PITTSFORD, N.Y. (
) -- Bob White will tell anybody who'll listen that the Web is far from the world's first zillion-dollar trench to nowhere.
"It's 350 miles through swamps or what have you, built by hand. Folks considered it the eighth wonder of the world," White told me as he piloted the Sam Patch. "But these days, it's just us out here, using it for fun."
No, White's not piloting some riff of
troubled hyperlocal news service, Patch. Rather, he's the skipper of a roughly 60-foot packet boat replica that takes groups of 40 or so paying tourists on day trips in this scenic west central New York State section of the Erie Canal.
is brisk. The Sam Patch, along with her sister ship the Mary Jemison, runs about 80 such 90-minute trips a week during the high season. Most folks could care less about the backstory of this long, murky stretch of once-commercial water. But when I pressed White on the details of why this network was not commercially viable in a world where waterborne container transport dominates, this passionate representative of this bygone waterway simply sighed.
"At the time the Erie Canal revolutionized commerce. In the 1800 and 1900s, it was the way to go," White said. "But now, times change and nobody uses it anymore."
The dial-up canal
On the surface this mostly abandoned waterway -- exactly two boats and two jet skis passed us -- hardly looks like the stuff of a modern interconnected information system. But if you listen carefully, this thing was absolutely, positively the Web of its day.
There was talk of a national interconnected canal system early in our history. Robert Fulton actually
. But it took nearly two decades of bickering and serious taxpayer dollars fronted by then-New York state Gov. DeWitt Clinton to get the
open in 1825.
And like the Web of today, the fleets of fast-moving, easy-to-load barges of the time immediately -- and dramatically -- lowered the cost of transporting goods and information by a Web-like 95%, White said.
"If a water communication is opened from the Western to the Atlantic States," speculated Col. John L. Sullivan, one of the most experienced civil engineers in early 19th century, "nearly the whole trade of Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana will flow in this direction."
That in turn, led to a windfall of fees for the canal's managers. In 1877,
the canal generated roughly $1.5 million per year over a decade -- at a time 40 cents bought a very nice lunch.
And Just like the Web, demand drove the Erie Canal to be built in three basic waves.
The early "dial-up" canal was just 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide. The "broadband" Erie Canal, finished in 1862, was up to 7 feet deep and 70 feet wide in places. Finally, an ultrafast "fiber optic" Erie Canal was finished well into the 20th century. Done in 1918, it was nearly 12 feet deep and 200 feet wide in spots, and it could handle craft of nearly 3,000 tons.
That's more than the gross carrying capacity weight of 75 tractor-trailers.
The trench to nowhere
But also like today's Internet, scandal, mismanagement and general dunderheadness dragged the network down. Just like today, nobody could accurately track the dollars made.
"It was soon found,"
wrote Col. Thomas W. Symons in 1904
about one abandoned project to deepen the canal, "that to complete the project would cost 223 times the sum which had been voted. The work was also badly managed, and the people of the state were indignant at the deception."
Safety, security and stability were always an issue. The canal seemed a never-ending work in progress.
were problems. And then there were times the canal itself -- just like the Web of today --
Significant breaches happened in 1910 and 1912. And finally, in 1972 -- up the road from where we were traveling -- a small embankment called Bushnell's Basin collapsed, stopping canal traffic for months, White said.
"From that point on, what little traffic there was went another way," White said.
Lucky to be Amtrak
It used to be dangerously audacious to predict openly that
would wind up being just another grubby but useful American railroad. But after 90 minutes on the Sam Patch, it's clear the future will need to break just right for these Web companies to wind up sharing even the fate of Amtrak.
Given its current trajectory, the Web is nothing more than the 21st century's Erie Canal: a large, disorganized, impossible-to-maintain network that will wind being something tourists do on a day off.
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