Book Review Thursday: Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold and Murder on the Erie Canal


A dear friend who recently passed away once wrote an article about his ancestors and reflected on how, as the nineteenth century dawned, lifestyles began to change.  Before the 1800’s life was much the same through generations of families.  Then, the nineteenth century – what my friend called “The Century of Acceleration” – dawned and with it rapid change from beginning to end (and of course, beyond).

America had just concluded its war for independence and many were looking to the west to expand beyond the confines of the eastern seaboard and the original thirteen colonies.  One of the major challenges the expanding nation would encounter was better ways to transport goods back and forth from the established urban and rural areas of the east to those who chose to venture to the west.  Yes, roads could have been carved through the mountains and forests, but what about a waterway to convey those needed supplies?

Many had thought of building a canal system but Jesse Hawley, who took it upon himself to survey the Mohawk Valley, was the many who finally got it done, but only after petitioning the New York State Legislature and gaining the support of Governor DeWitt Clinton.  The challenges were great with varying altitudes and rises along the proposed three hundred and sixty-mile canal.  A system of locks would become necessary to accommodate those variances.

Many mocked the idea but on October 26, 1825 the canal opened for business.  Along the way, however, there were other events of note occurring along the canal some would call “Heaven’s Ditch”.  The book’s subtitle says it all: God, Gold and Murder.

Author Jack Kelly writes a compelling narrative of not only the challenges of building this historic waterway, but in the spirit of my favorite authors wrote about the other events which grabbed the headlines in the early years of the nineteenth century as the canal was being built.  Not the least of these events is what many would call “The Second Great Awakening” which swept through western New York.

Charles G. Finney made his mark on this era, as did many other fiery preachers of the gospel.  At one point the area would come to be called “The Burned Over District” – with so much fervent evangelization there seemed to be no one left to convert.  During this era Joseph Smith’s family was struggling to make ends meet and he would have a series of visions, out of which came the tenets of a denomination who would later call themselves Latter Day Saints, or Mormons.

I have to admit I didn’t know a whole lot about Mormon history, but found Kelly’s narrative formative and compelling.  Two other “hot topics” of the era were interspersed throughout the book:  Masonry and the rise of Anti-Mason sentiment and the abolition of slavery.  These two topics in particular would begin to shape the political battles of the rest of the century and beyond.

Yet, as some reviewers have pointed out the book is more “heaven than ditch” with more emphasis on the spiritual revival and the journey of Joseph Smith becoming the leader of a mysterious, and often maligned, religion.  It wasn’t that surprising, however, to learn of the early push for abolition given that when it was finally confronted head-on with a civil war after years of infighting and bickering in the halls of government.  Kelly points out that anti-Mason sentiment would later propel other causes such as the temperance and women’s suffrage movements.  In this book the anti-Mason sentiment arises after a western New York man mysteriously disappears after threatening to publish a book about the Masons and their secret society.  Presumably, William Morgan was murdered as a result (although his body was never found).

I found it a fascinating read – but then again I usually find any history book on the nineteenth century fascinating.  I’m totally enamored with this particular century.  If you are interested in learning more about the early history of America following its independence and its march westward, you will also find this a compelling read – just be aware it’s “more heaven than ditch”.

Rating:  ★★★★★

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

  © Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2016.


    • Thanks for stopping by. I have been so busy with ancestry research projects and my other business I haven’t written a whole lot this year. Believe me, I wish I could carve out some time to write more. I constantly come across subjects to write about and also want to compile them for a book. I tend to write stories from the nineteenth century and Victorian era (my favorite).

      • Oooh, I love Victorian era so I’ll look forward to!!! Thank you for your works


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