“A vast vault, filled full and running over…”: Gene Roddenberry, Donald Worster, and a Utopia of Infinite Growth

“Nature has spread for us a rich and delightful banquet. Shall we turn from it?” Thomas Cole, 1829.

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“It isn’t all over; everything has not been invented; the human adventure is just beginning.” [1]

In the final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, “All Good Things…,” Captain Jean-Luc Picard is sent on a journey, back and forth through time, by the omnipotent, god-like being, “Q.”  To save humanity from a massive “spatial anomaly” threatening Earth in three different time periods, Picard must play Q’s game. In a scene from Picard’s past, he relives his first day aboard the Enterpise, the Federation’s flagship. Approaching the craft in a space shuttle, Picard sees the Enterprise “for the first time.” His reaction, along with the shuttle’s pilot, is one of awe – a terror of the sublime, like that which sixteenth-century European explorers or nineteenth-century American painters expressed when viewing the natural landscapes of the North American continent. Thomas Cole, the great painter of the Hudson River School, was representative of this nineteenth-century American attitude when he said “Nature has spread for us a rich and delightful banquet. Shall we turn from it? … We are still in Eden. The Wall that shuts us out of the garden is our own ignorance and folly.” [2]

Picard’s reaction is in this same vein and reflects Star Trek’s universe as well. In the twenty-fourth century, technology has severed humanity from the limitations we know today. Space and time have been redefined. Our values and abilities have changed. Technology created a new frontier, a supposedly final frontier. But historians know this frontier is nothing new. Humans have experienced the “frontier” throughout history, the most memorable being the “New World,” “discovered” by European explorers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and, for the United States, the great Western frontier which defined the nation’s identity and culture for at least its first 100 years. [3] While frontiers have meant different things to different people’s throughout time, for the modern western writers and producers of Star Trek, these two examples were probably the most relevant. Picard’s insignificant scene reveals much about the universe Gene Rodenberry, series creator and producer, developed. Among others things, it betrays a modern, technocratic world-view, an optimistic belief that technology will allow humanity to survive the contemporary existential threats of climate change and technological apocalypse. [4]

Through Star Trek: The Next Generation, Gene Rodenberry created a universe vastly different from our own and yet still human and relatable. The universe inhabited by Jean-Luc Picard, Will Riker, and Jordie LaForge projects late twentieth-century American values onto a futuristic utopia where humans survived technological adolescence to explore the Milky Way Galaxy. Roddenberry’s universe is what acclaimed environmental historian, Donald Worster, referred to as the illusive “Third Earth,” a new frontier, which when combined with human technological prowess, allows for infinite growth. The world-view of the Enterprise’s crew, born of 1980s and 1990s U.S. American culture, makes complete sense: it reveals a future in which technology has overcome nature, both human and non-human. Through advances in science and technology, humans unbound themselves from the limits of growth, the economic catastrophe so feared by American producers and consumers intensifying in the second half of the twentieth century. These developments enabled people to overcome our moral, philosophical, and physical shortcomings to avoid apocalypse, environmental and social, and create an economy of infinite, sustainable growth. Inventions such as the warp drive, transporter, and replicator, all annihilated space, time, and the limitations of capitalist accumulation.

food-replicator-548x313
Food Replicator. Star Trek: The Next Generation. Food replicator technology severed humans from the cycles of nature, allowing for consumption of energy and calories without the previously necessary labor and energy input.

The Next Generation story is decidedly optimistic, displaying a culture which ended poverty, war, and most disease. In fact, technology allowed for a society without money; an economic system of unlimited growth without capitalist accumulation and the environmental and social destruction that goes with it. This is the fundamental flaw of Roddenberry’s utopia: it takes a “pro-growth,” “cornucopian” view of economy and resource use, placing complete faith in technology, without questioning or re-evaluating capitalism, the ideas which encompass it, or the moral conundrum of unbridled accumulation. Technology in the twenty-fourth century creates new efficiencies that allow for infinite growth in a seemingly sustainable manner, and thinking about this future-society from the early twenty-first century helps shoulder the moral and ethical burdens of unquestioning loyalty to the capitalist ideal.

Perhaps this is one reason for the show’s immense popularity. Perhaps late twentieth-century fans saw this utopia for what it was: a relatable, easily swallowed vision of our future, where capitalism continues but in a sustainable way. Technology is king and has solved most human problems, environmental, social, economic, and political. We do not need to consider alternatives to capitalism, the religion of growth, or our modern faith in technology, science, and expertise to master nature and solve all human problems. According to Sebastian Buckup, member of the Executive Committee of the World Economic Forum and science fiction commentator, good science fiction combines “great science” and “a keen understanding of contemporary hopes and fears.” Using this definition, Roddenberry is a good science fiction creator. The universe of Star Trek presents a society that has solved almost all of the social, environmental, economic, and political issues of the twentieth-century, and human’s have done it by remaining loyal to capitalism, technology, and confidence in human ingenuity. [5]

Roddenberry, a self-styled humanist and agnostic, called himself “a complete pagan,” referred to pious Christians as having a “substitute brain… and a very malfunctioning one,” and stating that “contemporary Earth religions would be gone by the 23rd century.” These beliefs, combined with his law enforcement, military, and engineering background, illuminate the forces influencing his construction of the Star Trek narrative. A believer in human intelligence and ability, an advocate of science, law, and order, and a devotee of progress through expert knowledge, Roddenberry was a typical, mid-twentieth-century modern American man and he projected this onto his utopia, exposing an understanding of American “hopes and fears,” as well as in “great science. [6]

Science fiction is an important part of human cultural history in the twentieth-century. During an October 2016 presentation at the Anarres Project Conference, sponsored by the Ohio State University Honors College and College of Science, Dr. Randall Milstein discussed “the cultural and technological impact Star Trek has had on society and everyday life.” Building on a dearth of other humanities scholars, Milstein argues “science fiction” is a vital part of popular culture, creating many of the central modern myths of Western culture. It influences how our culture “views technology and relates to technology in our contemporary world.” Shows like Star Trek influence people who move into the science professions, like Bill Nye and Neil Degrasse Tyson. Milstein states “science fiction is the literature of human society encountering change” in environment, technology, and human relationships. Further, books, magazines, television shows, and movies influence engineers and planners, as well as “our general ‘cultural zeitgeist’ and attitudes toward the future.” In this way, the science fiction of “today,” in many cases, becomes the “science” of tomorrow. This relationship between public planning, “cultural zeitgeist,” and science fiction, reveals one reason why Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future is so important: science fiction demonstrably influences contemporary engineering, science, policy, and planning, as well as cultural attitudes towards the future. If Star Trek does not question unbridled capitalist accumulation, infinite growth, would many twentieth-century United States citizens do the same? Or would Star Trek offer a convenient outlet for anxieties about approaching scarcity, allowing Americans to avoid the difficult conversations around capitalism, natural resources, and environmental decline? [7]

As with Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, or Jules Verne and Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, or Ray Bradbury and The Martian Chronicles, Gene Roddenberry reflected American cultural aspirations and fears through an absolute faith in science and technology to solve human ills showed in the Star Trek universe. In fact, the back-story of the Star Trek universe itself fulfills this narrative. Star Fleet, Earth’s governing body for space exploration, reigns over a world that survived apocalypse, world war, and climate crisis. This factor alone is an optimistic projection of the future, where we have survived the failings of a modern and capitalist society. While many in the late twentieth-century began to realize this potential catastrophe waiting along the horizon of capitalist accumulation, Roddenberry’s vision was that of most Americans: a vision of capitalism-as-savior, a blind-faith in “progress” and “growth,” an irrational denial of the unsustainable nature of some core ideologies of our society.


In his 2016 book Shrinking the Earth, Donald Worster tells the story of abundance in American history, and really, global history. In many ways, our current age of climate change began where Worster’s story does: with a Europe in crisis, severely short of resources, unable to withstand the population increases of recent centuries. And then, a moment of divine intervention: the discovery of the New World, or, as Worster calls it, “Second Earth,” that new frontier which “ushered in an age of unprecedented material abundance,” inundating older civilizations with new natural resources and “the freedom those resources made possible.” [8] The discovery set off many changes, some revolutionary. The most important, according to Worster, related to abundance and a new possibility that Europeans had found unlimited growth potential. Called the “theory of the greenlight,” the theory states that “the discovery around 1500 AD that the earth has an entire Western hemisphere of immense continents and oceans marked a watershed in human experience.” It started the modern era, an epoch where “the wealth of nature,” when “appropriated and turned to use,” began a series of revolutions in science and technology, and commerce, politics, and society, not to mention in the relationship between humans and the natural environment. Perhaps more importantly, it triggered a “shift in perception,” for a time “congruent with the material” changes also occurring. Worster warns, as critics since in the early twentieth-century have as well, the “modern era of extraordinary natural abundance” was coming to a violent, jarring end. Neither science, technology, or pure human ingenuity could “bring it back.” At the beginning of the twenty-first century, once again, human kind faces “an adjustment of ideas, institutions, and ecologies of global proportions.” If we do not change, we face catastrophe. [9]

Worster use biographical sketches of humankind’s great scientific, economic, and philosophical minds to illustrate the evolving relationship between abundance and scarcity in Western thought, beginning with the discovery of the New World. Through  individuals like Gerard and Rumold Mercator, Guillame-Thomas Raynal, Nicolas Copernicus, Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, Charles Darwin, John Stuart Mill and many other scientists and scholars, Worster unveils the tension between accumulation and sustainability apparent throughout Western history. He shows that mainstream views of “infinite growth” were challenged, but never overtaken, by fears of scarcity and ecological degradation. For example, Worster deftly analyzes Rumold Mercator’s 1587 map which first imprinted the idea and image of “second earth” in people’s minds. The younger Mercator’s document was highly influential to how Europeans imagined the New World, human’s relationship with the environment, particularly natural resource use, and served as an almost booster-like document for pro-growth, imperial tendencies. [10]

The religion of growth entrenched in twentieth-century society, the U.S. in particular, can be traced to the discovery of the New World. Over the course of centuries, the old-world “sense of the land’s limits” [11] gave way to a firm, optimistic faith in future growth. Descriptions of America show what “second earth” represented to Europeans. Dutch colonist Adriaen Van der Donck described “the superabundance” of the new nature in 1655, confidently stating it was “not equaled by any other in the world.” [12] Guillaume-Thomas Raynal, the radical French priest, saw “revolutions occurring in commercial networks and state relations, in social thought and social order.” The first great leader of the scientific revolution, Nicolas Copernicus, likewise thought Second Earth was a boon to his “investigations into the heavens.” So much of Copernicus’ work, as well as that of men like Charles Darwin, and so much of “modern scientific inquiry, with its devotion to collecting new facts and organizing them into theories,” came following “that extraordinary event.” [13]

