The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan:
New York governor and one-time mayor of New York City DeWitt Clinton gets much of the credit for spearheading construction of the state-funded Erie Canal across this rough route, and he was the politician who sold the concept to the public. But the engineering idea that made it possible was hatched from a prison cell. Jesse Hawley, a flour merchant in western New York, had gone broke trying to move his product down the mess of roads and trails that wended their way out of the wilderness of western New York. Hawley spent 20 months in debtors’ prison beginning in 1807, and while there he scratched out more than a dozen letters to the Genesee Messenger arguing for construction of a canal linking the Hudson River to the Great Lakes. He wrote that he was motivated by wanting to atone for having led a life of “little purpose” up to that point. The letters laid out the general route that the Erie Canal would eventually take. Hawley knew he was thinking big, acknowledging later in life that his argument was initially received as “the effusions of a maniac.” But there was a genius in it. The way he saw it, God put the Great Lakes so high above sea level for one reason—to provide the energy to fill the locks to lift the boats. Had Lake Erie been at an equal level in elevation to the Hudson River but still separated by a mountain range, such a canal would not have been possible. But once men who knew how to build navigation locks went to work, the upper lakes’ greatest line of defense to the outside aquatic world proved to be their greatest weakness.