Wedding of the Waters:

The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation


by Peter L. Bernstein (W. W. Norton, 2005)


(This column first appeared in the June 16, 2005 issue of ArtVoice of Buffalo.)


In Wedding of the Waters, Peter Bernstein retells the story of the construction of the Erie Canal, focusing (too much for my taste) on the political infighting and intrigue associated with this remarkable engineering feat. Appropriately, De Witt Clinton is his hero. The canal would never have been built if it had not been for him but, just as the Clinton supported the canal, the canal ended up supporting him. When, as the canal neared completion political opponents kicked him off the canal board, the uproar created led to Clinton's reelection as governor. This prompted Martin Van Buren's famous comment "that there is such a thing in politics as killing a man too dead."


Unfortunately, I can only assign a middling grade to this book. It is poorly edited, an increasingly common fault today. More important, Bernstein sees nothing but glory in the canal. That is a reasonable estimate at the time of his main story but, when he describes the 1905-18 enlargement, he fails to see how this half-assed job exacerbated the canal's subsequent problems. (There would be no St. Lawrence Seaway if they had built a full-sized canal.) The best book about the Erie Canal remains George Condon's 1974 Stars on the Water, which does not even appear in Bernstein's bibliography.-- Gerry Rising