A happy faith in increasing productivity, the basic core doctrine of modern capitalism, modern economics, and neoliberal theory, appeared slowly after Europeans found “second earth.” But beginning with Adam Smith, who believed wealth the accumulation of “all the necessaries and conveniences” of human life, and continuing with men like Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo, a continuous tension between abundance and scarcity has plagued western society, one that brings us to the brink of catastrophe in the early twenty-first century. By the early twentieth-century, miners in the American West and others around the world, claimed “isolated lands” would be “great empires,” whose inhabitants held “the key to a vast vault, filled full and running over with previous treasures, and to a still vaster land, ‘flowing with milk and honey.” [14] While the “pro-growth coalition,” represented by men like Henry Charles Carey and Andrew Carnegie, became universal throughout the world, specifically in the United States during the twentieth century, others like The Limits to Growth authors Donella and Dennis Matthews, saw the writing on the wall and knew infinite growth was impossible, illogical, and irrational. [15]

Worster also uses the more recent example of noted scholar and historian, Walter Prescott Webb, to show the deeply embedded nature of the capitalist worldview as well as the emerging public acceptance of a limit to growth. Webb declared the new world bounty a “windfall.” He believed “…without that discovery [second earth]…,” no nations would have been “jolted into reorganizing their institutions and cultural attitudes.” But Webb was a man of the later twentieth-century, and he knew humans faced a reckoning in the near future. “The land, wrote Webb, “has only so much to offer…There is a limit beyond which we cannot go; and if our techniques speed up the process of utilization and destruction, as they are now doing, they hasten the day when the substance on which they feed and on which a swollen population temporarily subsists will approach scarcity and exhaustion.” Worster seamlessly narrates the long evolution of human ideas of scarcity and abundance, revealing how twentieth-century environmental destruction began to shift the conversation away from assumed infinite growth to cautious resource restraint.[16]

With the development of the ideals of “conservation defined as development,” and “protecting nature” being “a role that government was equipped to perform very well,” Americans like Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and William John McGee touted the new economic and environmental system as seeking “the greatest good for the greatest number of people for the longest time,” or as Gene Roddenberry might call it, “infinite growth.” A new dogma of planning would lead to a society which protected its natural abundance and strived for a “techno-industrial” civilization which would raise living standards and personal and societal growth and accumulation. As the decades passed, the United States “conserved” more and more of its lands, waters, airs, and resources, leading to a further improved, mastered, and utilized environment. Pollution and consumption reached historic levels, and the “Great Acceleration” pushed our species closer to apocalypse than ever before. Some scholars, planners, and politicians, fearful of a race to scarcity, began speaking out in larger numbers. Fairfield Osborn, Jr., William Vogt, Marion King Jubbert, of Shell Oil, and John Kenneth Galbraith, of Harvard University, among others, began forcefully speaking on the issue Samuel H. Ordway, Jr., a New York lawyer and Businessman, and briefly in the 1960s, president of the Conservation Foundation, called “a theory of the limit of growth.” Resistance to the pro-growth coalition and their “religion” of unlimited accumulation coalesced in reaction to the Paley Commission’s decidedly capitalist interpretation of environmental issues and around publications like Harold Barnett and Chandler Morse’s Scarcity and Growth: The Economics of Natural Resource Availability, or Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, or Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, or Barry Commoner’s The Closing Circle and Science and Survival. All these books spoke to different aspects of the “limits to growth” issues, reactions to “the postwar period” and “a time of intensified plundering in the pursuit of plenty”: some spoke of population, some of ecology, some of unrestrained agriculture. They all emphasized the unsustainable nature of our current economic, political, and environmental systems. A new cry replaced conservation in reaction to issues of abundance and scarcity: the modern environmental movement.[17]

This “new” environmental movement took the warnings of a limit to growth seriously, climaxing with the release of The Limits to Growth in 1972 by Dennis and Donella Meadows, a married couple of upper, middle-class PhD students who, after visiting India in the summer of 1969, became convinced that humanity was on a path of no return, where our world would become uninhabitable if we did not change our consumptive ways. Limits to Growth “expressed better than any of its predecessors a deep cultural transformation going on that would become unstoppable over the decades to follow. It was the book that cried wolf.” [18]

Reactions to the book were, unsurprisingly, uncritical and harsh. Modernists and capitalists, economists and politicians alike, all often “did not read the book carefully or treat it with the respect they might have given to one of their own.” Carl Kaysen, an influential economist and adviser to President John F. Kennedy said, in one of the more positive reviews from an economist, “the problems they call us to attend are real and pressing. But none are of the degree of immediacy that can rightly command the urgency they feel.” In the New York Times Book Review, three economists, Peter Passell, Marc Roberts, and Lenoard Ross, did not even try “to dig in to the book’s complex arguments,” but simply tossed it aside as “an empty and misleading work…Garbage In, Garbage Out.” Conservative economist Henry C. Wallich, a regular writer for Newsweek, denounced the book as “a piece of irresponsible nonsense.” The book was considered so reactionary, Yale professor William Nordhaus sneered at it for predicting “an end to the economic progress that the West has experienced since the Industrial Revolution.” Such respectable names and scholarly reputations lent credibility to these uninformed opinions. The public heard them and many believed them. [19]

But the issue of scarcity did not go away. In fact, the calls for reconsidering capitalism and unlimited growth only grew in volume and intensity. Earth Day, 1970, was an important symbolic event, showing that humanity was aware and worried about the environmental problems facing the world. Ecologists, environmentalists, historians, and anthropologists, all used their scholarly soapboxes to preach the issue and bring attention to the prodigious amount of work being produced by academia. While pro-growth forces definitely “won” the growth debate during the 1960s and 1970s, the environmental movement has only continued gaining steam, surviving both the Reagan and Bush administrations, and now the Trump administration’s hostility to environmental regulation and ideas questioning the supremacy of the free market and capital accumulation. In 2019, environmental issues are considered by many to be the most dire humanity faces today. The emergent anti-intellectual, populist movement of the early twenty-first century notwithstanding, the “limits to growth” crowd, and their efforts, must be considered at least some what of a success. Their arguments about abundance and scarcity, in the end, have proven correct. We face the ultimate test of modern civilization: we must chose between accumulation and restraint, “freedom” and regulation, if we, and our planet, are to survive. [20]

This is the ideological landscape historians must view Star Trek: The Next Generation in. Americans in the 1980s and 1990s largely learned for the first time about many issues of environmental crisis and injustice, including the OPEC Oil Embargo, Love Canal, Three Mile Island, the hole in the ozone, and climate change. As Americans have slowly realized the dire nature of the situation, Star Trek stands as a vision for the future for many of us. The show’s popularity gave Gene Roddenberry a powerful voice in articulating what kind of future humanity can have.

Rumold Mercator's Map of the Known Earth, or Second Earth
Rumold Mercator’s Map of the Known Earth, or Second Earth. Map represents a visual representation of the Second Earth idea that led to so many revolutionary changes in human society and how human’s viewed the natural world and resources use.

By following specific people to trace human ideas of abundance and scarcity, Worster provides an excellent picture of human’s evolving historical relationships with technology, science, nature, and resource-use. Situating Gene Roddenberry’s utopia of infinite growth within this framework becomes simple. In the face of catastrophic resource shortages in the energy industries, ever increasing levels of industrial pollution, and new theories of global climate change quickly gaining mainstream credibility, Star Trek provided Americans an optimistic image of the future, where science and technology solved all of our problems, allowing humans to continue our faith in infinite growth without questioning our seemingly innate desire for culturally constructed ideas like “progress” and “growth.”


“Ancient astronauts didn’t build the pyramids. Human beings built the pyramids, because they’re clever and they work hard.” [21]

Star Trek: The Next Generation follows the crew of the Enterprise through their exploration of the galaxy, in times of peace and war. Ignoring the racial and colonial undertones of the “prime directive” and Starfleet’s overall political and economic goals of expansion, the entire purpose of the Enterprise is to “seek out new life and civilization; to boldly go where no one has gone before.” Science and technology will take us there. Throughout the series, Roddenberry’s episodes flesh out the utopia of infinite growth he foresees in the future. Plot lines and character developments revolve around the relationship between humans, technology, and control of the natural universe. By analyzing specific episodes, one illuminates Roddenberry’s underlying faith in capitalism, human ingenuity, and a technocratic society. His utopia is a technological one, where human invention has obliterated limitations to progress and created a sustainable society in which humans can thrive and accumulate “wealth” (a wealth foreign to our sensibilities, as there is no money in Roddenberry’s twenty-fourth century). Although not a completely uncritical commentary on capitalism, growth, and the future, nonetheless, Roddenberry was a loyal “Copernican” and “pro-growth” partisan, projecting confidence in expert scientists, engineers, and planners to mold society for sustainable, infinite growth. By creating such a Utopian vision, Roddenberry was, in effect, telling Americans they could dream of the future without needing to analyze capitalism and its destructive tendencies. Technology and human creativity were sufficient to restructure capitalism, leaving intact its core ideals of growth and progress, and create a sustainable society.

Roddenberry uses specific innovations to most effectively convey his belief in technology’s ability to better the human condition and create a sustainable civilization. Replicator, Transporter, and Warp technology all changed human society in fundamental and interconnected ways. Their use literally obliterates the limitations of time, space, energy, and resource accumulation for humans as they expand throughout the galaxy. Take the commonplace technology of the transporter. Severing humans from the constraints of physics, the transporter allows humans to travel, instantaneously, from place to place, without the need of conventional forms of energy or machine. In times of crisis, the Enterprise can transport people away from danger. Whether it be an away team surveying the surface of a dangerous planet, or an entire civilization in need of rescue from planetary catastrophe, the transporter allows humans, and their cargo, to cross vast distances almost instantaneously.

While its use creates moral and ethical quandaries of its own (flesh and bone are annihilated and then reassembled), transporter technology allows humans to overcome physical nature, energy demands, and time constraints. In the episode “Realms of Fear,” Roddenberry goes further and details the transporter’s, and by extension science and technology’s, mainstream adoration in twenty-fourth-century society by showing the scorn and public shame felt by crew members who fear using the transportation infrastructure. While investigating a transporter accident (oh, the irony!), a crew member reveals his fear of using the technology, which leads fellow crew-mates to question his sanity. Their blind acceptance of transporter use shows not only that it is extremely useful and effective, but that it is trusted. Every person using the transporter submits their body to death, only to be reborn on the other side of their journey. Think of the changes in the way humans relate to nature needed for this matter-of-fact acceptance. What does it mean? Technology is key to society’s survival in the vast universe. Without it, sustainable life, with high living standards, would not be possible. [22]

Even more integral to Roddenberry’s universe were warp and replicator technology. Warp drive allows travelers to reach speeds approaching that of light, bending space and time to allow transit across vast distances in relatively minuscule periods of time. The implications for this technology are obvious, but when we focus our analysis on human relationships with nature, the implications become much more illuminating. With the ability to travel to distant worlds, warp drive enables humans to seek out new homes when their environments have been degraded. We see this in a number of episodes and are also introduced to a history of space colonization made possible by warp technology.

