It’s that time of year again: Halloween, and map quizzes in my US History survey. These two events converge in the single most common undergraduate typo: the labeling of the “Eerie Canal” through upstate New York. Reliably, every year a solid quarter of the class makes this spelling error. (I blame their being educated largely in Virginia, which means that didn’t get a solid year of Erie Canal propaganda in 4th grade.) This excellent typo raises a whole range of questions about what the “Eerie Canal” could possibly refer to. But I demure. Instead, I’ll take the occasion to quote a great paragraph from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s scathing description of traveling the Erie Canal, which he published in 1835 in the New-England Magazine.
Hawthorne embarked near Utica “inclined to be poetical about the Grand Canal,” a task that he found increasingly difficult due to the “overpowering tedium” of what he called “our adventurous navigation of an interminable mud-puddle.” Once past Utica,
We were traversing the “long level,” a dead flat between Utica and Syracuse, where the canal has not rise or fall enough to require a lock for nearly seventy miles. There can hardly be a more dismal tract of country. The forest which covers it, consisting chiefly of white cedar, black ash, and other trees that live in excessive moisture, is now decayed and death-struck, by the partial draining of the swamp into the great ditch of the canal. Sometimes, indeed, our lights were reflected from pools of stagnant water, which stretched far in among the trunks of the trees, beneath dense masses of dark foliage. But generally, the tall stems and intermingled branches were naked, and brought into strong relief, amid the surrounding gloom, by the whiteness of their decay. Often, we beheld the prostrate form of some old sylvan giant, which had fallen, and crushed down smaller trees under its immense ruin. In spots, where destruction had been riotous, the lanterns showed perhaps a hundred trunks, erect, half overthrown, extended along the ground, resting on their shattered limbs, or tossing them desperately into the darkness, but all of one ashy-white, all naked together, in desolate confusion. Thus growing out of the night as we drew nigh, and vanishing as we glided on, based on obscurity, and overhung and bounded by it, the scene was ghost-like—the very land of unsubstantial things, whither dreams might betake themselves, when they quit the slumberer’s brain.
Quite creepy! (And, as someone who grew up in southeastern Oneida County; he’s right, northwestern Oneida County is flat and freaky.) Happy Halloween to all you Eerie Canal lovers our there.