I would like to have witnessed the opening of the Erie Canal late in October 1825 —the grand procession that started in Buffalo, where the canalboat Seneca Chief moved slowly into the canal carrying two kegs of pure Lake Erie water and a huge portrait of Governor Clinton in a Roman toga. I wish I had been in the procession, preferably riding on the canalboat carrying two Indian youths, two bears, two fawns, et cetera, and of course named Noah’s Ark . Then, after traveling a week on the canal through Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Schenectady, and Albany, I wish I had been in New York City for the final “Grand Aquatic Display” as Clinton poured that Erie water into the Atlantic, and for the mile-and-a-half parade in Manhattan, as throngs—including me—gaped.
Then I would have wanted to take a canalboat west so that I could more closely study the canal walls and bottoms that had to be sealed against boat wash and muskrats; the locks with their stone-lined channels and big wooden gates; the bridges and aqueducts built high over rivers and ravines, strong enough to support boat, crew, and cargo. Sitting back on my “settle” on top of a canalboat, I would contemplate a kind of caste system on the canal: my own long and lean canal packet, the “grandee of the Erie,” carrying only passengers and serving them fine meals; the emigrants’ “line boat,” carrying families and their stoves and furniture and chickens; the freighters carrying owners, horses, and cargo; the shantyboat, a one-room hovel on a flatboat, which moved by hitching a ride on another craft; and—at the bottom of the caste—the timber raft, mere piles of logs lashed together and topped by a shanty for the crew.