By Alexander Rivero
Kenneth Silber wants you to know about the Erie Canal, and for good reason. The Wyckoff resident—who has spent the better part of his career working as editor and freelance writer for several publications, including Scientific American—is also a passionate lover of American history, and feels that popular awareness of the importance of the Canal is sorely lacking in country’s public consciousness. His answer to this dilemma? A meticulously researched book of photographs and history of the Canal and the man responsible for it, DeWitt Clinton. The book, called In DeWitt’s Footsteps; Seeing History on the Erie Canal, was published in September of 2017.
“No question, the Erie Canal is very important to the history of the country,” says Silber by phone, “and we as Americans should know the degree to which its construction helped open up the interior of the country for Americans living on the east coast in the early days. Thanks to the Canal, it was possible for people and goods to move west and back east much more cheaply.”
The cheaper movement of goods, Silber argues, was a major factor in the US’s ability to remain unified during its earliest days, and beyond into the mid and late 1800s.
“The Canal really opened up the interior of the country,” he says, “making it possible for greater movement from east to west, not just of goods but of people as well, who went on to populate the central and western states. It also helped the north industrialize, giving it a huge advantage in the Civil War over the South.”
Even though SIlber graduated with a degree in History and Economics from New York University in 1987, he never stopped being a student of either field. A voracious reader in his own time, it seems like it was only a matter of time before he tried his hand at a project like In DeWitt’s Footsteps.
He recalls a 2004 visit to Weehawken, a town about a mile north of the Lincoln Tunnel in Hudson County, to witness a reenactment of Alexander Hamilton’s infamous death at the hands of political rival Aaron Burr, who shot him in a duel.
“The event heightened my interest in American history again,” says Silber, who recalls reading a fascinating piece on DeWitt Clinton shortly after that day. Within a year, he was dating his future wife, who was living in Weehawken at the time, and happened to be—of all things—a direct descendant of DeWitt Clinton himself.
“When we got married in 2012,” says Silber, “we went and spent some time in upstate New York. We saw the ruins of the Erie Canal, and I realized there was a story to be told there, especially as it pertained to Clinton himself, the man he was and his role in the building of all this.”
Despite having written the beautiful book, which includes some lovely photographs of the ruins of the Canal as it stood, Silber suggests that the best way to experience the Erie Canal is to go up there and see it for oneself, which he did, extensively.
“Really, the way to do it is to tell the story of what you see when you go up there,” Silber says. “It’s a coffee table book, with lots of pictures, each of which were taken by my friend George Gruel, who walked the trails with me.”
The Erie Canal is about 300 miles in length. There are two versions of it. The first is the one built originally—called Clinton’s Ditch, a pejorative description of the Canal used by its most ardent opponents during the days of its construction in 1825. This version was then enlarged and finished in the 1860s. The second version is the one finished in 1918, which was enlarged even further to fit the expanding size of freight boats and barges (and aptly called the Barge Canal). Needless to say, these developments were absolutely vital to the development of the New York City metropolitan area, and to the rest of the country at large.
The book itself is self-published, and took Silber about five years to finish, from the moment when the idea crystalized in his mind in 2012, to the finishing touches in 2017. The year 2017 is an important one for the Erie Canal, as it celebrates its 200th anniversary of the first breaking of ground, starting construction.
For more information on In DeWitt’s Footsteps, please visit Silber’s website directly at www.eriecanalbook.com, find it on Amazon, or purchase a copy from the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse, New York.