Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal
By Jack Kelly
Read May 2020
This reader has spent 30+ years living in western New York and has biked and walked along the Erie canal on a regular so anticipated this book would be an interesting read to learn more about the canal’s history. It certainly fulfilled that promise and much more.
Pursuing a vision to connect the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers near Albany, NY with Lake Erie, 360 miles away making it the longest canal in the world was remarkable. Knowing that the canal would have major impact on the land between the two waters, but as importantly anticipating that the canal would have major impact on the new nation itself was enough to fuel DeWitt Clinton’s drive to build the canal, even if the US government wasn’t willing to do so. What wasn’t known well then was that the 360 mile canal would also have to enable lifting boats 600 feet along their journey and that technologies required to allow the canal to survive winters weren’t even available in the country much less the region. Engineers didn’t have the ready knowledge or experience to accomplish this huge task but an amazing can-do spirit meant the project was funded by the state after being refused federal funds and neatly accomplished in 8 years (1817-1825). A course was plotted through the wilds of central and western New York, water sources were found to power the huge number of locks, and the backs of locals and Irish immigrants hand-dug the canal, later supported by tools devised by self-taught engineers. Another self-taught engineer, Canvass White, leveraged a technology he saw in the UK to use a hydraulic cement, impermeable to water, as mortar for stones vs the original plan of using timbers (with an expected short life) to build the 83 locks. His discovery of a source of the required limestone near Syracuse, NY, and his experiments in how to make the cement allowed the locks and arches to survive decades longer than timbers could have. Many of these structures are still visible and/or in use.
Kelly’s telling of the building of the canal covers the “Heaven’s Ditch” part of the title. His parallel documentation of the cultural changes in the area covers the other parts. Another extraordinary piece of history occurred during this same period and in this same part of the country—“The Second Great Awakening”. In many respects this aspect of the book is larger in depth and scope than the telling of the building of the canal, covering a larger time period and geographical setting. Kelly gives the story of three people who had huge impact on the area and beyond: Charles Finney—“The Great Evangelist”, William Miller—who predicted (incorrectly) the date of the second coming, and Joseph Smith, Jr—who founded the religion that becomes the Church of Latter Day Saints. Each of these men provided their followers something beyond what was available in the traditional church settings of the day.
Kelly recounts Finney’s story. After various jobs and approaches to education, he becomes a successful revivalist. His revivals were often held when farmers weren’t toiling in their fields allowing entire families to trek to the revival site. The events provided stimulating, actionable words vs the dry oratory participants heard in their traditional churches. Kelly details major revivals held in Rochester, NY. Finney stirred abolitionist fervor that spread in the area and was carried west on the canal.
Kelly also discusses William Miller, another influential religious leader at that time. After various struggles with his faith, wavering between the Baptist Church and Deism, he returned with vigor to the Baptist Church. After substantial consideration of the scriptures, he calculated the date of the second coming of Christ. He eventually revealed this and preached about this date which would be sometime in 1843 or 1844. Although “The Great Disappointment” arrived when expectations were not met, some of his followers reconsidered his teachings and begat the Seventh Day Adventist church that continues today.
The impact of Joseph Smith, Jr. is more widely known. His family left financial ruin in Vermont to settle in an area of western New York that would become Palmyra, NY and that was near the coming canal. He and family members worked on the canal as it was being dug there. Kelly provides substantial detail regarding Smith’s humble beginning, his considerations of various religious practices, how the he engaged others to believe he had received the golden plates (although no one else ever saw them) in a clearing in a nearby woods, and how he alone was able to translate and record the history of the world that was revealed to him via these plates and later via direct revelation. Heaven’s Ditch follows his history west to Illinois and Missouri to his eventual death and describes the others he commissions as elders, including Brigham Young. Interesting to this reader is a review about Kelly’s book in the blog of the Association for Mormon Letters, a non-profit focused on production and criticism of Mormon literature. The reviewer has this to say: “Every Seventh-day Adventist and Mormon certainly should read this fine book, as it will inform and illuminate.” (1) This reader also found very interesting that as Joseph’s power over his community rose, he followed a path common to some other men rising in power in religion, business, or government—the need to fulfill a growing sexual appetite. His approach to reconcile this passion with his church eventually led to the acceptability of having multiple “spiritual wives”. The author lays interesting ground for consideration for readers regarding how other religions a initiate and grow.
The fourth person he discusses in some detail is William Morgan, who wrote an exposé of the Freemason fraternal organization that played a large role in society of that time. He is the “murder” part of the title—-he went missing shortly before his book was published and his fate was never learned although many theories were lightly considered by various investigations.
Although Kelly’s book title likely will capture readership of those interested in the engineering feat of the Erie Canal, readers will learn at least as much about the “Second Awakening” in the United States and the role some prominent western New Yorkers played in this important aspect of US history. Kelly’s mission-free style informs and keeps the reader well engaged.