Amos Eaton: RPI, Noah and the Erie Canal

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Incorrect history marker as per RPI.eduThis year marks the onset of the bicentennial of the construction of the Erie Canal. As part of that event the world conference of canals is being held this September in Syracuse with various field trips to canal-related sites. In this post, I wish to address one aspect of the creation of the Erie Canal that often goes unnoticed: its role in the debate over Noah’s Flood.

The 1820s was known as the diluvial decade. The reference is the search for geological evidence of Noah’s Flood. The decade was on the cusp of the emergence of geology as a full-blown science in its own right with the publication of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology; being an attempt to explain the former changes of the earth’s surface, by reference to causes now in operation (1830-1833). Eventually there would be a new “ology” in colleges as knowledge fractured into the silos that define the modern university with diverse specialties and expertise.

Back in the 1820s the lines were more blurred. Art, religion, and science overlapped. Thomas Cole, originator of the Hudson River Art school paid attention to the developments in the scientific area as he painted his landscapes; he also painted biblical scenes especially from the early chapters of Genesis involving the creation and the Flood. Ministers, too, not only were aware of the scientific knowledge but were active participants in the advancing of such knowledge. Geology was a tool to help understand the age of the earth and the impact of the Flood. College-educated ministers therefore studied both theology and geology as part of their training.

This blog is not the place to delve into the details of the geological advancements beginning In the 1820s or the larger and longstanding issues of the debate over the proverbial 9:00 A.M., October 23, 4004 BC date proposed by Bishop Ussher in 1650 as the year of creation. Suffice it to say, these issues were debated in light of the new evidence being revealed. In the mid-19th century, Genesis commentaries contained detailed small-print introductory sections on geology since the Ussher chronology had been incorporated into the Authorized Version of the Bible (the King James Version). Extensive discussion ensued involving the validity and meaning of geological data for understanding the first stories of Genesis. When archaeology developed a few decades later starting in the 1840s but not picking up steam until later, the battlegrounds were enlarged with the presence of another new “ology,” Assyriology.

Niagara Falls was part of the debate. Explorers brought their sense of awe to first seeing the magnificence of this work of the Almighty. Artists later travelled to the upstate “Outer Mongolia” site to capture that awe in paint. With the completion of the Canal, Niagara Falls became more accessible. It began to become a tourist site as it continues to be this very day.

But the accessibility of the Falls also brought scientists, people who approached the phenomenon from a slightly different perspective. The Falls are more than simply water falling over a cliff. They are part of a long chasm. How long did it take to create that chasm? How fast is the land eroding today? If it is eroding, that is, retreating, at a measurable rate, can that rate be extrapolated to determine how long the process of creating the modern Niagara Falls was? How did that amount of time correlate with Bishop Ussher’s interpretation of the origin of earth? What would you do when they didn’t correlate positively? How old was the earth anyway? OMG! That old!

One venue for the discussion was an academic journal entitled The American Journal of Science and Arts, edited by Benjamin Stillman of Yale. As title suggests, at this point science and art were included in a single journal. Imagine today if the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History instead of being opposite each other across Central Park in Manhattan were combined as a single museum surrounded by a landscaped park. Obviously times have changed as knowledge proliferated.

With this background in mind, in the remainder of this post, I would like to focus on Amos Eaton and the Erie Canal. According to the RPI website:

Amos Eaton, natural scientist, educator, and co-founder of the Rensselaer School[later the Rensselaer Institute], was born on May 17, 1776 in New Concord parish (now Chatham, Columbia County), New York. In 1818 Eaton moved to the Troy-Albany area which had become a center of industrial and commercial growth. He spent the next six years as an itinerant lecturer, ranging from West Point, New York, to the Castleton Medical Academy in Vermont, and compiled textbooks in chemistry, zoology, and geology. Under Stephen Van Rensselaer’s patronage he undertook geological and agricultural surveys of Albany and Rensselaer counties and across New York State along the route of the Erie Canal. His published survey reports earned him recognition in American geology and the 1820’s have been designated as the “Eatonian era.”

Contrary to the marker’s text in the image, Eaton served as the first academic head of the Rensselaer School. Samuel Blatchford was the school’s first president. Eaton’s papers are held at the New York State Library.

Eaton was a contributor to The American Journal of Science and Arts during the 1820s. The background issue in his writings was the issue of Flood as it was for other articles by other people as well. Here I am focusing his involvement at a school founded for hard science to help produce the people who would build the Erie Canal.

In the texts of the time, alluvial refers to the river-runoff that we still experience in flood zones; diluvial refers to deposits due to the Flood.

On May 18, 1826, Eaton left with 21 Rensselaer students along the Erie Canal from Albany to Lake Erie on his first but not only geological tour. In a footnote, he also thank Stephen Van Rensselaer for the expenditure of over $18,000 on behalf of the research.

