed businessman who called himself Hercules that finally won me over! I can honestly say that I have never before or since experienced such a correspondence. The man was both erudite and eloquent. Although he claimed no particular experience or education, I found his descriptions of how such an undertaking might be accomplished to be clear and well-reasoned.”

“Oh, I scoffed! I laughed! I threw his first three letters away! And the fourth! But that one, I retrieved from the trash and read again. That one, at last, I replied to, setting my self-assured arguments on paper. And at that moment, Arias, I see now that he had me. Because, although I did not yet believe that the thing could be done, I had begun to wish that it might be! After a year and a half-dozen more letters exchanged, I was Mr Hercules’ converted apostle, and the canal has, finally, been the focus of my career and my life.”

“And you never met him?” Arias asks quietly.

“Never. And our correspondence ended not long after. He was apparently released from debtors’ prison after some time, as he had an address in Rochester proper for a while. I sent a small gift there, after the opening hoopla two years ago, hoping it might somehow still find a way to reach him. But I have not heard from the man in twenty years. “

“So. The idea began with another, but it became yours. Why? An idea does not conquer a man’s imagination. An idea is a lonely little thing, a note set adrift in a bottle. It must be found, understood, adopted, and nourished as much as any child. Your imagination, happening upon this note, recognized it as kin. You gave it life, from your own fountain. Why?”

The canal is bending northward again, the remnants of the morning’s breeze raising ripples on the water’s modest surface. Beyond the towpath to the north the land rises into forest that the rising sun is illuminating so that the very air under the trees seems to glow with golden and orange light, while to the south the land is level nearby, but in the greater distance rises in a series of shallow hills whose autumn color is muted by blue distance.

“Do you know,” he says, “it was at just this time of year—oh, what is it now, forty-six long years ago! Long before your time, madame!—when General Lord Cornwallis conceded Yorktown, and the revolution was ended, but for the diplomats. My father was with Washington at that siege, commanding the New York Brigade. The news took a week to arrive from Virginia, and I heard George and my mother downstairs shouting and celebrating. I, however, wept. For I had determined that in the spring, after having achieved the ripe old age of thirteen, I would leave home and join the army and my father, to go and fight the British and the Iroquois or whosoever might stand in the way of our new nation. I was already nearly as tall as George, and I thought I could pass for fifteen handily, and then they simply must take me! So I had convinced myself, and yes they probably would have.”

Gazing out at the water, he smiles.

“But, my country did not need me. It had defeated a great power of Europe, a world-spanning empire, quite without my help. And as the years went by and our new country established itself and grew, I suppose I was always looking for that moment again: the moment when I might make my mark upon this new nation, this republic of free men in a new world.”

“I believe it was when I was first at Princeton, when the Northwest Territory was declared, when I had my first inkling of how great our nation could become. This new territory alone was equal in size to all of France! It was then that I first imagined a vast American empire, stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. An empire founded upon liberty, and the dignity of the common man. The prospect thrilled me. This, I thought, would truly be a ‘new world’: an entire hemisphere of the Earth, freed of the tyranny of the kings and princes of the old. Free men finding a better way forward for all mankind, showing the world that self-governing men could not only survive, but prosper. Showing the world a country without a king.”

“At the time, however, I was saddened and angered that the great powers of the old world had already carved up, as I thought, our pristine continent. France to the south, Spain in the southwest, and even the British still hovering like vultures in the north, waiting to achieve by subversion what they could not by force of arms.”

“Do all the young turn their hopes into fears? Or only the De-Half-Witts? The truth was that I wished that some power could project its will upon the vast and trackless reaches of this great continent and, imagining that it had already happened, was jealous that Europeans had done what Americans could not. The truth, as was soon shown by revolution in France and tumult across Europe, was that it is easy to shade a region on the map in one color or another, but such representations are braggadocio and fantasy. As the years went by I understood—the only real barrier to the true advent of the new world was the simple inability of man to conquer such vastness, and the lassitude of men—even men living here, men whose grandfathers left familiar homes and braved the raging ocean to seek a better life!—even we Americans who had defeated a European power—even we seemed content to stay in our comfortable paddocks, confined by mild mountains, and never bother to turn our collective gaze west and dream of greatness.”

