Historian Kelly (Band of Giants: The American Soldiers Who Won America’s Independence, 2014, etc.) weaves together diverse strands of early New York state history for an improbable yet oddly compelling narrative of social, political, and religious visionaries.
At the beginning of the 19th century, around the same time that businessman Jesse Hawley was publishing anonymously 14 essays in the Genesee Messenger spelling out his “favorite, fanciful project of an overland canal” across the state of New York, inventor Robert Fulton sailed the first commercial steamboat up the Hudson River, and the future founder of the Mormon sect, Joseph Smith Jr., was born in Vermont to poor tenant farmers who would eventually settle in Palmyra, New York. This period marked the beginning of the Second Great Awakening, sparking outbreaks of religious fervor in unlikely spots. The author explores the lives of itinerant frontier preachers such as Charles Finney, William Miller, and Methodist Lorenzo Dow, among many others, as well as the abduction and probable murder of former Freemason William Morgan, who dared to publish the mysteries of the Freemasons in Batavia, New York, in 1826. Meanwhile, on the hopeful report by New York surveyor James Geddes, Gov. DeWitt Clinton banked his career on spurring financing and construction of the ambitious canal that would link the Hudson and Mohawk rivers at Albany to Lake Erie at Buffalo—360 miles of tangled forests, valleys, and swampland that would open up commerce to an unimaginable degree. Notwithstanding the lack of engineering knowledge, especially about the building of locks, construction got underway by July 4, 1817, requiring horrendous digging by mostly Irish immigrants, and was finally completed in 1825 at the cost of $7 million. As this "psychic highway" flourished and Joseph Smith was embarking on his Book of Mormon, Kelly captures the enormous excitement of these heady days.
An intriguing synthesis of American cultural and economic currents in the early 19th century, all culminating with the completion of the Erie Canal.