On November 23, 1826, in Troy, Eaton wrote a letter published in Vol. 12 in 1827 entitled “Notes respecting Diluvial Deposits in the State of New York and elsewhere.” In it he refers to the Canal Survey he is completing for Stephen Van Rensselaer. He mentions that he has found a “diluvial trough, extending from Little Falls, along the Erie Canal, one hundred and sixty miles.” As part of his examination he dug down 40-50 feet, far lower than the actual Canal, and in one case dug a well 118 feet deep. In his 1828 article, he added that “(t)his great diluvial trough of one hundred and sixty miles in extent could not have been scooped out and filled by an existing cause.” Eaton then offers the following Flood hypothesis:

During the last days of the deluge, when the strength and violence of the waters had abated, and they were subsiding by the common laws of equilibrium; the last and, consequently, the finest sediment was deposited upon every formation which was then uppermost.

In other words he attributed the mechanism responsible for this widespread layer of sediment to the Flood. Right here in upstate New York in the Mohawk Valley, Eaton had discovered visible physical proof for the Flood as recounted in the Book of Genesis.

Eaton added that antediluvial animals on this continent were few and perhaps limited to chiefly large species of the order of Pachyderma. Let’s not forget the mastodons which have been found in the Hudson Valley and elsewhere. These discoveries were part of the debate about the animals from before the Flood.

In a series of articles in 1828-1829, Eaton strove to establish a classification system for the different classes of rocks. His geological nomenclature included diluvian and post-diluvian categories. His goal was to “demonstrate by actual inspection, the true order of superposition.”  His diluvion stratum “must have been deposited from water, in a state of forcible and violent action…the elevation of the water, sufficient for making the deposit, could not have been effected by any existing cause.” The stratum above it was deposited from the greatly elevated waters in the last settlings of the deluge.

His scientific classification system derived in part from his work on the Erie Canal. Eaton noted that “it is a curious fact that no works of art are found in the diluvion. It seems to prove that works of art were not common before the deluge; and that pasturage was the chief employment of the antediluvians.”

For Eaton, these discoveries and those by others meant that people were now gaining access to the long lost antediluvians meaning the people not on Noah’s ark.  “We are already enabled to look beyond the flood, and to hold communion with beings who have left no descendants on the earth, and to learn much of their character.” Eaton was aware of the possibility of ridicule. He warned of the need for the science of geology to redouble its efforts to vigilantly guard against the absurdities which were calculated to degrade its character.

Speaking of absurdities consider this tale he wrote about of the discovery of toads in secondary rocks as was often reported in public journals/newspapers. For example, a large dark brown toad was found in a rock near Whitesborough. The toad was found after a large rock was split during the course of laying a wall for Theodore Sill of Whitesborough, the current state legislator. Shortly thereafter the large toad found inside the rock began to show signs of life. Soon it was moving around and no one thought to capture it. Eaton commented that the quarried rock must have been formed many centuries before the deluge [Please note that based on the 4004 BC creation, there were 16 centuries before the Flood given the extended lifespan of the early patriarchs as recounted in Genesis chapters 5.

So here we have scientific proof of animals from the time of the deluge. Either the lives of these animals were prolonged by the exclusion of light and air or their natural age is over 3000 years. Eaton concludes:

At any rate, they prove the absurdity of Darwin’s hypothesis — that all animals are perfected at every successive generation, and that man “probably began his career as a fish.” For these fresh water clams of three thousand years old, precisely resemble the same species which now inhabit the fresh waters of that district.

Eaton was correct in his geological observations. There was a powerful and unknown force of water of great elevation at work that created the geological strata he had observed. But the water was frozen and the concept of the Ice Age had yet to be discovered. There were no art artifacts because no humans lived here prior to the Ice Age. During Eaton’s life, Europeans had begun to develop the idea of an Ice Age but Louis Agassiz’s presentation of the idea in 1837 did not fare well at first. It would be almost 40 years before the mechanism would be accepted and Eaton’s geological observations could be better explained without recourse to Noah. Eaton had died in 1842.

The Erie Canal was more than just locks, economics, and canal music. Let’s up hope that during its bicentennial its full story will be told.

Photo: Incorrect history marker as per

One thought on “Amos Eaton: RPI, Noah and the Erie Canal

  1. James S. Kaplan

    Fascinating article Peter. We should keep promoting the historical importance of the Erie Canal
    and the State of New York will hopefully do more. In addition to the Noah of Noah’s flood, someone should mention the efforts of Mordecai Noah who in 1825 attempted to establish the community of Arrarat, as a Jewish state, near Buffalo shortly after the Canal opened. Although the attempt to establish a haven for Jews around the world neard Buffalo failed at that time, Noah’s effort is considered to be one of the forerunners of Zionism and the State of Israel.
    James S. Kaplan
    President, Lower Manhattan Historical Association


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