In “A Journey’s End,” the Enterprise is dispatched by Star Fleet to “resettle” a group of Native Americans due to a peace treaty with the alien race of Kardassia. This group of humans searched for a home beyond Earth for decades, finally settling on Dorvan V, only to be forced to leave twenty years later. While also a critique of colonialism, this episode does not question technocratic culture and supports a future utopia of abundance made possible by warp technology, giving humans the ability to leave a planet when all resources are used or it becomes uninhabitable.

In a further example, “Up the Long Ladder,” the Enterprise rescues an  Irish colony facing planetary collapse. They are “resettled” on a new planet, possible only because of warp technology. With the ability to cross the galaxy, like nineteenth-century Americans crossing the North American continent, humans in Gene Roddenberry’s utopia of infinite growth live in a reality where planet-wide apocalypse can be survived. With this new technology, what need for sustainable environmental practices emanates from society’s economic systems? [23]

The most integral technology for understanding Gene Roddenberry’s utopia of infinite growth is the replicator, which can “reconstitute matter and produce everything that is needed out of pure energy, no matter whether food, medicaments, or spare parts are required.” It can create any inanimate matter, as long as the desired molecular structure is known to the computer. The replicator’s importance is, like warp drive, very apparent. Without the need to grow food, collect resources and energy, or labor to build and maintain things, an economy of growth is far easier to obtain and a sustainable system is much more easily grasped. Without these needs, human’s can live in more diverse environments, avoiding the need to locate communities where resources are abundant and allowing for longer travel to more distant places. Combined with the transporter and warp drive, the replicator shows how humans have been further disconnected from nature in Roddenberry’s universe. Like twentieth-century consumers detached from the labor and geography of the calories they eat, human’s of the future have been completely separated from the processes of labor, production, and the natural cycles of physical space. In the twenty-fourth-century, technology has also spread and intensified the human impact on nature, while at the same time allowing for a more sustainable civilization than human’s have probably every known. [24]

Of course, Roddenberry conjured other specific technologies to convey human mastery of the universe. In the episode “A Matter of Time,” the Enterprise travels to Penthara IV to assist in combating planet-wide cooling created by a terrestrial-dust cloud from a recent asteroid impact. Using its phasers to drill deep into the planet’s core to release carbon dioxide and increase the greenhouse affect to warm the planet, the crew creates a side effect of increasing the seismic activity of the planet and causing volcanic eruptions, threatening to send the world into an ice age. The crew decide to ionize the upper atmosphere in order to bring the climate back under control. The parallels of this episode to the 1991 context in which it was written are glaring. The early 1990s witnessed the intensification of environmentalist calls for action against climate change. In May 1985, scientists with the British Antarctic Survey shocked the world when they announced the discovery of a huge hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. The disturbing discovery set the stage for an environmental triumph: the Montreal Protocol of 1987. [25] Against this backdrop, Roddenberry wrote episodes like this, commenting on Earth’s precarious late twentieth-century position and foreseeing a future controlled, managed, and maintained by human technologies. The “phasers” and “rays”
used to penetrate crust and saturate atmosphere, all call back to 1980s, Cold-War visions of American military superiority. The mention of carbon dioxide also connects this episode with Earth’s dire 1991 circumstances. Once again giving off a “colonial vibe,” Roddenberry’s Penthara IV story continues the history of capitalism unabated, uncritically analyzing the system’s flaws and naively predicting a utopia of unrestrained, infinite growth.


“Earth is the nest, the cradle, and we’ll move out of it.” [26]

While Gene Roddenberry created a vision of humanity’s future that was optimistic and confident, he was by no means oblivious to the peril twentieth-century civilization faced in the form of a changing climate and degrading environment. He was an educated pilot and police officer, steeped in the language of science and engineering, espousing humanist beliefs. His opinions on organized religion alone provide a lens to understand how he viewed the world. While also espousing human genius and resourcefulness, Roddenberry’s questioning of “the story logic of having an all-knowing all-powerful God, who creates faulty Humans, and then blames them for his own mistakes” markedly influenced his views on society and progress. [27] The stories he chose to tell in elaborating his Utopian future reveal a belief in the ability of capitalism to continue, in only restructured forms and in the resourcefulness of human invention, but he also acknowledges the environmental, social, political, and economic risks involved in human progress, as well as the limitations inherent in human nature and our desire to accumulate wealth and better living standards. In the end, with Star Trek, Roddenberry created an optimistic view of the future of capitalism that also recognizes the potential for crisis, catastrophe, and environmental and social degradation and conflict.

While the human ingenuity and technological prowess that created this utopia allows humans to live sustainably at relatively high levels of wealth, Roddenberry complicated his message with episodes like “Forces of Nature,” where warp capability creates instabilities in space and threatens human expansion through the galaxy, and also unjustly affects specific groups of people, threatening their living standards, and even their very existence. Here we see a flawed system akin to capitalism in its inevitable unsustainability. In other episodes,  Roddenberry deals with other possible side-effects of science and technology with outbreaks of epidemic disease created by scientific research that threaten the lives of crew members.  In “Unnatural Selection,” a team of scientists is researching organisms that affect human aging and accidentally create an airborne contaminant that greatly accelerates the aging process. After the disease has already killed an entire crew about the USS Landry, Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Pulaski, contracts the disease, setting off a long chain of events that almost ends her life. Seen in a more holistic way here, Star Trek: The Next Generation is a critique of capitalism. Roddenberry displays examples of “limits to growth,” systems technology cannot sustain, and negative environmental factors due to the drive for progress and accumulation. So although Roddenberry’s vision is “pro-growth,” and “cornicopic,” he still reminds us of the ultimate tension of modern human civilization: the accumulation of wealth and better living conditions versus building a sustainable, egalitarian society. He does not, however, offer a resolution to this tension, or provide a space in which humans can contemplate breaking free of the ecologically vicious cycle of capitalism.

Gene Roddenberry used specific characters and story lines to advance his ideas about the future, particularly the Borg and “Q.” The omnipotent, rascal-of-a-character, “Q,” is always a humbling presence for humans, questioning whether the human species is ready for space travel and involvement with the wider universe. Decidedly judgmental and “human” in his own right, “Q” serves as a constant reminder of our checkered past of technological and environmental destruction, calling back to our violent and discriminatory instincts. “Q” believes humans are not prepared for the power warp technology gives them. But Roddenberry, through Captain Jean-Luc Picard, allows his confidence in human ingenuity to show through. In the end, “Q” decides to allow the Enterprise passage through space, and even helps Picard save humanity from a spatial-anomaly threatening Earth. Although Roddenberry’s universe references a history of human and environmental violence, the character of “Q” serves to further his general idea that humanity can continue to accumulate wealth and better standards of living through capitalism, science, and technology.

The Borg represent technology and science gone wrong, the pure embodiment of the negative associations humans have with our creations. Half machine, half organic, the Borg show how technology can ultimately lead humans down dangerous paths – paths ending in empire, genocide, and a loss of our humanity. The Borg are controlled by a central intelligence, completely disconnected from any idea of self. They travel en mass throughout the galaxy, destroying other civilizations by “assimilating” them into the Borg collective, making the organic cybernetic in the process. The Borg’s message to their victims, “resistance is futile,” is a stark reminder of the dangers inherent with technology and capitalism. Unlimited growth is highly tempting for humans and our baser desires. Like with the Borg, Roddenberry is saying that once humans go down the road of infinite growth to build a more technocratic society, we will forever be in danger of veering towards “the Borg ideal,” where technology fully integrates with the biological and completely erases our humanity. A dark and pessimistic vision, this idea can be seen as an allegory for climate change or any other techno-apocalypse one can imagine.

The astute reader might ask: what about the Borg’s centralized nature, their monitored and controlled existence, and their lack of identity? Does this not sound much like communism? I would argue that, yes, the Borg seem to represent America’s communist foe during the Cold War. As a metaphor for communism, the Borg argue how technology and immoral political and social structures can germinate to create evil. When the Borg “assimilate” a planet, they consume everything. In two episodes, the Enterprise arrives at planets the Borg have passed through to find all life exhausted, no organisms left, all vegetation, water, soil, completely gone. Only the dry, rock shell of the planet remains. Here, the Borg-Communism connection is clear: communist governments lead to desolate landscapes. This example of Roddenberry’s use of the Borg complicates their use in his utopia. While in one sense they represent a critique of capitalism, they also can be seen as a scathing rebuke of communism, diluting any possible question of Roddenberry’s loyalty to the pro-growth ideal and infinite accumulation.

STTNG-Force of Nature
Image of the Enterprise facing down warp use-created spatial anomalies, revealing that warp technology is not the sustainable creator of infinite growth human’s believed. Here Roddenberry critiques capitalism within his larger narrative of human technological ingenuity.

You might also question where society’s consumed resources go. During a vast majority of the show, we see little to no garbage, waste, pollution, or abandoned industry. In the end, I can locate only one clear example of the twenty-fourth century left-overs of growth. In the episode “Unification,” Will Riker leads the Enterprise to a Federation Decommissioned Ship Yard. In fact, it takes up an entire planet and it’s orbital space. Among thousands of asteroids, the Federation has deposited hundreds of decommissioned star-ships, some possibly a century old. The planet serves as a waste receptacle for the Federation, much as rivers served as “industrial sinks” to nineteenth-century cities. Star Fleet has created a unique, new environment made up of rocks, technology, and space. Here we see the argument of this article: the seemingly egalitarian, seemingly sustainable inter-galactic society brought to life in Star Trek can only be possible with vastly larger, more complex economic systems and energy regimes. These societies would also necessarily create enormous amounts of waste. On Star Trek, we are rarely shown the spaces human’s, or any other species for that matter, store or destroy their waste. Seeing these spaces would cast doubt on the idea of unlimited growth and harshly critique capitalism. Perhaps considering this in the context of the political and cultural turbulence of Cold War-era America can shed some light on why Roddenberry chose to create such a waste-less place. [28]


The topic of Donald Worster’s Shrinking the Earth is one of the most critical issues facing humanity in 2019. The idea of unlimited growth, infinite capital accumulation, and unrestrained natural resource use to support rising living standards across the globe, has brought our planet’s bio-systems to the brink of collapse, with water, land, and air cycles all threatened. We must reconsider the debates character’s in Worster’s book engaged in throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There have always been Americans who question our religion of growth, but they have consistently lost the argument to their more capitalist, resource-hungry counterparts.

Seen in this light, Star Trek and the universe Gene Roddenberry created need to be analyzed within the framework of this question: should humans seek unlimited growth? Should we not look for sustainable alternatives to runaway capitalism? Why have “anti-growth” arguments failed since the industrial revolution? Are these environmental and economic values too intertwined with ideas of nation, manhood, and humankind’s divine right to stewardship over the earth to allow for any meaningful progress?

