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Erie Canal’s jailhouse roots

More than 200 years ago, canal building in post-Industrial Revolution era Europe was all the rage, particularly in England and France.

Many ideas were also floated around New York state to try to improve commercial transportation, but the one that captured the political powers of the time was conceived by a Geneva flour merchant serving time in debtor’s prison in Canandaigua.

Jesse Hawley, an early 19th century businessman, ended up in debt, partially because of troubles getting his products to other markets — mainly New York City — in a timely fashion.

Preston Pierce, museum educator at the Ontario County Historical Society, said Hawley and his partner, Henry Corl, used slow-moving, flat-bottomed Durham boats on the Seneca River to get their grains to a mill owned by Col. Wilhelmus Mynderse, founder of Seneca Falls. From there, they moved the milled flour along several different waterways, including Oneida Lake and the Mohawk River, hindered by many travel challenges including rapids and falls.

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