Friday, March 25, 2011

Review: The Artificial River by Carol Sheriff

The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862

I don't review many non-fiction books, mainly because they are usually being read for school and I get really sick of whatever it is I usually have to read for school.  But I had to read The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862 for a class on New York State history, and I ended up loving it.  As a lot of you know, I live in Buffalo, NY, the last stop on the Erie Canal, so the canal has always been close to my heart (because my city is close to my heart, and it's great here, and you should come and visit it!).  Artificial River chronicals the building of the canal across the state and focuses on how it was both progress and a frustration for the people living along it.  Filled with an insane amount of info, from what cities like Buffalo and Rochester used to be (pretty much nothing but a few shacks) to primary sources depicting real life and real opinions at the time the canal was built and afterwards, this book is a treasure trove for anyone interested in NYS history or the Erie Canal.

I really liked reading about what people living along the canal route thought of it.  At first, many people were ecstatic.  The canal would bring mail a lot faster than roads, and farmers would be able to transport their goods to more markets.  Entrepreneurs were able to set up their own businesses along the canal, and the construction of the canal and subsequent boom in business employed tons of people.  The canal could also be frustrating though.  Farmers' land was sometimes ruined or taken from them.  The canal sometimes broke in places and flooded the land, and boats would be stuck waiting in long lines while repairs were made.  Also, because of Upstate New York's cold temperatures, the canal had to be shut down every winter when it froze over.  This frustrated settlers in remote areas because they had gotten used to fast news from loved ones in New England or Europe during the warm months and didn't like the long wait for letters all winter.

Child labor was also an issue on the canal.  Young boys and sometimes girls lead the horses who pulled the boats.  They were mistreated and often abused by boat captains, and they were surrounded by the canal workers, ruffians with bad manners who many living along the canal didn't like at all.  These are just a few of the conflicts of progress that the canal brought with it.  Much more in discussed in the book.

As mentioned above, one of my favorite things to read about in Artificial River was the building up of towns and cities along the canal routes.  Buffalo, Lockport, and Rochester are mentioned frequently, but so are many other canal towns stretching across the state.

I think anyone who likes canal or NYS history will enjoy this.  It's non-fiction, but it's not insanely heavy.  It's written in an easy to understand way, and I loved how Sheriff kept all the spelling mistakes in primary sources that are quoted.  It helps to show who these people along the canal were.  They weren't all great spellers, but they were intelligent people nonetheless, and they were people who wanted a better life for their families.  Many of them had lived through or had relatives who lived through the American Revolution, and they felt very strongly about their property rights.  When parts of their land were taken away for the canal, they expressed their unhappiness (I'm ignoring for the purpose of this review the fact that the land had once belonged to Native Americans, who were forced off of their homelands).

Artificial River ends with the railroads and how they eventually surpassed the canal.  As Sheriff put it, "If the Erie Canal compressed distance and time, the railroads annihilated them" (page 173).  I thoroughly enjoyed this book and can't wait to read about more NYS history in my class.

And oh yeah, how awesome is the name "Cadwallader"??!  Never heard that before reading this book!  (and yes, it's a first name)

Title: The Artificial River
Author: Carol Sheriff
Date of Publication: 1997
Number of Pages: 177
Genre: Non-Fiction, Erie Canal
Source: Personal Cop


  1. This sounds really interesting, good review. I think the whole lives of these people and how their lives changed sounds like something I'd enjoy.

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