The Erie Canal Leads to Hillsdale County


The Jay Treaty of 1794 finally moved the British out of the Northwest Territory, which was originally intended by the government to be reserved for the native people. It lost that designation as the United States reveled in its new status as an independent nation with a desire to expand west. The Louisiana Purchase, acquired at a fire-sale price by President Thomas Jefferson from the French in 1803, extended the new country to the Mississippi River and beyond. Vast new lands opened to those who were unafraid to go into the unknown.

The only problem was getting there. Since the first white people reached North America (along with the forced relocation of black people from Africa), most had been confined to the eastern seaboard by the Appalachian Mountains. Going west over them was a daunting prospect. Trappers, traders and the occasional family braved the difficulties, but it took the skill of Daniel Boone to blaze the Wilderness Road, an easier passage through the mountains at the Cumberland Gap. This opened new land and opportunities for many. The journey was still a challenge, but the doorway to the west through the mountains made a trip with a wagon easier. 

Michigan Territory, however, remained elusive, blocked by the Great Black Swamp in northwest Ohio and northeast Indiana. In order to reach Michigan Territory one had to go hundreds of miles around the swamp. Clearly, a water route going west over the Appalachians to Lake Erie would help ease the way for settlers and offer a cheap and safe way to carry produce to markets in the east. A canal was the answer … but the task of building one was overwhelming.

A canal connecting the Hudson River with Lake Ontario was first proposed in 1768, but the idea was ahead of the technical ability to execute it. It wasn't until 1808 that the New York State Legislature funded a survey that would connect the river with Lake Erie. Although the expertise to build a canal was better than in 1768, the imagination necessary to envision such an engineering feat was missing in many people. Those doubters called it "Clinton's Big Ditch" and "Clinton's Folly" after Governor Dewitt Clinton of New York, who championed the project.

Undeterred, in 1817 Clinton broke ground for the venture. The canal planned was 40 feet wide and four feet deep. That depth is not a typo. The canal could float boats carrying up to 30 tons of freight in only four feet of water. Unfortunately, water flows only downhill, not up. To take canal boats from the Hudson River to Lake Erie, a rise of 568 feet needed to be negotiated.  Using locks was a no-brainer, but each lock could go only 12 feet. Eighty-three locks were eventually built, but the truly amazing construction was of 18 aqueducts to carry the canal over ravines and rivers. With the canal boats being pulled by mules or horses who walked on a 10-foot towpath and an eight-foot-wide berm on the other side, this was a 60-foot-wide canal … in the air. 

 With the Erie Canal completed, families were able to move west and produce could be transported both ways. So two-way traffic traveled on the canal. This necessitated an intricate dance when two boats going in opposite directions met. The drivers of the mules, often young boys, would determine who had the right of way. The winner of the negotiation moved his team to the canal side of the towpath, while the other driver moved his team to the outside of the towpath, stopped and let his towline go slack, which made the line attached to his canal boat drop to the bottom of the canal. The winning team of mules would walk over the other's towline, with their boat slipping over the towline in the water. Then both teams could continue on their way.

Building the Erie Canal required on-the-job training. New engineering techniques developed during its construction as a result of never-before-encountered challenges. When it was completed in 1825, it was acknowledged as one of the engineering marvels of the world. More practically, it opened the west to settlement and the eastern seaboard as a market for goods produced in the west. 

It also created a new market for the skills of the Erie Canal masons. Many worked their way west through southern Ontario into southern Michigan, building stone homes and public buildings along the way. One of them, George Wheaton, came to Hillsdale County where he built a cobblestone home for Isaac VanDenBerg in 1853. A cobblestone building was the Cadillac of stone edifices because the facade consisted of rounded stones of roughly the same size. It took years to collect the number of stones necessary, with those not the correct size used for a "rubble wall" behind the facade, which held up the building. In 1854 VanDenBerg sold his house and property to the county to be used as a County Farm and Poorhouse, where today it stands on Wolcott Street in Hillsdale to remind us of how those who were unable to care for themselves received help. George Wheaton also worked on some of the original Hillsdale College buildings and the second Hillsdale County Courthouse.


In 1827 Moses Allen, one of the original surveyors of the Chicago Pike, brought his family to the area that later became known as Allen's Prairie, near the current juncture of US-12 and M-49. They were followed the year after by the Beniah Jones family. Then an influx of settlers to the area began, all assisted by the relative ease of coming via the Erie Canal. In 1834 two 22-year-old men, John P. Cook and Chauncey W. Ferris, came from New York State to Jonesville with a wagon of goods for their general store. By 1836 they decided to relocate south of Jonesville, in the area that would become the Hillsdale County Fairgrounds. Eventually they set up shop where the current Cook and Ferris streets come together behind St. Peter's Church, establishing a flour mill. This mill went through several owners until 1869, when F.W. Stock bought it and developed a flour that established for the mill a stellar reputation around the country.

Cook and Ferris found themselves successfully employed and gaining stature in the young village … but without families who would make the hard work worthwhile. They traveled back to New York State again, this time for wives instead of produce. Unlike today, when the concept of marriage is rooted in the desire to find a soul mate to love forever, for these young men marriage was more a business plan. A wife would handle the endless chores that were involved in keeping a house while producing children. A family would help center a man, giving him a reason to work hard and succeed. This pragmatism explains why when both their wives died, Cook and Ferris traveled back to New York State for replacements. Ferris married Cook's sister and Cook married the third sister of the deceased wives. Ferris lost his second wife and married a third who wasn't related to anyone. Together the two men, their five wives and 24 children helped fulfill the dream of the new Americans following the Erie Canal to create a home out of the wilderness.


As the Erie Canal signaled a new day for the United States, it also signaled the end of life as they knew it for the native people already occupying the land west of the Appalachians. "Treaties" made with the native tribes by the U.S. government were conveniently forgotten by the whites when barriers to their movement west were overcome. When white settlers moved into the area that was to become Hillsdale County, genuine friendships developed with the Potawatomis under Chief Baw Beese. Although Baw Beese didn't sign the Chicago Treaty of 1821, which stated that the tribes were selling their land to the U.S. government, he and his followers were forced to leave the area under armed Federal troops around 1840. With their white friends tearfully waving goodbye they stoically walked west on the Sauk Trail, the same path generations of their tribe had traveled. Ironically, they had created the basis for the Chicago Pike, a road to be used by new white settlers that sealed the eviction of the natives from their own land. 

JoAnne P. Miller 2014