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Phil-osophically Speaking - March 5, 2010

“Standing on the Shoulder of Giants”

As I raced breathlessly up the stairs, I could hear the 1:25 poised to leave Floral Park for Penn Station. I was running late, as usual, and barely leapt into the train car just before the doors shut tight. Unfortunately, in my haste, I neglected to bring something to read. So I busied myself reading those monotonous billboards that vie with each other in grabbing your attention.

One of the billboards was heralding the upcoming 175th anniversary of the LIRR in 2009. Intriguing. At that time, I was not only the mayor of Floral Park, but also the béte noire of the LIRR, a burr under the Iron Horse’s saddle, an unrelenting opponent of their beloved Third Track. My hostility, I clearly stated, was not directed at the railroad itself, which had played an indispensable role in the life of our community and our nation. But for the folks at the LIRR/MTA, it was a distinction without a difference. Like a marriage, the two had become one.

It is now several weeks later, and I am in downtown Manhattan embarking upon a little excursion to follow the funeral march of Alexander Hamilton, our first secretary of treasury, and the atlas upon whose shoulders America’s modern financial system rests.

The life of Alexander Hamilton fascinated me: his beginnings as an illegitimate waif, emigrating from the West Indies at age 17, his meteoric rise to an officer serving under Washington during the American Revolution, a hero of the battle of Yorktown, signer of the Constitution, the majority author of the magisterial Federalist Papers, founder of the New York Post and, in a shattering climax, a duel at Weehawken, NJ, where he was shot dead by the vice president of the United States — no, not Dick Cheney, but Aaron Burr, an American Mephistopheles if there ever was one.

Exiting the train into the noise of the city, I was disappointed over the pale, unexultant sun that hung forlornly over the morning horizon. The burning orb oozed its warmth so stingily, that I regretted not bringing an overcoat to shelter myself from the biting wind. To compensate for the unexpected chill, I walked briskly: east along Beekman Street…down to Pearl Street...around Whitehall Street to Broadway where I arrived at Trinity Church.

Its Gothic architecture stood in poignant contrast to the modern metropolis that surrounded it. Making my way around the long, sinuous, undulating stone path, I found, several rows deep into the silent graveyard, the final resting place of Alexander Hamilton. As I stood paying homage to this titan of American capitalism I espied, to my astonishment, as if a stage curtain rising, the stone bearing the name of Robert Fulton, inventor of the steamboat. It stood just a few feet away. Whether the placement of these two graves was purposeful, or coincidental, I know not. But from this serendipitous discovery, my brain began to churn out a concatenation of thoughts, stretching back to the billboard sign on the LIRR.

Hamilton’s great achievement, I knew, was integrating the economies of all 13 states by having the federal government assume their Revolutionary War debts and creating America’s first national bank. With its creation, the wheels of finance had been greased to meet the Industrial Revolution that had finally made its way across the Atlantic.

Suddenly, everything began to change. An explosion of new machinery and new inventions rocketed America into a new age, none of which were more important than Robert Fulton’s steam engine powered boat. Just three years after Hamilton’s death in 1804, thousands stood on the banks of the Hudson River, gaping in awe, as the Claremont, a boat powered by Fulton’s miraculous engine, made its 150-mile upstream journey to Albany. Without Hamilton creating a sound, financial foundation, it is doubtful if an entrepreneur like Fulton would have any need for the steamboat’s commercial practicality.  

Travel had been primitive, excruciatingly slow and painfully difficult. People were glued to where they lived; but now with economic opportunities abounding, the young nation was on the move. For every person that traveled a century earlier, there were a hundred, 200, maybe a thousand who were now traveling. People jammed into steamboats like canned sardines, and by 1830, seven lines served New York alone and 200 more plied their trade on the Mississippi.

The impact of these inventions on commerce, if not incalculable, was utterly staggering. Farmers used to ship their produce down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers by flatboats and keels. Steamboats not only made the trip downstream much faster, but they could churn their way upstream, a near impossibility for unpowered boats. As a result, the entire stretch of the Mississippi Valley was greatly enriched by new markets for their teeming produce, inspiring millions to migrate westward across the great, solitary expanse of America.

Moreover, the great success of the steamboats was the impetus that led to the building of the Erie Canal. The governor of New York, DeWitt Clinton, was a tall and imposing man, whose regal pretensions invited his many detractors to dub him “Magnus Apollo.” Vanity aside, Clinton was a man who got things done. He grasped fully, and without reservation, New York City’s prodigious potential. Manhattan Island, he mused with some wonder, could be the Athens of the New World, a modern day Rome! The prelude to this golden age, however, first required access to the interior of this vast continent.

