Judge Hunt: “You presented yourself as a female, claiming you had a right to vote?”
Miss Anthony: “I presented myself not as a female, sir, but as a citizen of the United States.” – The United States of America vs. Susan B. Anthony, June 17, 1873, Canandaigua, N.Y.
Going over Niagara Falls in a wooden barrel was one way for people to get over the Niagara Escarpment, a geologic formation stretching from New York to Illinois and across southern Canada. The first person to tumble over the falls and live to tell about it was Annie Edson Taylor, a 63-year-old teacher who did it on her birthday, Oct. 24, 1901. My wife, Ardath, looking down at the mist from her vertiginous perch over the cascading water, decided she would not celebrate her own Oct. 24 birthday by barreling over the falls. Instead, she made what I thought was a reasonable decision, choosing to ride the Erie Canal towpath instead.
Why Annie Taylor didn’t use the placid Erie Canal to cross the Niagara Escarpment instead of doing a nosedive over Niagara Falls is not a puzzlement. The “Queen of the Mist” took the plunge for the purpose of self-promotion, hoping, without success, to stay out of the poorhouse.
In 1825, New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton – who spurred construction of the Erie Canal – made the entire trip from Buffalo to New York City in a packet boat, the Seneca Chief. When he arrived at New York Harbor, he emptied a cask of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic in celebration of the completion of the 363-mile-long canal. The Midwest was now connected to the East Coast. Rather than emphasizing the importance of this achievement with a chorus of trumpets, I’ll let historian Page Smith summarize it. The canal, he said, was “a symbol of the boundless potentialities of the country, its resilience and its hopes”
The excavation of “Clinton’s Ditch” was done by workers called navvies, including many Irish, who used picks, shovels, mules and slips – as well as Dupont gunpowder to blow a hole in the Niagara Escarpment at Lockport, about thirty miles east of Buffalo. Lockport is 614 feet above sea level, so engineers designed a “flight” of stairs for boats to climb. The flight consisted of two sets of five locks, one for eastbound and one for westbound traffic. Over the years, the canal was dug wider and deeper and the original 83 locks were reduced to 35. The double-flight of five at Lockport was replaced by today’s locks 34 and 35.
Ardath and I walked the stairs next to the inclined towpath, photographed the locks in action and learned about their construction at two nearby museums. The original locks, once described as the “eighth wonder of the world,” are still impressive. But not everyone we met in Lockport feels the same way. One local fellow told us bluntly: “The only thing here is the locks. Look at them and then leave. There’s nothin’ else here.” Oh, the pessimism! It’s reminiscent of what De Witt Clinton endured when people labeled his canal with the epithet “Clinton’s Folly”. Even though barge traffic has been replaced by railroads and highways, tourism, recreational boating and bicycling – according to one lock tender – makes up for the loss of revenue suffered by towns and cities along the canal.
The importance of the canal to America is not just economic. It is also tied to the woman suffrage movement. The day following our visit to Lockport, we pedaled down the towpath toward Rochester where we stopped to visit the home of suffragist Susan B. Anthony. Ironically and by accident, our visit was one hundred years following the U.S. Senate’s passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote.
You may recall that Susan B. Anthony was arrested in 1872 for voting illegally. She was aware that, several years earlier in Wyoming Territory, women had been given the right to vote and that by voting she would stir up a hullabaloo. At her trial in Canandaigua the following year, an anti-feminist judge dismissed the jury and sentenced her. But he, too, was aware of the potential reaction. He declined to send her to jail, instead fining her $100 and closing the case to prevent it from going to the Supreme Court. Anthony’s reply was, “May it please your honor,” she said, “I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty.” Today, the penalty document can be found hanging on the Canandaigua courthouse wall – still unpaid. Susan B. Anthony was 86 years old in 1906 when she passed away in bed at her home in Rochester. Pinned to her black silk burial dress was a gift from the women of Wyoming – a jeweled flag pin with four diamond stars representing four western states – Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado and Utah – where women could vote prior to 1900.
Susan B. Anthony’s entreaty, “Organize, agitate, educate, must be our war cry,” is still relevant more than a century after her passing. Cheyenne historian and former Cheyenne’s Central High teacher Bill Dubois is very much aware of the struggle for women’s rights. After all, a statue of his great-grandmother, Esther Hobart Morris, stands near the state capitol as a symbol of Wyoming’s role in the worldwide movement for woman suffrage.
So far, the Erie Canal bikepath has been in pretty good shape, with the exception of some intermittent trail reconstruction between Albion and Brockport. Ardath chose not to ride this rough section but I figured that I could dodge the bulldozers and backhoes. At one point a backhoe operator poked his head out the window to warn me about the bumps, rocks and slime ahead but I refused to be discouraged. I asked him: “If a person is determined, can he get through?” He said, “Yeah, but just be careful.” That’s all I needed to hear.
Next week: we visit Medina, South Greece, Egypt, Macedon and Palmyra.