Friday, July 12, 2019

March 1, 1845 – Opening of the Northwest Passage Canal

President Henry Clay announced before Congress the official opening of a project a lifetime in the making: a canal to allow travel by water from the Atlantic to the Pacific without having to navigate southward across the equator. Explorers had searched for a Northwest Passage over centuries, discovering many of the rivers that would later evolve into colonial settlements. While a route by sea was theoretically possible north of Canada, the extreme cold froze even seawater, and several expeditions perished before enormous icebreakers proved capable of traveling there in the twentieth century.

Clay’s American System pursued a different tactic: if a Northwest Passage could not be found, why not build one? Canal-building boomed in the 1820s after the successful completion of the Erie Canal across northwest New York. Opponents called it “Clinton’s Ditch” after the governor’s pursuit of an outrageously expensive, 350-mile canal that required eight years of digging. After its opening in 1825, however, the passage between the Hudson River and the Great Lakes proved to be an exponential boon to the economy as well as a focus of westward settlement. Ohio boomed and soon built its own canal to complete an inland waterway from New York to New Orleans.

Henry Clay had radically encouraged transportation improvements as Secretary of State under John Quincy Adams with projects like the National Road and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. The Democratic-Republican Party from the Era of Good Feelings began to fracture over the question of federal authority and states’ rights, the latter championed by southerners who felt they were missing out on major investments, such as John C. Calhoun’s South Carolina. Adams took a narrow victory for his reelection in 1828, mainly from Clay’s efforts to win votes in the Ohio Valley. Clay determined to have his own victory in 1832, but to do so, he needed to grab attention from the expansion-minded South.

Clay campaigned with promises to boost settlement through the West by bridging the Missouri and Snake rivers into a Northwest Passage with a system of canals. New Orleans seized on the idea, and campaigners supported Kentuckian Clay as a fellow westerner rather than an untrustworthy northerner. The city had grown to become the fifth largest in the United States and looked to grow beyond its previous claim to fame in the heroism of General Andrew Jackson, who perished in the fight to defend the city from British seizure in 1815. It would serve as the southern gateway to the Pacific, drawing in trade from the European ships frequenting the Caribbean.

Once Clay was elected, the problem became how to build the canal in a land that was mostly unexplored. The area around the nearby Yellowstone River lay in legend among trappers as a place of boiling mud, which John Colter called “fire and brimstone” when he journeyed through it after departing the Louis and Clark Expedition, which went northward as it struggled to find a way across the Continental Divide. Clay’s expeditions discovered that the legends were accurate with numerous geothermal springs including geysers. To the west, they discovered a narrowing of the Rockies that would allow for a channel to be cut south from the Madison River branch of the Missouri to reach the long, flat valley along the Snake River, joining the Columbia River before pouring into the Pacific.

Clay’s engineering teams faced an enormous challenge of actually cutting through the rock. It was infeasible to cut very deeply, meaning the crews would need to build over 100 locks that would bring riverboats up and down the steep inclines. The nearby strange land around the Yellowstone headwaters proved to be a divine gift. Ingredients for blasting powder such as sulfur and nitrates were readily available from the geological formations as well as ample wood for charcoal, leading to the largest gunpowder manufactory west of the Mississippi. A miraculous 136-square-mile lake rested above the canal-building area, and workers cut a controlled channel to bring water down to readily refill the locks.

Although there were many who decried the enormous expense of the Northwest Passage Canal, which would be billions in today’s dollars, most investors were eager to contribute. The National Bank shouldered much of the loans, which saw investment from foreign interests eager to save months of travel time to the west. Clay’s administration sold land long the rivers at high prices, easing the federal expenditure. Towns quickly sprang up not just to support the workforce but also in anticipation of heavy river traffic in the years to come. Speculation ran wild, popping the bubble in the major economic downturn in 1837, coinciding with Clay’s departure from the presidency as his American System policy had worn thin.

Clay played up the economic crash, blaming his Democratic rivals squarely, even though that was a gross over-simplification. The simplification did lend to easy slogan, and Clay’s reelection in 1840 was a sure thing based on demands to make the country rich. Despite the international praise at the opening of the canal, it soon became obvious that the system had to close down in winter due to bitter cold freezing the channels and burying them in snow during blizzards. Clay did not seek reelection in 1844, nor did anyone ask him to.

The Northwest Passage proved to be a mixed success. It did prompt massive settlement westward, leading to statehood for territories in the Great Plains and past the Rockies. Feeling the growing pressure of American settlers, Great Britain pushed for clarity on the boundary of Oregon Country, which was finally agreed to at 49 degrees with American claim to Vancouver Island. Tensions continued to build with Mexico, whose own designs connecting the Pacific and Gulf via a canal between the Gila and Rio Grande rivers had been halted by political instability and the issue of building a supply of water in the desert to fill the necessary locks. This would soon lead to war.

Although impressive in its time, technology would put an end to the Northwest Passage Canal when train travel took over within two decades. The locks were desperately expensive, and soon they became nothing more than areas for recreation and tourism in a radically developed area that would suffer terrible environmental damage for decades to come. Following the downturn of American manufacturing, which surged in the region until after the Second World War, the area declined into what many called the Western Rust Belt.


In reality, Jackson did not die at New Orleans, and his popularity would lead the Democratic Party to victory routinely in the early 1800s. The area along the Continental Divide would remain largely unexplored for decades to come when Yellowstone’s headwaters proved to be as majestic as the legends of fur trappers said. Yellowstone became the first National Park, signed into law by President Grant in 1872. In 1978, Yellowstone became a UNESCO World Heritage Site as the largest nearly-intact ecosystem in Earth’s northern temperate zone (Shullery, 2006).

Monday, July 8, 2019

Guest Post: Skorzeny's Daring Rescue Fails

This article first appeared on Today in Alternate History.

September 12, 1943:

On this day in alternate history, Operation Eiche ended in disaster. This was a daring rescue mission to whisk Hitler's former Axis partner Benito Mussolini away from Campo Imperatore Hotel to a meeting at Wolf's Lair. But for reasons unknown and despite the objections of the pilot, Commando leader Otto Skorzeny insisted on accompanying him in the Fieseler Fi 156 STOL. This overloaded the plane, which crashed into a cliff and killed everyone on-board.
The Fuhrer had been enraged when Victor Emmanuel III, the King of Italy had replaced the Duce with Marshal Pietro Badoglio. As he suspected, this led to an armistice signed only three weeks after the Sicily landings. When Mussolini was placed in captivity, Hitler even threatened to seize the Pope. Instead, his Austrian-born countryman Skorzeny was ordered to rescue the Duce.

The light security detail at the Hotel was unmistakable evidence that the fate of Benito Mussolini was considered a complete irrelevance to the outcome of the war and, indeed, the future of Italy. But Badoglio miscalculated and this would lead to the early collapse of his Government. Hitler wanted a figurehead for his Northern Italian puppet state, and, although alternative leaders such as Alessandro Pavolini or Rodolfo Graziani would probably do, Il Duce, despite being a dejected figure, was strongly preferred for the appearance of continuity. Therefore, the Duce still at least had some symbolic value.

After the crash, the morale of the Italian Social Republic never got off the ground without the Duce. This was to be to the great military advantage of the Communist partisans operating in the North with the assistance of British SOE. Although Churchill was denied his opportunity to strike at the soft under-belly of Europe, nevertheless it was a development not without consequence because Western Yugoslavia was liberated before Soviet forces could arrive. 

The head of the Yugoslav Partisans, Josip Broz Tito, had made an arrangement with the Germans to jointly oppose any Western landing. The inevitable result was the partition into a western kingdom led by King Peter governing from Sarajevo, and an eastern Communist state ruled out of Belgrade by Tito. This settlement was formed by the percentage agreement, a "naughty document" proposed by Churchill and signed by Stalin, stating that Great Britain would get 50% sphere of influence control.

Tito would die in 1980 and be succeeded by another strongman, Slobodan Milosovic. However, East Yugoslavia would not survive long past the fall of Communism in 1989, after which Peter II finally became the constitutional monarch of a united country.

Author's Note: in reality, they only just missed the cliff, and it was considered the greatest special forces triumph of WW2. This led to further operations including the kidnapping of Admiral Horthy's son and also Operation Grief during the Battle of the Bulge. Peter II was was prevented from returning to Belgrade by Prime Minister Subasic. This was after Stalin demanded a three man regency council to govern until a plebiscite was held on if Yugoslavia should become a republic or remain a monarchy. He died in 1970 following a failed liver transplant. His cirrhosis was caused by depression resulting in alcoholism.

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