America the Ingenious

I picked up a book while we were traveling, America the Ingenious: How a Nation of Dreamers, Immigrants, and Tinkerers Changed the World by Kevin Baker.

Baker is a great storyteller with an eye for historical detail. His book is a collection of engrossing stories – each only 2-3 pages long – about American innovations, from the safety-pin to Apollo 11.

He writes about construction of the Erie Canal:

… The Erie Canal was the greatest public work in the Western world since the Great Pyramid of Giza in 2580 BC. Some 11.4 million cubic yards of earth and rock were removed to build the canal — about three times the amount moved at Giza.

…Most of the Erie Canal was dug out by hand and shovels. Some fifty thousand men worked on it — local farmers, Native Americans, African Americans, German immigrants, and above all, the Irish. At eight cents a day, Irish immigrants made five times the wages they could get back home, but contractors fed them swill, housed them in shanties, and dosed them with twelve to twenty ounces of whiskey a day — their only fortification against digging through malarial swamps, quicksand, and icy winter streams, sometimes by torchlight or bonfire.They died in droves from dysentery, yellow fever, typhus, pneumonia, dehydration, falling trees, and faulty equipment and were despised by people in the towns they were about to enrich.

Many of our ancestors traveled down the Erie Canal to reach their new homes. Some worked on it, and (according to an Internet source) about 1000 died between 1817 and 1825. The canal and its construction is worth reading more about.

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