“I thought of it at all times, even as I ran for the legislature of New York, before the turn of the century. I suppose I spoke of it then, to friends and financiers. Even in the midst of the beginning of my career I was telling them: Americans must go west while we have the chance! Now is the time, when Europe is mired in chaos and war.”

“And one day, years later, near the end of my first term as mayor in New York, I had my first message in a bottle from the hand of Hercules. And yes, it was a seed falling upon fertile soil.”

“And now,” Arias says, “after two years, from what I have read it seems that Clinton’s canal has already become the road to the west.”

“Oh, but certainly!” DeWitt laughs and waves a large hand at the placid shallow water of the canal. “Can’t you see all the traffic?” Alarmed by his outburst, one of the horses on the towpath snorts and tosses her head, which amuses Clinton a second time.

Arias tries to speak, but Clinton continues, excited.

“But, in truth, yes. Last year there were more than six thousand trips. Nearly two hundred thousand tons of wheat, flour, potatoes, corn. Also, I would point out,” he turns in his chair to face her more directly, “a fact which everyone seems to forget—the canal works in both directions, and benefits both ends!” He points dramatically with his right arm. “There to the west, only three hundred miles away, the canal has discovered a new, fertile land half the size of France, a land overflowing with corn, wheat, potatoes, cheese, bacon! And a land desperate to trade those riches for the products of the manufactories of the east: textiles and oil, rifles, plows, carriages. Pots and pans! Cups and dishes! But, this new vital land half the size of France? It lies not across the ocean, but at the western edge of this canal. No ships can sail from that rich land to Boston, or Charleston. Its only port of call is the city of New York. I tell you honestly, madame, that I believe this canal will benefit the City every bit as greatly as it does the West!”

Smiling, Arias raises a finger to interrupt, but the governor continues unabated.

“But, as for the west, you will see!” he says. “This narrow little waterway is the artery that will pump life into places far beyond Buffalo! Its six score leagues are only the entryway to the vast waterway that Providence has given us: the Great Lakes themselves. And someday, maybe in fifty years’ time, Detroit will be joined by other great cities all around those lakes. Cities that owe nothing to the ancient cities of Europe and need not their trade!”

“DeWitt,” Arias laughs. “You enjoy thinking of the long term. It is a valuable and remarkable gift. But do you ever find that your dreams of the future blind you to more immediate concerns.”

The governor’s expression saddens. “Ah, constantly, madame. You have put your finger upon it. And never worse, I think, than now in what I feel to be my twilight years.” His hazel eyes regard her with something like longing.

“I ask, DeWitt, as a question of some immediate concern. We are coming to a bridge, you see.”

He frowns mildly, only gradually drawing his thoughts back from some reverie. “A—bridge—” The governor’s head jerks to the right. “Good god! It is upon us!”

The little stone bridge is no more than fifty yards ahead. It is newly-constructed and well-made, arcing over the water to provide access for a farmer whose lands were cut in half by the canal’s construction. But it is not one foot higher than it absolutely has to be. The steersman was indeed asleep, as were the boats other passengers, because Arias did not wish her conversation with the governor to be cut short. Even the horse driver has been nodding off and is now in a panic, realizing that even if he stops the horses’ progress the boat will still drift into the bridge.

“Forgive me,” Arias laughs. “But I did not have the heart. Will we go down with all hands? Full fathoms one?”

“North!” the governor calls to be heard down below. “How long can you sleep, old man? Get up here and help me with the canopy! And you, steersman! Are you asleep as well, or drunk? By God, are we on Clinton’s Ditch or the River Lethe? Does everyone on this boat sleep till noon?” Even as he speaks, however, Clinton is up and hurrying to pull out one of the supporting poles.

“Oh, I can help! I can help!” Arias says, laughing, and goes to another of the poles.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: