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).

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