BOOK REVIEW: Heaven’s Ditch

Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal
Jack Kelly
St Martin’s Press, NY
Copyright 2016 by the author

It was the nation’s first big infrastructure project. A canal connecting Lake Erie (and thereby the Great Lakes and the Northwest Territory) to the Hudson River (and thereby New York City and the Atlantic Ocean). A project vital to the growth and development of the United States, it also brought a palpable sense of excitement to upper New York…. an excitement that would have significant effects not only on individuals, but on the nation as a whole.

Kelly’s work is a gripping, fast-paced recounting of several simultaneous historical threads – all of which get their start at the Erie Canal. Each “plot thread” could be a work on its own, but I doubt they’d be as enthralling a tale.

There’s the story of the Canal itself, and the engineering challenges faced. This is dealt with rather quickly compared to the others, probably because it’s not the main thread of the work. That belongs to what would become known as the “Second Great Awakening”; the evangelical movement of the early 19th century. A good portion of that movement took place in western New York, due in large part to the preaching of Charles Finney. His words took hold on that frontier, and led to the birth of a number of religious sects.

One of those new religions was the work of Joseph Smith, who found the Golden Plates of Moroni buried on a hill near Palmyra, just south of the family farm. The life of Smith and the early years of the Church of the Latter Day Saints is another of the book’s threads. There was also William Miller, whose prophecy of the Second Coming in 1844 found fertile ground in upstate New York. Obviously, the world didn’t end, but neither did his movement. It morphed into the Seventh-Day Adventists.

These two “origin stories” for their religions would be good enough for any work, but Kelly isn’t done yet. He also recounts the kidnapping and disappearance of William Morgan, a resident of Batavia NY who angered the Masons by attempting to publish a description of some of their rituals. Arrested on trumped-up charges, he was freed on bail, but then disappeared. Allegations and accusations flew quickly, charging the Masons with all sorts of heinous crimes (not just Morgan’s murder) and conspiracies. The Anti-Masonic faction turned to politics, and eventually became the Whig Party.

There’s a heck of a lot to take in here, but Kelly keeps it all moving, bouncing from thread to thread. He just can’t seem to tie them all together. There aren’t many photographs or illustrations (a pet peeve of mine), either. Nonetheless, it’s a good read and a fascinating look at an important part in both time and place of American history.

 

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