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Today in History - October 26

The Erie Canal

The Erie Canal opened on October 26, 1825, providing overland water transportation between the ­­ Hudson River on the east and Lake Erie at the western end. Popularly known as “Clinton’s Folly,” the eight-year construction project was the vision of New York Governor DeWitt Clinton. He convinced the New York State legislature to commit seven million dollars to the construction of a 363-mile ditch, forty feet wide and four feet deep.

Erie Canal at Salina Street, Syracuse, New York, circa 1900. Detroit Publishing Company

Harnessing gravity, the canal flowed from Buffalo on the east coast of Lake Erie, through the mountains near the Mohawk Valley west of Troy, and terminated at the upper Hudson River at Albany.

The first boat on the Erie Canal: [Gov. DeWitt Clinton and guests], c1905. Prints & Photographs Division

On October 26, Governor Clinton and his party boarded the packet boat Seneca Chief , with two wooden barrels of Lake Erie water, to begin the journey from Buffalo to New York City. Eight days later, Clinton ceremoniously emptied the water into the Atlantic Ocean to marry the waters as a symbol of the importance of this canal.

A tremendous success, the waterway accelerated settlement of western New York, Ohio, Indiana, and the upper Midwest including the founding of hundreds of towns such as Clinton, in DeWitt County, Illinois, and DeWitt, in Clinton County, Iowa.

Bird’s Eye View of the City of Clinton, DeWitt County, Illinois 1869, A. Ruger. Panoramic Maps
Birds eye view of the city of De Witt, Clinton Co., Iowa 1868, A. Ruger. Panoramic Maps

Mr. and Mrs. Barre Stoen were among those who traveled west, via the Erie Canal, to settle in the vicinity of Holmen, Wisconsin. Nearly a century later, fourteen-year-old Melvina Casberg recounted the Stoens’ experience:

I[n] the spring of 1849 Mr. and Mrs. Barre Stoen of Ringsaker a province near Christiania Norway immigrated to America the “Promised Land.”

After a perilous journey of 14 weeks they landed in New York. By means of the Erie Canal and Great Lakes they immediately proceeded to Wisconsin lured by the amazing tales told by those who had journeyed before them. They landed at Milwaukee.

Mr. Stoen purchased a team of oxen and a wagon as the family was to travel farther west. During the day they made slow progress and at night would find a sheltered nook to camp. After travelling in this manner for six weeks they arrived at their destination, weary from fatigue that the rude methods of transportation brought them.

Pioneer Days.” American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940

Completion of the Erie Canal also stimulated the growth of New York City. Canal boats facilitated exchange of manufactured goods from the city with agricultural products from the Midwest. A 1903 actuality film from the Thomas Edison film company, Panorama Water Front and Brooklyn Bridge from East River, begins with footage of canal boats from the Erie Canal demonstrating the canal’s continuing commercial importance to the port of New York at the turn of the century.

In fact, the Erie Canal remained vital well into the twentieth century. The New York State Barge Canal, completed between 1903 and 1918, incorporated the canal into a larger system of waterways that included extensions to Lake Ontario, Lake Champlain, Lake Cayuga, and Lake Seneca. Commercial use of the Barge Canal had declined by the 1980s. Since then, it has become a popular venue for pleasure boaters.

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Mahalia Jackson

Mahalia Jackson, the “Queen of Gospel Song,” was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on October 26, 1911. She was the daughter of Charity Clark, a laundress and maid, and Johnny Jackson, a Baptist preacher, barber, and longshoreman. Her mother died when she was five years old and she was then brought up by her extended family of one brother, six aunts, and several half-brothers and sisters—the children of her father. Jackson grew up singing gospel music at the Plymouth Rock Baptist Church where her father preached. She relocated to Chicago in 1927. Although her ambition was to become a nurse, she worked as a laundress and studied beauty culture at Madame C. J. Walker’s External and the Scott Institute of Beauty Culture. With that training, Jackson began the first of her several business ventures and opened a beauty shop. Within months of her arrival in Chicago she was a lead singer with the choir at the Greater Salem Baptist Church, where she joined her pastor’s three sons in their group, the Johnson Brothers.

Mahalia Jackson at the Prayer Pilgrimage of Freedom, Washington, D.C., May 17, 1957 NAACP Collection, Prints & Photographs Division. African American Odyssey, Courtesy of the NAACP. 
In 1936 Jackson married Isaac Hockenhull, a college-educated entrepreneur. He encouraged her business aspirations but realized that her musical talent was a bigger source of income. “Ike,” as he was called, persuaded Jackson to audition for the Works Projects Administration (WPA) Federal Theatre Broadway production of Hot Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan. The beauty of her contralto voice and the increasing popularity of gospel music during the Depression brought Jackson success. Her first recording, “God’s Gonna Separate the Wheat from the Tares” and the Baptist hymn “Keep Me Every Day,” was made for Decca in May 1937. Jackson changed record labels and signed with Columbia in 1954.
Easter Procession…, Chicago, Illinois, Edwin Rosskam, photographer, April 1941.  Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection. Library of Congress, Digital Collections. 
Jackson resisted secular music saying, “When you sing gospel you have a feeling there is a cure for what’s wrong. But when you are through with the blues, you’ve got nothing to rest on.” Although she declined to sing anything but gospel, Jackson listened to and was heavily influenced by ragtime, jazz, and blues artists including Bessie Smith, Maime Smith, Ma Rainey, and Ida Cox.

Jackson sang regularly at Chicago’s South Side Greater Baptist Church and often collaborated with Thomas Dorsey, the “Father of Gospel Music.” Originally a blues musician, Dorsey began to write sacred music early in the century, using the sounds and rhythms of blues and jazz. Over the years, gospel made a lasting impact on blues and soul artists, including Aretha Franklin, who listened to Mahalia Jackson sing at Reverend C. L. Franklin’s (Aretha’s father’s) New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit.

In Chicago for CBS, and often her powerful voice concluded the day’s local television broadcast. She recorded with Duke Ellington, packed Carnegie Hall on a number of occasions, and sang for four presidents.

Mahalia Jackson – Easter Sunday – Philharmonic Hall, Lincoln Center. Milton Glaser, artist, 1967. Prints and Photographs Division
Jackson lent her prestige to the civil rights movement and became a prominent figure in the struggle. In 1955, she supported the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott led by Dr. Martin Luther King, and, at King’s request, she sang “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I Been Scorned” just before he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 march on Washington.
Carter, Roosevelt H, photographer. [Mahalia Jackson and unidentified man at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom]. [1963] Image. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
Jackson was sixty-years-old years old when she died in the Chicago suburb of Evergreen Park, Illinois. At her funeral, Coretta Scott King described the singer as “black…proud…[and] beautiful.” She recalled her husband saying of Jackson, “A voice like this comes, not once in a century, but once in a millennium.” The Library of Congress Digital Collections offer more information on gospel and the times in which Mahalia Jackson lived.

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