Roddenberry addresses these questions tangentially, for the most part, as the absence in his narrative of any recognition of the problems of growth reveals. Roddenberry created a technocratic society, built and controlled by expertise, scientific knowledge, and technological dominance. New technologies have allowed humans to once again avoid the difficult conversations around capitalism, resource scarcity, and environmental degradation. By omitting these volatile issues, Roddenberry makes a powerful statement: technology will allow humans to continue on the same path we have since the discovery of “second earth” and will allow humans to continue to accumulate wealth and raise their living standards. Nowhere in his universe, in direct or metaphorical ways, does Roddenberry question this basic assumption. Seen in the context of the Cold War United States, Roddenberry is telling Americans not to worry about scarcity, pollution, wilderness destruction, or loss of biodiversity. Technology and human ingenuity will push capitalism through the bottleneck of climate change and human society will appear on the side, in tact, sustainable, and more progressive than ever. Technology and human ingenuity created the egalitarian, peaceful, democratic society we see in the Federation of Planets in the twenty-fourth century.


Donald Worster’s “third earth,” the planetary escape route for continuing infinite growth, is an important part of understanding Gene Roddenberry’s utopia in Star Trek. Worster argues,

A new planet, if it came drifting our way, would throw that evolutionary process into disequilibrium, upsetting all that seemed solid and forever. Like Van der Donck, people would see to exploit the new environment, although some would prove more adept than others at doing so. Minds would begin to innovate and experience a burst of adaptive creativity. People would develop new technologies, invent new economies, and think new thoughts. A radical change in resource abundance might encourage a radical change in the structure of the human community, the organization of industry, the distribution of political power, and the relations between rich and poor. Religion might take a new direction. Ethics might be upended and revised. [29]

Go watch (or re-watch; shame on you) Star Trek and think of Worster’s words. You will find many similarities. Worster is describing what has occurred in Gene Roddenberry’s universe. We see warp drive and replicators, growth without money, the Federation, and the extermination of poverty on Earth (most likely through the exploitation of nature on distant planets). But Roddenberry’s reality is still difficult to grasp in 2019. How could we continue with a form of capitalism that has not questioned the idea of growth itself? How is it even possible to achieve such an equilibrium seen in Star Trek? Perhaps glimpsing, as Worster described, the “radical change” itself, the discovery of “Third Earth,”and the “burst of adaptive creativity” that followed would make Roddenberry’s utopia more believable. Or perhaps, our pessimism reflects more the fear and disgust many humans feel toward the “pro-growth” ideology in 2019. In either case, Star Trek, and other futuristic, science-fiction worlds, provide a unique way to ponder capitalism, the environment, and science and technology policy.


[1] http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/374304-it-isn-t-all-over-everything-has-not-been-invented-the. Accessed July 21, 2019.

[2] quotecatalog.com/quote/thomas-cole-nature-has-spre-LaDVP07. Accessed July 21, 2019.

[3] See Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frontier_Thesis) for a discussion of the American Frontier; and see Donald Worster’s Shrinking the Earth for a discussion of the importance of the New World in the idea of the frontier and second earth.

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gene_Roddenberry; https://www.britannica.com/biography/Gene-Roddenberry.

[5] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/06/the-poetry-of-progress/. Accessed July 15, 2019.

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gene_Roddenberry; https://www.britannica.com/biography/Gene-Roddenberry

[7] youtube.com/watch?v=7DSo8TnHv6Q&list=PLmA8N3lTnVI7SPoscPBz-jbrpbyn1TInV&index=7

[8] Worster, Donald. Shrinking the Earth. pg. 13.

[9] Worster, Donald. Shrinking the Earth. pg. 5.

[10] Worster, Donald. Shrinking the Earth. pg. 10-12.

[11] Worster, Donald. Shrinking the Earth. pg. 35

[12] Worster, Donald. Shrinking the Earth. pg. 20.

[13] Worster, Donald. Shrinking the Earth. pg. 31.

[14] Andrew, Thomas. Killing for Coal. pg. 231.

[15] Worster, Donald. Shrinking the Earth. pg. 35-42.

[16] Worster, Donald. Shrinking the Earth. pg. 116.

[17] Worster, Donald. Shrinking the Earth. pg. 120-132.

[18] Worster, Donald. Shrinking the Earth. pg. 143.

[19] Worster, Donald. Shrinking the Earth. pg. 151.

[20] Worster, Donald. Shrinking the Earth. pg. 163.

[21] http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/374304-it-isn-t-all-over-everything-has-not-been-invented-the. Accessed July 21, 2019.

[22] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transporter_(Star_Trek). Accessed July 19, 2019.

[23] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warp_drive. Accessed July 19, 2019.

[24] Mieke Schüller (2 October 2005). Star Trek – The Americanization of Space. GRIN Verlag. p. 5. ISBN 978-3-638-42309-0.

[25] https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/05/100505-science-environment-ozone-hole-25-years/

[26] http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/374304-it-isn-t-all-over-everything-has-not-been-invented-the. Accessed July 21, 2019.

[27] The Hollywood Reporter, Sept. 8, 1966.

[28] http://www.ex-astris-scientia.org/articles/qualor.htm. Accessed July 20, 2019.

[29] Worster, Shrinking the Earth. pg. 24.

A Dam Nice Place! Placing the Six Mile Dam within Mid-Western History and Contemporary Attempts at Re-engaging Americans in Historical Thinking

A Canal, a Dam, and a Reservoir: The Remains of a Nineteenth-Century Mid-Western Hydrosocial Cycle

In 2014, the Six Mile Dam in Warsaw, Ohio became a candidate for the National Historic Register. The canal, dam, and reservoir are essential pieces of area history to people like Mike Geog, who’s been visiting the dam since he was a boy. “It’s what brings us our business. It’s one of the most beautiful landmarks in Ohio,” Geog said in a Coshocton Tribune interview. “I’ve fished here with my parents, grandparents; now they talk about taking it out? That’s just destroying memories.” The dam was originally built to feed water into the Walhonding Canal in the 1830s and 40s. It later supplied power for a mill and hydroelectric power plant at Roscoe Village. 1800s. Warsaw bustled with businesses such as the Warsaw Milling Co., Warsaw Tile and Brick and Warsaw Lumber.1 In 1975, the deed to the dam was transferred to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. By placing this water infrastructure within the larger context of U.S. History and following the place’s changing uses, we can engage Americans with our history and historical and contemporary environments, as well as push our citizens to absorb themselves in how the built environment evolves alongside its shifting purposes.


Preceding the National Historic Register nomination, in 2010 the Ohio EPA conducted studies in Mill, Mohawk, and Symmes Creeks, and Blunt, Beards, Beaver, Dutch, Honey, Flint, Simmons, Crooked, Turkey, Spoon, and Robinson Runs, in both Coshocton and Muskingum counties. Further, since the 1980s, the Walhonding River was sampled for “both fish and macro-invertebrates.” Accordingly, other than “the area near Warsaw impounded by the Six Mile Dam, the river’s biological index scores” have continuously improved over time. Water chemistry around the dam was also generally considered good, but “bacterial contamination was noted throughout the watershed.” For example, twenty-two locations in the Walhonding watershed were tested for bacteria indicators (E. coli) to determine recreation use attainment status. Only eight locations were in full attainment of the designated use. Local and national preservation groups have pointed to these studies when demanding that the dam be removed to help bolster the watershed’s biodiversity, landscape conversation, and recreation uses.2

Walhonding
Walhonding River, ca. 2010. Used with Permission from Daniel Moscov, Personal Photograph.

Because membership in the National Historic Register also meant removal of the dam and the creation of a possible wildlife refuge, the process brought out deep emotions and memories of the place. Removal was popular among environmentalists and wildlife enthusiasts, as it would replenish populations of indigenous species such as small-mouth bass, which struggled in the stagnant water upstream from the dam, Ohio Department of Natural Resources fish management supervisor Mike Greenlee said. Letting the water flow freely also allows freshwater mussels to be carried up and downstream, preserving the biological diversity of the area. Surrounding agricultural land would not be affected, the ODNR assured. Greenlee added, “Our mission is to preserve habitats for sustainable use. Given that mission, we feel it’s responsible for us to try and address some of the problems out there.” Also, according to Matt Eiselstein, chief of communications at ODNR, “This is a low-head dam that was constructed in 1830 as part of the Walhonding Canal system and previously served as a water source for the mill and plant in Roscoe that closed in 1953,” Eiselstein said. “Currently it has been determined that the effects of the dam are impeding some aquatic life from thriving in the river, and removal of the dam could improve the habitat for the impacted fish and mussels.” Eiselstein’s main point, however, is that while removing the dam would vastly improve the quality of life for non-human species, it would also help improve sport fishing in the river, a decidedly anthropogenic and popular, longtime leisure use of the dam, reservoir, and canal. With these negative factors taken into account, Eiselstein continued, “ODNR will remove the dam structure, but some wing walls and lock chambers will likely be shored up and act to preserve some of the history of the dam.” By removing only some of the dam, ODNR could provide relief for the ecosytem, while also retaining the site’s cultural and historical significance through its physical pressence. 3

For others, the plan for removal was not so positive a story.  Many saw removing the dam as unnecessarily increasing the risk of floods around the river. “The waters that are being held back by this dam are greatly reducing flooding that affects downstream,” said Rob McMasters, director of the Coshocton County Emergency Management Agency and Homeland Security. In a conversation with Ben Gelber of Channel Four News in Columbus in 2018, McMasters continued, “if we look at what was happening in 1913 and 1937, before these efforts had taken place, the damage was catastrophic, the loss of life was catastrophic.” The Great Flood of 1913 remains one of the worst natural disasters in Ohio’s history, at the state and local level, stemming from heavy rainfall following a large Atlantic hurricane and leading to over 400 deaths in Ohio alone. Dave Snyder, local historian and curator of the Walhonding Valley Historical Society and Museum, said in 2017 “[the flood] had such a major impact on the area, I think it’s important to preserve the history and tell the story.” Snyder points out the flood basically ended canal use for transportation and ended an era in Ohio’s watersheds and hydrosocial cycles. “People were rescued in row boats, and taken to higher grounds,” he said. “The mail was interrupted for weeks…the flood took out 13 bridges in the area” and rail
travel came to a halt for about a month until repairs could be made. “The 1913 Flood washed out all the plans for the canal.”4 Here we see yet another use of the dam further complicating its history, memory, and the issues involved with its removal.

The Great Flood of 1913
“The Great Flood of 1913,” in Roscoe Village. Historic Roscoe Village. Accessed on June 13, 2019, at https://roscoevillage.com/history.

