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Quadcast transcript: History class uses podcasts to explore Erie Canal

January 31, 2018

Welcome to the Quadcast—I’m your host Sandra Knispel.

You may have ice skated on it recently, taken a lazy boat trip on it in the summer, or simply jogged along its banks. We’re talking, of course, about the Erie Canal, which today is largely a recreational waterway. That wasn’t always the case. When it was built between 1817 and 1825 the canal and its extensions brought residents of New York City, New York State, and the East Coast prosperity unlike anything the country had ever seen… and really anything was shipped across its waters

Joining us today are three people who know a thing or two about the history of the Erie Canal—in the studio I’ve got with me Thomas Fleischman—he is an assistant professor of history, Sophia McRae, a junior, who is a double major in history and environmental humanities and Adrian Harwood, a senior in international studies with a minor in history…

Welcome to the three of you!

[all three reply]

Professor Fleischman, you devoted an entire class to the Erie Canal—can you tell us briefly what makes it unique?

Fleischman: Well, the Erie Canal fundamentally transformed the economic history of the United States. It made it from sort of a small regional country, to a global economic power. In particular, it connected New York City to the vast American hinterland and in doing so, made New York City the most important port in America. What moved along the Erie Canal was largely the agricultural goods that couldn’t be produced as easily near New York City. So, you open up this land to farming grain and wheat, and later you get dairy, and cheese, and after that you get things like fruit. This is sort of how New York State gets on the map.

Knispel: Did it actually also move laborers from one spot to the next?

Fleischman: Yeah, so the other thing the Erie Canal does is it not only connects goods, it also moved people to new regions. So, Rochester itself is made by the Erie Canal. It goes from a very small, more or less, a village on Lake Ontario to a major American city in the course of ten years after its completion.

Knispel: You then tried a new format in your class, it’s a podcast series produced by students. It’s got a clever name—it’s called Hear UR.

[Excerpt from Hear UR podcast, season 1] [Intro music] “This is Under the Low Bridge, an unconventional history of the Erie Canal. In honor of the 200th anniversary of its construction the History Department at the University of Rochester presents six environmental stories. And you are listening to Hear UR.” [back to intro music “Low Bridge, Everybody Down” written by Thomas S. Allen in 1905.


Knispel: Tell me how this came about and what you were looking for with these episodes?

Fleischman: Well, I wanted to provide an alternative assignment to the normal history paper. Most students who take a history seminar have to present a research paper at the end of the course and, generally, that can sometimes be a rather tedious task mostly because you’re writing for just one audience, usually your professor. So, I thought a podcast would offer an opportunity to engage in the traditional skills of historical practice, meaning, research, writing, editing, and crafting a narrative, but also producing something for a broad public audience, which is what the assignment was designed to do. In addition though, the students really took control and ownership of the podcast series. They gave it its wonderful name, Hear UR, but then also decided that this would be the name of a podcast show going forward for the history department. They also called this first season about the Erie Canal—Under the Low Bridge.

Knispel: So, tell me honestly, when you sprang this idea on your students, when you said “you’re not going to have to write a paper” —not everyone is an extrovert… How did your class react when they realized that they had to produce and that their voices would be heard?

Fleischman: They seemed on the whole excited, though I can’t say if some of them are very good at hiding their terror or fear. Though I can say that as the class went along it was very clear to me that I had 100 percent buy-in.

Knispel: Sophia, is that true?

McRae: Absolutely. I mean, I don’t love my voice on tape, but you get used to it.

Knispel: And you, Adrian?

Harwood: Yeah, I don’t disagree. No, yeah, it was nice.

Knispel: I want to bring you in here, Adrian. In Episode 2, you talk about the forgotten laborer’s disease “Canal Fever”—lurking in the muddy water of the Erie Canal—let’s listen to this bite from the original podcast:

[Excerpted from the Hear UR podcast episode 102, “Canal Fever”]

Josh Robbins: Let’s cruise along the canal to Roscoe, Ohio. It’s a warm summer day. A canal worker lies in bed. He yawns feverishly, his fingernails blue, and describes the feelings of lassitude as little cold sensations shooting up and down his spine until his teeth begin to chatter in his jaw. Dr. Samuel Lee prescribes the canal worker whiskey to treat his debilitating fever. “He ain’t sick, he’s go the ager!”

