The Erie Canal across New York State was a marvel. The concept was visionary. The business plan was revolutionary. The engineering was inspiring. The Erie Canal forever changed New York State and the Midwest. It also taught far-away North Carolina lessons that helped the “Rip Van Winkle State” rouse itself from crippling economic stagnation.
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When rivers were our highways, the Roanoke River system was tantalizingly close to being a 400-mile-long superhighway. It had the potential to connect a bountiful Piedmont with seaports and far-flung markets. But at the fall line, where the river tumbled down to the coastal plain, roiling, bolder-strewn rapids brought heavily laden boats to a standstill. Maybe a canal could circumvent those rough waters…
North Carolina’s 1800s debate over internal improvements – essentially a public policy debate over transportation infrastructure – was often a tactical battle over a specific canal, turnpike or railroad project. But it was also a broad referendum on the soul of America, and that aspect of the 1800’s debate lives on even today.
After 63 years of speculation on feasibility of a Dismal Swamp Canal, and after four years of acrimonious debate on government’s role in such an undertaking, actual excavation began. There was no civil engineer engaged. There was no understanding of how many canal locks would be required. There was no estimate of how much the project would cost. And yet…
With no quality seaports available to them in North Carolina, colonial plantation owners looked longingly at the bustling port of Norfolk as a jumping-off point for external markets. But how could they transport goods north? Hey, why not dig a canal? All that stood in the way was 2,200 square miles of “… a vast Body of mire and Nastiness.”
When it comes to today’s large-scale infrastructure projects, we are used to advocates painting a rosy picture of fiscal prudence and fabulous benefits. Joseph Caldwell had something to say about this “budget knavery” nearly 200 years ago.