Once the Walhonding Canal lost its transportation and energy uses due to market demands and the rise of the railroad, the dam and its reservoir became a local leisure site where Ohioans came to fish, hunt, camp, and take in the sublime natural world just outside Warsaw. The area was a crucial escape for urban residents seeking relief from increasing population and environmental degradation in cities and towns. Despite this long, historical leisure use, Greenlee insisted that “there’s even a chance that we can create new, desirable features that are still attractive for people visiting the campground” hugging the reservoir. Still, for Rose Fetters, a part-owner of Whispering Falls Campground who lives within sight of the dam, the decision was clear. “They should leave it,” Fetters said. “It’s so peaceful. I say leave it alone.”5

Six Mile Dam, 1

The dam has served as a place of leisure and recreation for more than just Coshocton County residents. For over a decade, the Warsaw region has served as part of the the “Great Coast to Coast Multi-Sport Race Across Ohio.” Joining bicycling, rollerblading, canoeing, and hiking, adventure racing has given a new meaning to recreation around Six Mile Dam, helping further the dynamic of community memory around the reservoir and canal. Finishing by canoeing to Whispering Pines, Patience Gallagher, Christine Hettinger, and Kalyn Jolivette told Jim Barstow, of the Coshocton Tribune, “It’s not about winning, but it’s a test of the heart,” and reminds one of how the Ohio landscape can bring people together.


The specter of making the dam a national historic place caused many Ohioans to reflect on what the dam, its landscape, and its history meant to them and their communities. In doing so, people’s memories of the place revealed a complex and diverse history, bubbling with meaning. “There’s big involvement from the community,” said Jesse Fischer, a village council member, in 2009. The community’s past, almost always connected to the dam, reservoir, and canal,  is deeply engrained in people’s memories and feelings about their homes. And, in a way, the emotional attachment of many Ohioans against the dam’s removal actually made the main point of removal supporters. A place with such a rich, varied, and evolving history should be memorialized as an historic preserve. Its history is rich and important; and also easily forgotten because of its transitory environmental and cultural nature. Removing parts of the dam in an effort to support biodiversity and ecological sustainability does not undermine the site’s historical significance. The process would in fact allow Americans to better fathom the dam’s history, cultural and natural, while also providing more sustainable land and water use practices for the twenty-first-century. Furthermore, understanding the dam’s history can help us better grasp the controversy around removal as well as why such places are integral in public history efforts to reinvigorate the American historical imagination.6


Centennial_History_of_Coshocton_County page 38 six mile dam photo
Six Mile Dam photo (after reconstruction of feeder but before 1913 flood). Accessed at http://railsandtrails.com/Canals/Walhonding/index.html on June 13, 2019.

Over its 184-year history, the Six Mile Dam, in Warsaw, Ohio, has a long and varied history of diverse uses. Originally constructed as a feeder for the Walhonding canal, part of Ohio’s canal system developed in the 1830s, the man-made lake has evolved to serve different purposes for specific transportation, energy, and leisure landscapes. At first, the dam provided water to the Walhonding canal, supporting transportation throughout Ohio and helping connect the mid-West to the eastern seaboard. According to Bob Downing of the Knight Ridder Tribune News Service, by 1841, the dam also served the boom town of Roscoe Village. It provided hydro-power and infrastructure for “400 residents, mills, shops, six stores, a boat yard, an apothecary, an iron foundry, and mechanic’s shops.” The village became Ohio’s No. 4 port for shipping wheat along the Ohio and Erie from Cleveland to Portsmouth. Rolanda Hunt, education manager for Historic Roscoe Village, says “businesses and residential areas expanded in settlements along the canal as its locks developed” including “a gristmill, a lumberyard, and a cooper building” by 1830.7

Due to these vacillating purposes, the reservoir’s environmental footprint has shifted over the years, creating new hybrid natures for Ohioans to reckon with. This ever-evolving, reciprocal relationship between humans and the natural world allows historians to view the long durée of American environmental history. As sites of contention, the reservoirs serve as useful markers of American environmental thought and values, as well as scenes where debates over government power, land-use, property rights, scientific method, medical theory, and engineering practice played out.

The dam’s history is embedded within the memory and culture of the local community. Darla Terrell, of Coshocton, remembered her family’s connections to the infrastructure in a 2004 interview with Cary Ashby of the Coshocton Tribune. She spoke of her great-grandfather, William Henderson Smart, a former canal boat captain. One of nearly a dozen local canal boat captains, he commanded the crew of the Sunbeam. Born in 1850, Smart worked on canal boats for 65 years, along with operating locks at Zoar for two years and helping construct the Six Mile Dam. According to Wilma hunt, Roscoe Village Historian and Curator, “usually it was their life job [canal boating] until they were put out of business and they sank the boat.” She went on to point out that many captains “decided to intentionally sink their boats” after a 1913 flood marked the end of canal boat operations. “They didn’t have to do it (sink the boat). Some of them did it because they were upset.” Terrell’s mother, Audrey Selders, said “he sank it because he was mad about the trains coming in and taking business from Coshocton.” The flood of 1913 marked the end of canal traffic in the region, even as the State began renovating the locks to get canal boats back in operation between 1905-1907. “It (the flood) wiped out everything and there was no point in doing anything with it,” Hunt said.8

Wild Turkey Locks 1910, Canal near Coshocton, Ohio
“Wild Turkey Locks, Coshocton, Ohio 1910,” Accessed at https://www.coshoctonohio.pa-roots.com/postcards/postcards1.html on June 13, 2019.

The story of Terrell, Selders, Smart, and the Flood of 1913 exposes the intertwined nature of family and canal histories in the region. Smart was raised on a canal boat, as were his 13 children. His life, and that of his family’s, almost entirely revolved around the Ohio and Erie Canal and the Six Mile Dam. No wonder, then, that many local residents had an intense emotional reaction to the specter of losing the Six Mile Dam, a cherished, integral community memory, steeped in local and family history.


By placing the reservoir within the larger context of U.S. History, one is witness to American’s changing relationship to nature, the market, transportation, and industrial revolutions, the shifting markets and infrastructure of the nation during the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries, the eventual deindustrialization of the “Rust Belt” and much of the mid-West, and the turn to leisure-uses that many past industrial landscapes recently experienced. We can also glimpse intimate local and family histories because the canal, dam, and reservoir were so integral to the regions history. More specifically, these canals and reservoirs offer a critical opportunity to analyze and interpret American hydro-social cycles, aquatic and riparian landscapes, and watershed economics, politics, ecology, and culture, over the course of U.S. history. Sites of historic importance, like Six Mile Dam, can serve the essential purposes of more acutely engaging Americans with our history and historical and contemporary environments, as well as pushing our citizens to more deeply immerse themselves in how the built environment evolves alongside its changing uses.


Notes:

1). O’Neill, Patrick. “Officials: Demolish 184-year-old Dam, or Not?” Coshocton Tribune. September 19, 2014. Accessed June 15, 2019. https://www.coshoctontribune.com/story/news/local/2014/09/14/officials-demolish-year-old-dam/15643983/. Manfrin, Jennifer L. “Keeping Warsaw’s history alive,” Coshocton Tribune. November 14, 2016. p.g A2. Accessed through ProQuest History Newspapers on June 12, 2019.

2). “Ohio EPA Announces Results of Walhonding River and Muskingum River Tributaries Study; Biology and Water Chemistry Good,” Targeted News Service, Washington, DC. January 25, 2013. Accessed though ProQuest Historic Newspapers on June 15, 2019.

3). O’Neill, “Officials…,” Coshocton Tribune. Schultz, Shelly. “State looking to remove dam on Walhonding River,” Coshocton Tribune. March 21, 2018. pg. A1. Accessed through ProQuest Historic Newspapers on June 8, 2019.

4). Williams, Joe. “From humble start Roscoe flourished,” Coshocton Tribune. November 8, 2015, pg. 1. Accessed through ProQuest Historic Newspapers on June 6, 2019. Manfrin, Jennifer L. “A ‘terrible disaster,'”Coshocton Tribune. May 15, 2017. pg. A4. Accessed through ProQuest Historic Newspapers on June 15, 2019.

5). O’Neill, “Officials…,” Coshocton Tribune.

6). Barstow, Jim. “Trio of locals racing across Ohio,” Coshocton Tribune. Jul 10, 2005. pg. B1. Accessed through ProQuest Historic Newspapers on June 6, 2019. Dickerson, Kathie. “Warsaw boasts 175 years of progress and growth,” Coshocton Tribune. May 30, 2009. pg. A1. Accessed through ProQuest Historic Newspapers on June 6, 2019.

7). Downing, Bob. “Ohio’s Roscoe Village rich in 1800s history, delightful charm,” Knight Ridder Tribune News Service. August 22, 2005. pg. 1. Accessed through ProQuest Historic Newspapers on June 8, 2019.

8). Cary, Ashby. “Local woman recalls memories of late canal boat captain,” Coshocton Tribune. August 18, 2004. pg. A1. Accessed through ProQuest Historic Newspapers on June 3, 2019.

Midnight Musings: Canals Revisited, or a Call for Remembering the Artificial Rivers

Reflections on Canals by a Tired Environmental Historian

In our collective memories, we canonize railroads as the great wilderness breakers, the key technological advance of the industrial revolution and American expansion. Although this may be well and true, our collective memory could use some appreciation for the role canal’s played in the century-long process of binding “the republic together with a perfect system of roads and canals,”as John C. Calhoun put it, to exploit the natural abundances of the land and improve it.1 As George Washington wrote to Thomas Johnson in 1770, we shall not only draw the produce of the western settlers, but the peltry and fur trade of the lakes also to our ports . . . binding these people to us by a chain which can never be broken.”2 We must remember it was the debate over canals which animated the early fight for an “American system” to strengthen the union and extend American dominance over nature, “civilizing the wilderness” from sea to shining sea. The financial and engineering examples of canal projects, in success and failure, as well as the political solutions which created and destroyed them, laid paths of success and failure for railroad-men to emulate. Railroad schemes brought forth during Reconstruction seem to have benefited from these debates over the role of government in internal improvements, allowing for the perceived necessity of private corporations taking control of building America’s network of iron.

31540
Map by the National Geographic Society. Accessed at https://www.nationalgeographic.org/maps/tracking-growth-us/ on June 3, 2019.

Furthermore, one might say that canals served a remarkably similar expansionist role in Appalachia, the Great Lakes region, and the trans-Mississippi West, as did the railroad past the Mississippi in the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, and the Pacific Coast. While inferior in degree and extant, canals, like railroads, brought revolutionary changes to American landscapes, watersheds, and ecosystems, as well as enduring political, economic, and social upheavals in American life. The American network of canals created a hybridized second-nature, altering landscapes, watersheds, and ecosystems through increased and intensified commodification, exploitation, and management of nature, similar to the changes wrought on the Western landscape by railroads. Perhaps the uneven success of canals, and their swift overshadowing by railroads, has provided the preconditions for the collective amnesia of their importance in the early American Republic.

Integrating canals more thoroughly in our shared popular consciousness will help us better understand political, social, economic, and environmental trends during the nineteenth-century. It also could have a beneficial affect on contemporary public transportation policy. In the age of the Anthropocene, and with climate change worsening exponentially, the need to rethink how humans and our commodities move through time and space is apparent. Realizing the importance of successful past infrastructure projects might aid in expanding the kind of transportation systems society considers for the future. Remembering canals from the American past shows us how less-memorialized transport options from the past can help broaden the scope of future possibilities.