Adrian Harwood: That sounds a lot like…

Josh Robbins: Canal fever! This is the story about an infamous disease. One that was largely misunderstood, and is an important piece in helping explain the myth of a dead Irishman for every yard of the canal built in North-Eastern Ohio during the 19th century.

Knispel: Adrian, so, what exactly is canal fever?

Harwood: Well, canal fever has multiple dimensions to it. First, canal fever can often be referred to as the general feeling of economic prosperity and extensions of the canal to the rest of America. But on the other hand…

Knispel: Like the gold fever.

Harwood: Yeah, essentially. But on the other hand, it also had another meaning—it referred to the disease experienced by much of the laborers that worked on the canal during its construction; where this was particularly the case of Irish workers because they were brought over to America because they provided cheap labor. But in the process of all this economic prosperity being brought about in the United States, these workers were subjected to terrible working conditions, which ultimately fostered the emergence of a malarial disease called ague fever. And this affected workers across the United States, whether it was in New York State, whether it was in Ohio—any variation of canal-building—workers were subjected to these sorts of harsh conditions.

Knispel: Now, you just said it affected mainly the Irish workers, not because they were more susceptible but because the bulk of the laborers were Irish?

Harwood: Right, exactly, Irish laborers provided a cheap source of labor essentially for contractors who wanted to extend the canal. And so, they were brought in as immigrants and generally, most workers wouldn’t get paid until the job was done, and the pay wasn’t even that great. Sometimes it was whiskey, sometimes it was 30 cents an hour. You know, they were just working for their livelihood because this was all they had.

Knispel: And if you die of the canal fever, it’s really cheap because you don’t get paid at all.

Harwood: Exactly. That’s mainly how the contractors viewed the laborers: if they didn’t die out, the remainder is what they had to pay.

Knispel: Let’s listen once more to your description in the podcast:

[Excerpted from the Hear UR podcast episode 102, “Canal Fever”]

Adrian Harwood: “In the worst circumstances, Irish laborers were knee deep in a foot of swamp water with their legs swelling from inescapable dampness for 12-15 hours a day. The still swamp water that engulfed the workers’ bodies was believed to have contained toxic properties, and when consumed through breath and drink, led to the contraction of ague fever.”

Knispel: Adrian, I want to talk to you about the commonly prescribed cure, it did work at all, did it?

Harwood: Well, I wouldn’t say so. Generally, whiskey was more prescribed to cure the mental state of the workers while they were anticipating that they would contract this disease. Whiskey was a sort of a way for workers to forget about their issues and forget about the harsh working conditions that they faced. But then again, it also led to multiple fights and there was outbreaks of violence and things like that. And so, it really halted construction, if anything.

Knispel: And of course, weakened the already sick patient. Was it generally a terminal disease? Was it something that they died of?

Harwood: It was a common disease. I mean, you had all sorts of diseases, you had typhoid, you had cholera. You had all these different bacteria floating in the air when you’re digging up an environment and creating a new landscape. And while it was common, there were definitely other diseases.

Knispel: How ironic is it then that this great prosperity that we talked about, this great prosperity that the Erie Canal opened up to large swaths of the country, certainly the northern part, but did not extend at all to the welfare of those who built it.

Harwood:  And that’s the kind of main point we’re trying to drive across in our podcasts. While, the Erie Canal sort of shaped the future of the United States, it came at the cost of so many of thousands of lives and I think that sort of lesson is applicable today; not necessarily of construction of canals today, per se, but just in general in marginalizing groups and taking advantage of them. That’s the irony, I think.

Knispel: Professor Fleischman, I want to bring you back in here… when we talk about these podcast episodes, how do you go about generating them? Was it the students who dug out the topics and said we want to talk about this? Or how did you do that, what was your role?

Fleischman: Well, I selected the larger topic, which was the Erie Canal, but since the class was also interested in environmental history, I required that they select environmental topics. What we really did is we took many visits to local archives, such as here at the University of Rochester we have Special Collections & Rare Books. It has an enormous collection of letters to all kinds of local history. So, we used Special Collections as a way for students to identify different topics through primary sources that they found. They would then take that material, to try and find out more about it, either through secondary sources or talking to experts, and basically over the period of several weeks, they had to develop a summary of their topic, an annotated bibliography, then they had to draft scripts, so basically over time you have an iterative process, moving them step-by-step until they get to this final product.


Knispel: And add the nice sounds that you have in there also.

Fleischman: Yeah, and I think one of the keys to the class was that we listened to podcasts every week. Basically, I would assign a podcast for the week and they would have a worksheet and they would use the worksheet to evaluate the podcast, not in terms of just its content, but also its form and its aesthetics. And from there, they were then able to see what kind of podcast they wanted to create, and what kind they didn’t want to create. And so, we kind of landed on a Radio Lab-esque [form], I don’t want to say knockoff because I think it’s better than that, but certainly inspired by Radio Lab.

Knispel: Well, this is an open question for whoever wants to grab this one, I’m not going to put you on the spot and ask you which podcast you hated. Which ones did you like and thought, “hmm, this is something I can emulate?”

McRae: The ones I gravitated towards were much more informal in their format. It was really nice hearing something that had multiple layers, a lot of sound effects, something that had a conversational element to it was much easier to listen to than having one person read off of a piece of paper, for example, because some podcasts do that.

Knispel: So, you like the NPR Radio Lab, essentially?

McRae: Yes, I did.

Knispel: And what about you, Adrian?

Harwood: Yes, I definitely gravitated toward the NPR style. I don’t know, I just like Sophia was saying, I like when it’s more personable, I can relate to it sort-of. Especially hearing, I mean the sound effects were my favorite part, I loved putting them in and adjusting them and things like that.

Knispel: You said you were doing canal research, I assume you all went to the local sites. Did you take a trip down the Erie Canal?

Fleischman: We did, we did a site visit where we practiced reading a landscape. And so basically, there are ways in which we as historians can look for signs of history in landscapes that are with us today. So, we actually went down to the lock off of campus and they look at everything from the kinds of trees that surround the canal, to their age, to the structures that are there. And I actually think Sophia’s show in particular really launched this idea of reading an old landscape.

Knispel: So, let’s bring you in Sophia here. You worked on the 5th episode, “Barging through Conflict.” Before we listen, set it up for us, if you would.

McRae: Right so, my podcast was actually inspired by the site visit that we did. It started by my partner and me sort of deconstructing the landscape of the park that sort of surrounded us, realizing that with the canal and this very designed park, it was anything but natural, which was a major theme that we questioned in the environmental history class. And, then we realized we are sitting on this natural space in an urban setting, but we were also in this major hub of transportation: the Rochester International Airport is about a mile away, there are old railroad lines crossing over the canal, and pedestrian bridges, and a major highway that was built right of top of the old site of the original Erie Canal. It’s quite stunning actually to stand atop of this lock, which is made of iron and wood essentially, and to look out and see that we’re at the center of this major transportation infrastructure, as well as in the center of this park. So, it sort of got the questions sort of flowing and the ball rolling.

Fleischman: Yeah, what I really enjoyed about their podcast was they bring the listener with them and introduce them to a site, to a landscape and say “I’m standing in this particular place, in this case, on top of a rickety, old lock,” and basically, in looking out across Rochester, they could see the actual history of the landscape in it and how it had changed over time.

[Excerpted from the Hear UR podcast “Barging through Conflict”]

Sophia McRae: “Wow Mahir, this view is really amazing. We’re standing up here on an old guard gate of the Erie Canal, right outside the University of Rochester. This is basically a 30-foot wall of iron and wood, hovering just above the surface of the canal. There are a series of cobble stones and cement pedestrian bridges in the distance, and I have to say, this view makes me feel like I’m stepping out of a painting.”

McRae: We called it a physical timeline of the last 200 years. It was quite a unique spot, especially having it so close to the University of Rochester campus. It’s very fascinating to be there.

Knispel: Let’s listen a little bit.

[Excerpted from the Hear UR podcast “Barging through Conflict”]

Mahir:   You see, back in the turn of the 20th century, the State Engineers of New York had a problem: they were losing money on the much-heralded Erie Canal, due to the competitive rise of the railroads.

Sophia: But what does that have to do with Genesee Valley Park?

Mahir:   Well there’s the dilemma: the existing route of the Canal through the heart of downtown Rochester was too small to accommodate the larger ships that could better compete with railroads, so the engineers proposed several new routes for an updated Erie Canal–

Sophia: So they chose straight through the park?

Mahir:   Exactly!


Knispel: Sophia, tell us what happened next.

McRae: So, originally this barge canal plan was quite devastating for the Olmsted Firm because they were already a little bit upset with the City of Rochester for installing so many recreational facilities, and giving the railroads special cuts to enter through the park. There was already a competing notion of what the park should be between Frederick L. Olmstead and his pastoral fantasy, and the city of Rochester trying to sort of breed recreation. But it turned out that Genesee Valley Park is already in a flood-plain and was devastated several times by flooding waters, and so, combining the waters of the Erie Canal and the Genesee River actually alleviated a lot of the flooding tendencies. And, simultaneously put a lot of the railroad tracks out of commission, so it satisfied sort-of the Olmsted Firm and the industrial needs of the barge canal, as well as still facilitated this recreational quality that Genesee Valley Park still holds in Rochester.

Knispel: And we should probably quickly explain who the Olmsted Firm was…

McRae: Sure, so, Frederick Law Olmsted, the much-heralded park designer—he designed Central Park as well as the entire park system in Rochester. He has this sort of rustic fantasy for urban development, as parks were sort of seen as an antidote to modernity, it sort of was a way to alleviate stress of industry and merging Victorian urban centers. And Frederick Law Olmsted basically designed these sort of rural park designs. He even introduced a flock of sheep, some deer, a bear to the park as a space where people of different classes to come and intermingle in a green space.

Knispel: For all classes to come to intermingle with a bear! Now I can see how that ends up as this sort of one-liner somewhere. [laughter] Who was the last one standing?

McRae: That’s a really good question, I think that they basically held them in captivity so that sort of creates this irony—

Knispel: So, that he didn’t eat the sheep.

McRae: No, of course not. There were sheep with a shepherd and they had a really restricted area so that they wouldn’t sort of mingle onto the golf course they had also built. Everything was very segregated, but it was designed in every possible way to look as natural as possible.

Fleischman: It sounds silly to put animals in this park, right?

Knispel: No, it sounds actually cute!

[18:10] [laughter]

Fleischman: Well, Olmsted himself thought that, you know, this is a way of using the environment to transform people. What he’s thinking is that the really good type of person, the type of citizen we want, is someone who has been raised in a pastoral, rural landscape. But in cities, rural landscapes are hard to find. So, what do we do? Well, we bring the countryside to the city. And that’s more than just planting beautiful trees and creating these meadows and vistas that Olmsted’s parks are famous for. It went so far as to even introduce animals into those environments as if that would transform the unruly masses of Rochester, you know, a more rural civility.

Knispel: Doesn’t that still sort of hold true—that idea, that notion, that we know we need parks in urban settings because it gives us relief? But also, that idea—don’t we still subscribe to that idea that by going out of the loud sounds and maybe to some certain extent [out of] some poverty and going into nature, even if it’s curated nature, that that makes us calmer, and maybe by extension, better?

Fleischman: I would say it’s an evolution of that idea. Parks seem to be objectively a good thing, but when you dig into the writings of Olmsted’s people what you see instead is a particular attitude about what poor people are and what kind of dangers they pose. While today, it is good to go out into nature and to recreate, you know, that’s sort of seen as a way to be a better citizen, right? To be a better person, to enjoy nature. For Olmsted, it was to reform the lower classes, to make them better than they were.

Knispel: Now Sophia, I wanted to follow up—when you were talking about the park—you said that Olmsted was, of course, upset that through his beautiful park there was now going to be the Erie Canal, or part of the Erie Canal, but—and tell me if I’m wrong here—isn’t that sort of a case of making lemonade from lemons because the park ended up becoming a bit of a civilizing force, or did it not?

McRae: Right, I mean, they had already planted forests and introduced thousands of new species to the area, so they were upset, of course, that some of that had to come down for the building of the canal. But there’s actually a quote that they made the best out of a bad situation, and so if you go to the site now, you can see a large series of pedestrian bridges in a variety of styles that are actually quite beautiful and that was sort of their addition to the canal to sortof suggest that the canal, instead of being this infrastructure for transportation and industry, is actually just another natural waterway by which we can walk, stroll, enjoy ourselves. And that’s the first thing that you see when you go. When we had our site visit, it seems like a really natural park. Then you start to read the trees, you start to see the historical ghosts and you realize it’s completely constructed.

Knispel: Now, I saw a painting in there, or an etching, which was embedded in the story that you attached to your podcast, and it showed these hundreds of people ice skating in the park. Did you ever ice skate in the park?

McRae: I did. I grew up ice skating in that park. That was actually something that Frederick Law Olmsted himself incorporated. He was an early proponent of women on bicycles. It was sort of seen as one of these civilizing forces where people can come, they exercise, they can do something that’s good for their physical health while being outdoors, while sort of creating a space for the public, for the community that was accessible.

Knispel: I want to go back to you Adrian—when you did this—it’s a massive undertaking what you guys took on, not quite as massive as the building the Erie Canal, [laughter] no swamp waters—

Harwood: Debatable.

Knispel: What surprised you the most?

Harwood: The commitment from the class to make it so much better than what we thought it could be. Honestly, it was just a fun experience. It was so unconventional and everybody’s desire to sort of make a good quality piece of work to benefit everybody else really drove me to be successful and to really commit to the process.

Knispel: Sophia, working on these episodes what did you find that really surprised you in the process?

McRae: Honestly, I feel like I see my own city completely differently now, which has been one of the most enlightening processes of this past semester. Technically, I’m still shoddy with assembling a podcast, but the most…

Knispel: Shhh, we won’t tell your professor [laughter].

McRae: Right, of course, but you know being able to sort of take a site visit and transform it into these competing historical narratives—to give place and space and how we use that and how that shapes us in a completely different perspective. And I’ve really enjoyed being able to walk around my city that I feel like I’ve walked around thousands of times and see it in a very different lens.

Knispel: This is the first time, professor Fleischman, that you did a podcast with an entire class, correct?

Fleischman: Correct.

Knispel: Did it work?

Fleischman: It did, much to my surprise and joy, great joy. I mean, I’m also a novice actually when it comes to making podcasts, so I was learning along with them. But now that I’ve done it, I’ve seen that it can be successful, and I intend to carry it forward.

Knispel: Now, you said you named this series one?

Fleischman: Right, so actually the podcast show like Radiolab or This American Life is called Hear UR, but with each class that I’m going to do it with I’ve decided that it’ll have a season. So, my wonderful students from this semester not only got to name their own season, but name the whole show itself. And so, going forward, I intend to team-teach a class every year on podcasting history with the Hear UR name.

Knispel: So, the Hear UR site stays, and we’ll just get different seasons added to it.

Fleischman: Correct.

Knispel: So, when is it going to re-emerge?

Fleischman: We are planning to go into production for season two, ie “have a class” next spring term, so spring 2019. So, we’ll use the whole term of putting it together and then by the end of the semester it will be up.

Knispel: And it will be again the same environmental history class, or are you going to do it with a different course that you’re teaching?

Fleischman: The next season will actually be about the father of modern taxidermy, a guy named Carl Akeley who is responsible for designing all of the taxidermied animals in the Natural History Museum in New York, you know the famous Africa Hall. Well, he trained here in Rochester and one of his early cases of taxidermy was he was hired by P.T. Barnum to taxidermy his most famous elephant, Jumbo, who was killed in a train yard in Toronto, and this story can be told locally. We have documents here at the U of R, and I thought what a perfect, crazy, weird type of story to explore for season two.

Knispel: So, if you’re not hooked yet, please make a note of it. It’s called Hear UR. It’s available on ITunes, but you can also click through on our story. We certainly have a link provided to it.

Thank you so much to the three of you for coming in today.

Harwood, Fleischman, McRae: Thank you for having us. Thank you so much.

Knispel: Thank you again to Thomas Fleischman, assistant professor of history, Sophia McRae, a double major in history and environmental humanities, and Adrian Harwood who is majoring in international relations and minoring in history.

Thank you again. And thank you for listening to the University of Rochester’s official podcast. Join us again next time for the Quadcast. I’m Sandra Knispel.







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