Since midwestern rivers all emptied into the Gulf of Mexico, they did not provide a direct link with the eastern seaboard. If an artificial waterway could, however, be cut between the great Central Valley and some navigable stream flowing into the Atlantic, it would enormously enrich the national economy since transporting goods over a vast and unbroken terrain would no longer be an insoluble problem.

A wagon pulled by oxen carried only a ton of produce. A canal barge not only made considerably better time, but it carried on the average 100 tons of produce. It was incentive enough. With DeWitt championing the idea, construction commenced in 1817, and when it was finished in 1825, the Erie Canal, most of it constructed across densely forested wilderness, ran an incredible 363 miles long.

This spectacular success sounded the starting gun for a nationwide boon in canal building that would ultimately connect western farmers to eastern cities in a way that was before unimaginable. With the canal, civilization surged forward into the untouched frontiers. Towns and cities, such as Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse were born amid an enterprising mixture of public and private funds.

It wasn’t only commerce that was overspreading the land, but American ideals and culture that now nested in far away places. Since canals had been such a stimulus for settlement and economic growth, it gave rise to find something even better, something that could unfurl, like a mighty wave, across the North American continent.  

Moving things on rail, usually in mines, had been around since the 16th century. However, it took the know-how of an industrial society to marry steam power to a wheeled vehicle. Once that technology proved feasible, the rapid explosion of railed transportation took the country by storm, literally displacing, almost overnight, everything else that moved. Just three years after the opening of the Erie Canal, the first rails were laid on July 4, 1828 for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

Everyone seemed to realize the immense importance of the event, which is why the most sacred date in American history was chosen to inaugurate the event. But just in case anyone missed the significance, Charles Carroll, sole survivor of the celebrated band who signed the Declaration of Independence 52 years earlier, was given the honor of turning the first earth. Carroll, old and ailing, considered this first shovelful of dirt among the most important acts of his life, second only to the signing of the Declaration, if even second to that.  

That ceremonial shovel in the ground served as a launching pad for the greatest engineering feat of the 19th century. Railroad historian, Albro Martin, called the railroad industry the NASA of the 19th century, suctioning into its orbit the finest minds in engineering, finance and law. It would not only spawn or promote the massive industries of steel, coal, flour, milling and commercial farming, but the great, windy city of Chicago would owe its life to it.

The building of the transcontinental railroad was a truly American story, constructed by newly arrived immigrants. It was mostly the Chinese and the Irish who built the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific. Backbreaking work, fraught with danger, their achievement must surely rank with those who built the Panama Canal. Before their monumental effort, the dream of a continental empire could only be imagined, now it was a burnished truth.

The railroads inevitably led to bigger, more centralized government, since only they had the resources, including the land, to build it. As a result, it became a political football, a regional spat, between North and South, on whether a northern or southern route of the railroad would blaze the industrial path to the great West. It remained a tense standoff throughout the 1850s. The Civil War decided what would be the nature of the Union, emancipation, and where the railroad would be built. One of the reasons the South lagged economically until after WWII was because the northern route had prevailed while the war-torn South was left in shambles.

Besides industry and economic growth, there were other collateral benefits. The American diet, interestingly enough, markedly improved because of the railroad. Before the 1870s most Americans subsisted on bread, dried fruit and salted meats. Now, specially built freight cars insulated and packed with ice, enabled vegetables, fruits and meat to move across the country without spoiling. It enabled mail order businesses to bloom such as Sears Roebuck, as well as a thriving seed catalogue business from East Hinsdale (now the Village of Floral Park) started by a young lad named John Lewis Childs.

The coming of the railroad even changed the way we tell time. Up to the Civil War, all time was local and determined by some hometown astronomer who would calculate, according to the position of the sun, when it was noon. This produced thousands of time conventions throughout the land, which wasn’t so terrible when societies were diffuse, but as the country became more integrated, it also became more chaotic. From the railroad timetables, came the standardized time zones we know today, and which ultimately became federal law during WWI.

The heavy steel of the railroads would open the door for the automobile industry, the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk and ships of the Apollo and Voyager missions that explore other worlds, and the unfathomable distances of deep space. Just as it’s a biological fact that life can only come from life, so it is also true that innovation can only come from innovation. Ideas are born of ideas and all progress rests on the achievement of someone before us. Even Isaac Newton, that towering genius, said he saw far because he stood on the shoulders of giants. It is a weakness of the imagination, or the chutzpah of the human ego, to believe otherwise.

It is gratifying to know, that in the entire history of human ingenuity, no society has given more free scope and invested more power to the mind of man than the one that was created by Alexander Hamilton and his circle of visionaries.