By diversifying our options, the act of remembering the important history of American canals could open the American public to embrace urban light-rapid-rail technology, new engineering feats such as Elon Musk’s urban-tunnel systems, or furthering other fringe green transport infrastructure, like regional high-speed railway systems, bus-way, bike-way, and green-way systems, and non-fossil fuel-based technologies in general. If we can move past seeing the nineteenth-century only as the era of the railroad and the capitalist, industrial culture it represents, other more sustainable infrastructure might sneak their way into our national consciousness, making these options seem more feasible and desirable. Accomplishing just this is vital to combating climate change in a sustainable, efficient, and egalitarian way.

tesla-sled-3
“Elon Musk’s underground traffic tunnel looks like hyperspace,” Timothy J. Seppala. Engadget, Verizon Media. May 12, 2017. Accessed at https://www.engadget.com/2017/05/12/elon-musk-boring-company-traffic-tunnel/?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAALJb-_abAW6pu6AxwWDh1VrPlYqWVRt9bN_1B4-JN3fYYWpqiYglbCCaTrhOkVOIfK6VBDX8oBTIG98lcN4KKz_QSNJkdOiQVZ6jZCrY7jwoXMKQFafe5NcoFtbjNbnmnmxzzPXOD9KNdrXJ8hkuBW_gHRGgykFBld3C3BxnUsKh on June 3, 2019.

This is yet another area where historians and other academics can make important contributions to public policy. Not only can we hopefully influence specific legislation, we can also push for an evolution in the way humans think about transportation infrastructure through retooling how we think about the past.


1 Annals of Congress, 14 Cong., 2 sess., Feb. 4, 1817, p. 854. See also, Cumberland Road debates, ibid., 14 Cong., 1 sess., Jan. 9-April 2, 1816, pp. 514, 1211, 1250-52, 1308.

2 George Washington to Thomas Johnson, July 20, 1770, Corra Bacon-Foster, Early Chapters in the Development of the Potomac Route to the West (Washington, 1912), 18-21.

 

Midnight Musings: A Rising Tide?: Specificity vs. Universalism in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Epidemiological Theory

Did the nature of epidemiological theory during the 19th century lead to violence on mid-Western canal reservoirs?

The foundational ideas of my dissertation are beginning to take shape. Over the past few months, disease history and how Americans understood illness in the nineteenth-century quickly consumed my mind after reading about the “Reservoir Wars” on mid-Western canals. I find the diversity and ambiguity of epidemiology during this era fascinating and I’ve been on a mission to find out what role science, epidemiology, and public health practice played in the reservoir conflicts. Recently, I read John Harley Warner’s article “From Specificity to Universalism in Medical Therapeutics: Transformations in the 19th-Century United States,” in Sickness & Health in America, and my mind has been racing ever since. You all know the feeling you get when you get a good idea and are just waiting to confirm it or implement it. It’s what keeps us going during our long journeys.


Over the course of the long nineteenth-century, medical explanation and practice in the United States shifted fundamentally. Traditional practices and ideas, founded on assumptions about disease oriented toward visibly altering the symptoms of sick individuals, were supplanted by strategies grounded in experimental science that objectified disease and minimized the differences among people. By the late nineteenth-century, the governing principle of specificity, the notion that treatment had to be matched to the idiosyncratic characteristics of individual patients and to the physical, social, and epidemiological specifics of their environments, drifted to a new therapeutic ideal defined by an allegiance to knowledge produced by experimental, laboratory science and characterized by universalized therapeutic and diagnostic categories. American physicians and scientists returning from studies in the European capitals of scientific research brought many of these new ideas and practices back with them. Their experiences helped hasten a slow evolution from specificity to universalism. It became a major defining development of nineteenth-century medical and scientific modernity.

This major shift in explanatory and practical medical therapeutics greatly affected the public health decision making of canal company and state government officials during the “Reservoir Wars” of the mid to late nineteenth-century. In Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, traditional ideas of disease causation and medical therapeutics led farmers, laborers, and merchants to believe human-made reservoirs feeding water to canals were causing illness due to the reshaping of region’s landscapes and watersheds. In response to the black lash of mid-westerners, canal companies and state governments formed scientific panels to study the reservoirs and determine if they were guilty of the local’s accusations. Basing their research on contemporary medical and scientific advances, canal company and state “scientists” concluded that the reservoirs were not causing illness and that minor physical remedies would remove their sickly and unhealthful appearance. The “reservoir regulators,” as they came to be called, furious and itching for action, vowed to drain the reservoir themselves.

cos0915sixmiledam
Six-Mile Run Reservoir and Dam in 2014, near Warsaw, Ohio. Accessed May 25, 2019 at http://www.coshoctontribune.com/story/news/local/2014/09/14/officials-demolish-year-old-dam/15643983/

And they did just that. Some reservoir dams were cut, others were dynamited. At least one security guard was killed during these violent episodes. State militias were called out and trials were held for known conspirators, although most of the hundreds of participants went unchecked.

Was the move from specificity to universalism influential to how these decisions were made? Why were the epidemiological explanations of canal company and state officials so different from local residents? Were the authorities just ignoring citizen’s complaints in favor of economic development? Were locals just wrong about the prevalence of illness around these reservoirs? Were the “natural” landscapes of these regions “sickly” and “unhealthful” to begin with? Was the inaction by the canal companies and state governments based upon changing ideas of disease causation? Complicated, diverse, and unsettled epidemiological theory?

Not only is the shift from specificity to universalism in medical therapeutics important for understanding responses to illness on these mid-Western canals, it is vital to understanding a plethora of other decisions regarding public health during the mid and late nineteenth-Century. In my dissertation, I will attempt to bring other sources of water into my analysis. In numerous other places during the 19th century, water technologies created new spaces where disease became contested. Dams, reservoirs, canals, irrigation ditches; they all added to the complexity of the relationship between Americans and their sources of water. In Massachusetts, farmers “cut” dams along the Housatonic River in New Millford, CT. Elijah Boardman, future Senator, lead angry citizens to remove the dam by force in 1799, convinced the dam was causing the repeated fever outbreaks in town. Ted Steinberg wrote of similar instances in New Hampshire in reaction to the Lowell Mills expropriating water from lakes and rivers hundreds of miles from their mills. These tales of violence and vandalism reveal more about property rights than public health, but remain important in understanding how American’s reacted to new water technologies and the environmental changes they wrought.

elijah boardman
Elijah Boardman. Ralph Earl (American, Worcester County, Massachusetts 1751–1801 Bolton, Connecticut), 1789. Bequest of Susan W. Tyler, 1979. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Accessed May 26, 2019 at http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/10830.

In my dissertation, I will argue that, among other epidemiological developments, the evolution of medical knowledge and practice from specificity to universalism led canal company and state officials to ignore, or at least botch their response to, local claims of reservoir-borne illness. Doctor’s and scientists returning from study in Europe hastened changes in the American medical and scientific communities, causing a shift in focus on the idiosyncratic characteristics of individual patients and environments to an allegiance to universalized, experimental, laboratory science. Medical men, public health officials, and researchers began displaying fundamentally different views of health and illness than the average nineteenth-century American. In fact, traditional, environmental epidemiology, ideas of dirt and filth, persisted among the public, and even many health officials, until well into the twentieth-century, demonstrated during deadly polio epidemics. Did this new tension fuel the fires of war on canal reservoirs throughout mid-western states?

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Grand Lake St. Marys: Feeder lake built for the Miami & Erie Canal. Accessed May 25, 2019 at http://touringohio.com/history/feeder-lakes.html.

Reflections: A National “Forgetting” of the War of 1812?

A loosely-related collection of reflections on the War of 1812, its memory in twenty-first-century America, and its role in teaching our history.

The War of 1812 seems to be consigned to oblivion in the public memory of Americans and the British, and less so for Canadians, for whom the war represents the beginning of one of the first sustained nationalistic eras for the colony. For the Americans and Brits, the war was actually a highly contentious, politically divisive conflict, which defined and formalized the northern and southern borders of the United States. At the same time, the war served as an experiment in militarism for the young American Republic, testing the boundaries of national identity and the strength of the its institutions and ideals in the face of politial and social conflict. So the minimized importance of the war in our national remembering is indeed quite stupifying. Why is this?

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WASHINGTON BURNING, 1814. The burning of Washington, D.C., by the British on 24 August 1814. Line engraving, English, 1816. Accessed May 21, 2019 at https://sandiegofreepress.org/2016/04/now-theyre-coming-after-the-librarians/washington_in_flames_1814/

In twenty-first-century America, the struggle between Britain and the United States is often consigned to the sidelines of history between the American Revolution and the American Civil War, although if you asked a nineteenth-century American, this national amnesia might be bewildering. Americans who experienced the war first-hand or grew up with the nationalistic rhetoric surrounding it, saw the imperialist and expansionist tendancies bubbling throughout the halls of congress as fitting well with other new, rising nationalistic cultures like Alexander Hamilton’s National Bank System or Henry Clay’s American System. Republicans began reevaluating their faith in Jeffersonian dogma and became more receptive to a more powerful and consolidationist federal government. Acording to William Earl Week’s, author of John Quincy Adams and American Global Empire, the Republicans’ new imperial principles “stood as a dramatic break with the traditional philosophy of the Republican party. The vision of a decentralized inward looking agrarian republic had been replaced by an imperial vision which reflected many of the basic tenets of the disgraced Federalist party.” While this argument may push the idea too far and offer an overly optimistic view of American’s perceptions of federal power, a new, “Republican-Imperial” mindset took hold of many American politicians.

Although the War of 1812 is not revered today for the influential event it was, in past decades, Americans remembered the war much differently. The reasons for this are plentiful. The war is not associated with any “major” president. Although it was referred to as “Mr. Madison’s War,” he was shy and deferential, unlike the more foreceful wartime presidents, Washington, Lincoln, Wilson, or Roosevelt.  Also, with our tendency to glorify war, it makes sense that we displace this struggle in our public memory; a struggle which ended in a stalemate, if not a military loss for the United States. Indigenous peoples were highly involved with the War of 1812, serving as the final colonial conflict which they played a significant role. Finally, the causes of the War of 1812 are seemingly more complex and obscure to 21st century Americans. The war was mostly not fought for lofty ideals or over an existential threat to rights or security. It was prosecuted in large part over maritime and trade issues and the desire for Canadian territory. Seen in this light, an American war of aggression does not fit well into the United States’ early national narrative.

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War of 1812: Hartford Convention Satirical Cartoon by William Charles of Philadelphia. Published in December 1814 in partnership with Samuel Kennedy. Matted and framed to an overall size of 20″ x 15.5″. Accessed May 20, 2019 at https://historical.ha.com/itm/military-and-patriotic/pre-civil-war/war-of-1812-hartford-convention-satirical-cartoon-by-william-charles-of-philadelphia/a/6183-43026.s

But the war deserves a much more prominent place in our memories and our textbooks. Not only did the war finally establish our northern border and consolodate control of the Gulf region, it offered Americans a conflict to test how their young nation would interact with the global community. Although Madison’s government always denied that it intended to annex Canada, it had no doubt, as Secretary of State James Monroe told the British government in June 1812, that once the United States forces occupied the British provinces, it would be “difficult to relinquish territory which had been conquered.” Interest in Canada was not just material. A belief in “Manifest Destiny,” though the term wouldn’t be coined until 1845, was a driving force. The resulting clash between England and the United States proved that while America could compete with a global empire like Britain, the country was still far from the dominant world player many elites foresaw it would be.

Also labeled “America’s First Vietnam” by some historians, this war provided a forum for unique American pro and anti-war cultures to emerge. Bradford Perkins writes “In many New England seaports church bells tolled a dirge, shops closed, and ships’ flags flew at half-mast. Bostonians hissed two prowar congressmen, and another was mobbed at Plymouth.” The war was so contreversial in its first years, in 1812, Americans rioted in Baltimore, with Federalists burning a Republican press, leading to a bloody street battle where two people died. At the same time, in Empire of Liberty, historian Gordon Wood writes “They [republicans] hoped that war with England might refresh the national character, lessen the overweening selfishness of people, and revitalize republicanism.” Many congressmen called the conflict the “Second War for Independence,” repeating the rallying cry “Forget self and think of America.” This national struggle offers a unique look at early nineteenth-century political culture and how Americans defined their nation and its relationship to the world.

Baltimore Riots 1812
“The Consipracy Against Baltomire / The War Dance at Montgomery Courthouse,” Engraving. 1812. The Maryland Historical Society. Accessed May 20, 2019 at https://www.stratfordhall.org/educational-resources/war-of-1812-exhibit-introduction/war-of-1812-lee-involvement/

As is common in antebellum America, the issue of slavery was also tightly bound to the war, influencing decisions on both sides of the Atlantic. Escaped slaves saw the British as a possible route to freedom or standing in society. By joining the fight, slaves could earn their freedom and free blacks could show their patriotism and support of empire. But the British did not reciprocate. The super wealthy, capitalist, Anglo-Saxon classes of Britain, while engaged in a brutal war with their American counterparts, still preferred to uphold the American system of slavery in order to continue the global economy on which their wealth was based. While many military men saw the practical advantages of Black enlistment, Britain would never officially accept escaped black slaves because they knew doing so could lead to a completely destabilizing slave insurrection, undermining the very economic system they sought to exploit and control in America and their own South American and Caribbean colonies. For example, on March 10, 1815, British officers, in an oft-repeated occurrence and using an extremely narrow reading of the Treaty of Ghent, stripped eighty Black soldiers of their uniforms and returned them to slavery on Cumberland Island. Although the British never returned all of the “property” confiscated from many southern planters, neither did they seriously attempt to undermine the planter’s strangle hold on the expanding cotton empire of the United States.

The War of 1812 was also a much more brutal war than the Revolutionary conflict. Mimicking the violence experienced by New Englanders during many Indian wars, during 1812-1814, the Americans and British burned each others towns and forts with impunity. A cycle of revenge ensued; a call and response of fire and fury. The Niagara Frontier in Western New York was especially bloody. In all, York (Toronto), Lewiston, Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake), and Buffalo, were all burned, eventually leading to the British destruction of Washington, D.C. In Buffalo, only three buildings were left standing: David Reece’s blacksmith shop on Seneca Street, the small, stone-built jail on Washington Street, and a Mrs. St. John’s home. Legend has it that the British only spared this home because it housed the body of a young, eight-year-old boy who was accidently shot in the street hours before. Such carnage does not mark our revolutionary conflict, so why is this war relegated to the footnotes of history?

"Plat of Buffalo village as it is at this date, April, 1813,"
“The Picture Book of Earlier Buffalo,” Severance, Frank H., ed. Buffalo Historical Society, Vol. 16, 1912, pp. 57-66. Accessed May 20, 2019 at https://buffaloah.com/h/war1812/burned/index.html.

Our current curriculum for the War of 1812 is inadequate. The War should be taught in more detail and to greater depths to American high schoolers and college students. It reveals many of the tensions inherent in American wars from the beginning of our republic. As the first major war for the United States after independence, analyzing the public discourse and discussions of politicians during the build up to, execution of, and early remembrance of the war can help flesh out how Americans felt about their young nation, in terms of empire, global politics, and domestic responsibility. The war witnessed a large amount of backlash and protest as many Americans viewed the expansionary impulses of the early 19th century as anti-republican or sought too quickly after independence. By emphasizing the fluid nature of American political culture during the early ninteteenth-century, the War of 1812 complicates our understandings of the development of a unique American nationalism and the origins of pro and anit-war arguments in our country.

Time, Space, and Landscape: Reflections on Transportation and Canals in Environmental History

The Importance of Infrastructure to Historians

I’ve been having trouble with procrastination and writing of late. I’m accomplishing a great deal in terms of studying historiography and methodology, and researching primary sources, but I’m still avoiding the act of writing. It’s been a few weeks since I’ve written anything substantial (this piece was started in late April). I’ve been busy with certain things, like the ASEH 2019 conference, and I will be busy again shortly, finding an apartment in Pittsburgh for the start of the school year. But once I return from my Pittsburgh trip, I have no excuses for dodging a good amount of preliminary writing done on either my dissertation research or one of the four opinion/editorial/academic article ideas brewing in my mind. Although, having finally admitted this, I need to pat myself on the back and act grateful for last nights excellent “brainstorming session,” in which I asked myself two fundamental questions about my dissertation: Why Transportation? Why Canals? The following is a very preliminary reflection on the importance of infrastructure to historians, environmental history, and understanding the general arc of American 19th century history. 


When pondering their field over the longue durée, historians often find specific changes in how humans perceive the world which are so profound as to completely redefine history in general. Although we are rightfully apprehensive and suspicious in placing too much weight in these long, drawn out processes or theories, they are nonetheless powerful and compelling. One of these revolutionary themes is how we relate to time and space. As George Rogers Taylor noted, transportation is integral to this ever-evolving relationship. Consider the changes canals wrought upon travel in the early American republic. Before the Erie Canal, a trip from New York City to Lake Erie lasted weeks. Ground transportation was unreliable, with roads found often flooded, deluged with mud, or made impassible by boulders, timber, and the contours of the landscape. With the coming of an artificial waterway connecting the Hudson with the Great Lakes, the same trip shortened to just days in length. Think of how this changed American’s perceptions of place. A distance of hundreds of miles, previously unimaginable and insurmountable for many, now reduced to a common trip, further eased by the quick and smooth surface of water. Time shortened; and space minimized. Distant lands now seemed within a short grasp.

Opening of the Erie Canal
“Opening of the Erie Canal”. From: History of the United States (no publisher information), p. 169, 1895? (4 x 4 1/4 in.) Accessed May 12, 2019, at http://eriecountymasons.org/blog/2014/10/07/marriage-of-the-waters-september-27-2014/.

The Canal Era of American history represented one of the first of many transportation revolutions occurring in the nation and across the world. Following only ocean-going vessels, canals were one of the first major technological feats to seriously minimize the constraints of speed and distance in the modern era. Canals were the great technological achievements of the first quarter of the nineteenth century in America. Following canals came the railroad, the automobile, the airplane, and, finally, the space shuttle. Along with communication technologies such as the telegraph, telephone, television, and internet, these inventions, these impressive accomplishments of science and engineering, forced people to totally realign their perceptions of reality and reconsider how they relate to time and space in their daily lives. The canal brought distant territories and watersheds together; the railroad and automobile integrated nations; the airplane connected continents; and the space shuttle allowed us to leave our world and join with others. This long evolution in our understandings of how we move through land, water, and air, is essential to understanding human history and, more specifically, the long nineteenth century; the century of revolutions.

This past week, I attended the American Society for Environmental History’s annual conference in Columbus, Ohio. I drove to the city in five hours from Buffalo, NY. I consistently sped along America’s highly integrated, mostly maintained, national highway system, built in the post-war era of national expansion. Have you ever stopped and thought about how quickly we move from city to city, across states, even, across the entire country? What would our lives be like if it still took weeks to get to California from New York? How far back in time would our civilization be if it still took hours to get to the suburbs surrounding a city or a village a dozen miles away? The national highway system revolutionized the speed at which we travel and our interconnectedness, economically, politically, socially, and culturally. Canals were a 19th century precursor of this revolution in travel.

Opening of the Erie Canal, 2
“Opening of The Erie Canal” — an Engraving of a Print by Howard Pyle (1853-1911). From The “Evolution of New York”, by Thomas A. Janvier, in “Harper’s New Monthly Magazine”, Vol. 87, no. 517, June 1893. (4 3/4 x 7 1/2 in.) Acccessed May 12, 2019, at http://www.eriecanal.org/general-1.html.

Our relationship to time and space was inalterably changed by canals. Humans now could move themselves and their goods more quickly and over larger distances than ever before. This new relationship also inaugurated new landscapes and relationships to physical terrain as well. As water-based technologies, canals rendered a new hybrid, second nature; a thoroughly improved, technological landscape for humans to experience the environment in new, more complicated ways.

More specifically, this drastically changed American’s connections with disease. Arriving as they did during the nineteenth century, canals settled themselves into the vast, eclectic, and very much contradictory, lexicon of etiology and epidemiology in antebellum America. Further, the slow and deliberately conservative evolution of ideas of disease causation in the United States placed canals and their waters firmly at the center of scientific and public health debates throughout the century. From the contagion disputes, “miasmata,” and the like, to “germ theory,” or bacteriology, the waters of canals were areas ripe for contestation around ideas and understandings of illness. With epidemic diseases such as cholera piggybacking canal boats and their occupants, canals became highly contested spaces where Americans displayed and formed intense social, political, and cultural relationships with illness, the environment, and the state. Because of their massive size, complexity, and intimate relationship with water, these transportation projects vastly changed the landscape and watersheds of America, creating countless new dams, reservoirs, and channels, all of which provided disease a new, unique environment in which to thrive.  This new environment allowed ample opportunities for farmers and merchants, government and public health officials,  and transportation and industrial workers to contest the meanings of this landscape and reshape their relationships with “nature.” Americans, native and immigrant, created a new landscape; a “canal-scape” which fit effectively within the pastoral ideal of a machine in the garden.

Opening of the Erie Canal, in 1825
“Opening of the Erie Canal, in 1825” / [drawing by] A.R.W. ; engraved by] Swinton So. — From an unidentified history text, p. 167 ; approximately 1890? Accessed May 12, 2019, at http://www.eriecanal.org/general-1.html.

Canals were also integral to the creation of a modern infrastructure capable of supporting the activities of the early Industrial Revolution. Massive increases in environmental exploitation followed, caused by the democratization of the flow of commodities and the quickening expansion of the American state past the Appalachian Mountains, ever closer to the Mississippi River. This represented a new, much more intense relationship of exploitation with nature, a “canal-scape,”  including widespread increases and diversification in mining, deforestation, agriculture, urbanization, hunting, and disruption of watersheds, among many others.

"A depiction of the Erie Canal in Buffalo, New York," The Archaeological Conservancy. Accessed at https://www.archaeologicalconservancy.org/update-e-in-honor-of-labor-day-a-look-at-clintons-ditch-the-erie-canal/ on May 11, 2019.
“A depiction of the Erie Canal in Buffalo, New York,” The Archaeological Conservancy. Accessed at http://www.archaeologicalconservancy.org/update-e-in-honor-of-labor-day-a-look-at-clintons-ditch-the-erie-canal/ on May 11, 2019.

An example from my own work provides some details: on the Delmarva peninsula in Delaware and Maryland, the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal created a water route between the Bay and River which greatly eased the financial and resource burdens of overland travel across the peninsula. Once construction began, two new cities formed at the termini of the project, Chesapeake and Delaware cities, grew quickly and began forming hinterlands in the surrounding areas. A new peach industry soon covered thousands of acres of Delaware landscape, now controlled by a fresh class of rising capitalist farmers and merchants connected to the canal’s construction and maintenance. The canal directly caused new patterns of urbanization, agriculture, deforestation, flooding, and migration. The land and its flora and fauna, the watershed and the hydrosocial cycle it supported, were inalterably changed.

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(*The above maps were accessed in February of 2009 at the Delaware Historical Society in Wilmington, DE. They are located in the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal Company Papers. The map of the canal was colored by the author, to demark sections of the canal associated with different environmental change in his bachelor’s degree thesis, Vanishing Wilderness: The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal and the Changing Landscape of Early Republic Ameirca.)

As the first major engineering feats of the new American nation, canals were at the same time divisive and partisan, integral in sustaining the Federalist-Republican party battles of the Early Republic period. John Lauritz Larson has written that “Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the party of Republicans they created set out to rescue the national experiment from what they perceived to be stockjobbers, aristocrats, and monarchists who would stop at nothing (they believed) to establish class rule.” (Larson, Internal Improvement, pg. 39) While supportive of the idea of internal improvement itself, Republicans saw them as a ripe opportunity for corruption and constitutional subversion, exactly the kind of counterrevolutionary scheme the Alexander Hamilton’s of the young Republic could use to realign American government in the British mold.

Paid for in many cases by specific states, canals eventually showed the ability of the nation to support such improvements for the “common good,” without bringing about the destruction of the young empire’s republican ideals. Through this, they also represented a revolutionized relationship between nature and government. Along with other undertakings, like the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the Northwest Ordinance, canals stood for the state taking a much more direct, capitalist, and scientific role in the control, commodification, and manipulation of the environment.  

The Marriage of the Waters
“The Marriage of the Waters” A mural decoration in the DeWitt Clinton High School, New York City, showing a scene connected with the ceremony of opening the Erie Canal in 1825. – Copyright 1905, C.Y. Turner. Accessed at http://www.canals.ny.gov/history/history.html on May 11, 2019.

The above examples are but a quick overview of the research possibilities and scholarly importance of infrastructure, transportation systems, and canals in environmental history, specifically, and history and the humanities, more generally. Other themes and narratives include the maintenance of canals over their long life, how Americans reacted to the rise of the railroad in relation to canals, and the transition from industrial and transportation use to historical and heritage based uses. These are but a drop in the bucket of the possible avenues of inquiry for 19th century canals in the U.S. The main thrust of the relevance of canals comes from their integral position within the various “revolutions” of the early 19th century: transportation, politics and government, industrialization, urbanization, engineering, markets, and the like. Perhaps because they were eclipsed so quickly by the railroad, canals other than the great Erie, seem to be missing from our general, public historic memory. Further understanding the Canal Era will deepen our analysis of the 19th century and help us better discern the changes occurring throughout the environment during this long, influential century.

ASEH 2019 Part II: Healthful Places, Secluded Spaces

Junior Scholars Lead the Way at ASEH 2019

Finally being among fellow graduate students again at ASEH 2019 was the most rewarding aspect of the conference. Five years out of school and academia has left my historical “chops” in dire need of sharpening. The conversations I took part in and the panels, round tables, and presentations I witnessed all served to this end admirably. While every panel I attended was superbly executed and engaging, one in particular spoke directly to my research interests and general scholarly thinking at the moment. Anchored and Bound: Reading the Fixed and Movable Landscapes of Medical Isolation in the Nineteenth Century, chaired by Melanie Kiechle, focused on isolation and quarantine in the context of disease in the 19th century. The panelists, Katie Schroeder, Erin Spinney, and Lindsay Garcia, presented topics on the “creative process” of isolation, which “disrupts spatial flows and patterns,” and, more specifically, demonstrates “the multitude of ways in which isolated landscapes were imagined and constructed in the long nineteenth century.” The panelists all highlighted “the environmental, material, and spatial dimensions of quarantine, with a particular attention to non-fixed, floating hospital structures.” Beyond my own research interest, landscapes of isolation are vitally important to our current historical moment due to the shaping of geopolitical conversations by “walls, borders, and the principles of isolation.” Historical work which engages the public on issues of contemporary import is integral to the 21st century historian’s craft, and as such, this panel was an important display of history in action.

In “Sites of Care and Control: Healthy Environments and Royal Navy Hospital Ships 1790-1815,” Erin Spinney describes the reactions of William Yeo, the Governor of Haslar Naval Hospital, to mutinies and his decision to send riotous men to the hospital ship The Gladiator. According to Spinney, his decision highlights three conceptions of hospital ships in the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: “the ability to control patients to prevent desertion and disorder, provide medical care in a healthy environment, and to preserve the economy of the Royal Navy.” Considering these three aspects of hospital ships to “showcase the role of hospital ships within the network of naval medical care, with a focus on the medical and environmental underpinnings of hospital ships as sites of care and control,” Spinney specifically examines the “role of environment in the provision of medical care and the importance of ventilation on the ships,” as well as exploring the ships as “entities in a spatial medical network through the interactions of hospital ships with ships of the line and on-shore hospitals.”

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British navy hospital ships supporting the 1868 Expedition to Abyssinia. Accessed at https://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/british-navy.html.

Lindsay Garcia presented her research focusing on pests, race, and disease, which comes from a larger project that explores genealogies of marginalization and subjugation of humans and animals through textual, visual, and material culture. In “Sullivan’s Island Pest Houses and the Corporeal Entanglements of the Slave Ship,” Garcia argues “that corporeal entanglements between enslaved Africans and pest animals, coupled with forced stays in the pest houses, proliferated metaphorical correlations between blackness and pestilence that continue into present-day America.” She utilizes “a feminist new materialist approach to rethink the historical-ecological entanglements between black bodies, slave ships, and pest houses.”

In the most relevant presentation to my research, Katie Schroeder, a graduate student at Case Western Reserve University, opened the panel with her paper “Taming the Falcon: Controlled and Vulnerable Environments in New York’s Floating Quarantine System, 1859-1873.” In it she chronicles the New York City quarantine ship, The Falcon, and its role, from 1859 to 1873, in the establishment of the city’s floating hospital quarantine system. Schroeder examines  “the built environment of the ship, and its role within early American public health infrastructure.” She illuminates “the dynamic human/non-human relationships” brought to bear on New York City through The Falcon’s landing patterns and sites of anchorage. Although early American public health advocates sought “an ideal, naturally-occurring quarantine landscape,” The Falcon became a monument to human achievement and engineering, completely altering “the trajectory of public health in New York” by creating just such a landscape in a human-made environment. At the same time, reactions against this floating sanctuary of sickness, at times unanticipated and violent, highlighted the necessity of “a landed, permanent quarantine.” Because New York physicians favored replicating the condensed environment of the hospital ship, medical and health officials compromised with the building of two, man-made quarantine islands representing the pinnacle of ideas of isolation and control.

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A view of the Quarantine hospital in Staten Island, much hated by residents. (From the Collection of the Staten Island Museum). Accessed at https://www.nydailynews.com/news/justice-story/infamous-quarantine-hospital-burned-19th-century-article-1.1483012.

Schroeder’s analysis and delivery were impeccable, making the presentation highly accessible. Her description of the Staten Island quarantine riot shows the consequences of the fear, anxiety, and suspicion Americans, and New Yorkers in particular, felt towards epidemic disease, the medical elite, and immigrant arrivals during the mid to late 19th century. Violent actions against real or perceived sources of illness were a natural outcrop of the eclectic array of epidemiological theories fighting for supremacy in the 19th century. From my own research, from the 1830s to the 1870s, in Ohio and Indiana, residents along the Wabash and Erie and Ohio and Erie Canals destroyed reservoirs feeding the canals because they believed the stagnant waters were causing illness. The state militias were called out to put down the riots, but the two canals never recovered from these acts of vandalism. The “Reservoir Regulators” were unconvinced by scientific studies completed by state and canal company health officials stating the reservoirs were healthful. When authorities refused to act further, residents lit a fire. Combined with racial and class prejudices and unsettled science, this intellectual landscape of mistrust and ambiguity easily bred panic, even hysteria.

In August of 1858, a group of 30 men descended on Seguine’s Point, piling straw-stuffed hospital mattresses at strategic places in most of the Quarantine buildings, where at least 1,500 people were confined at the time. Even after months of nuisance complaints, public meetings, and court hearings, many citizens remained fearful of the negative health effects associated with quarantines. The administrator, Dr. Richard Thompson, appealed to the outlaws, coming to an agreement to spare the Female Hospital, and also providing enough time for the evacuation of most of the hospital residents before the conflagration ignited.  The “Quarantine War,” as it was dubbed by local newspapers, was described as “the most diabolical and savage procedure that has ever been perpetrated in any community professing to be governed by Christian influences.”  Despite this description, the war achieved its goals, as after the trial the quarantine was relocated offshore to a floating hospital, the Florence Nightengale. In 1866, it was moved to two islands, Swinburne and Hoffman, created from landfill off South Beach, Staten Island. Decades later, the facility moved to Ellis Island.

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The burning of the Quaratine hospital. No lives were lost. (From the Collection of the Staten Island Museum). Accessed at https://www.nydailynews.com/news/justice-story/infamous-quarantine-hospital-burned-19th-century-article-1.1483012.

The themes of this panel translate well to the 21st century. Issues of public health, infectious disease, and the control of space are relevant to us today with the return of measles in America, the expanding infection zones of certain diseases due to climate change, and the national healthcare debate still raging in American communities. Public health is a rich historical field, allowing the astute historian to explore questions involving science, technology, race, class, and the state, among others. Health and disease offer opportunities to study past human behavior in reaction to real and perceived threats to life, liberty, and happiness. The reactions were visceral, violent, and emotional; true human responses which offer insight into our contemporary behavior.