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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Saturday, December 9

Gapers Block

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I couldn't rest until I knew who the real Clinton was.

A couple of weeks ago a friend confessed to me that every time he passed Clinton Avenue in Chicago, he was reminded of our former President. Even though he knew the street wasn't named for Bill Clinton, he still couldn't shake the connection.

It's dangerous to have these kinds of conversations with me. I start to get ideas.

Clinton Avenue was named for De Witt Clinton, a New York statesman. De Witt Clinton was born in 1769, the nephew of New York's first governor, George Clinton. (Right. Not that George Clinton.) After spending some time as a secretary to his uncle, De Witt Clinton was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1802. From 1803-15, De Witt served as the mayor of New York City. And between 1817 and 1828 Clinton spent several terms as the governor of New York.

So why is a Chicago street named after a 19th century New York politician?

De Witt Clinton was instrumental in the construction of the Erie Canal, the completion of which led to the settlement of the Midwest and the growth of cities such as Chicago.

Clinton first proposed the idea for the canal in 1808, but the ground was not broken for the canal until 1817. Clinton's political opponents referred to the project as "Clinton's Ditch," and while it took more than eight years to complete the Erie Canal, it was an incredible engineering accomplishment.

The finished canal was approximately 360 miles long, connecting New York City to the Great Lakes via the Hudson River. And more than 80 locks were built along the canal to bridge the 570-foot rise between the water level of the Hudson River and Lake Erie.

De Witt Clinton was among the first to sail the Erie Canal when it was completed in 1825, symbolically opening the channel by pouring a bucket of Lake Erie water into the New York harbor.

For the Midwest, the completion of the Erie Canal opened new trade routes, making it easier and less expensive to transport goods between the Midwest and the East Coast. Farmers flocked to the rich farmlands of the Midwest, and Chicago, in particular, benefited by virtue of its location on Lake Michigan.

As William Cronon writes in Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, Chicago prospered "because the lakes, the Erie Canal, and the Hudson River gave it better access to eastern markets .... Its merchants could buy goods at eastern wholesale prices in ship-sized quantities with no markup for expensive land transport. For the same reasons, they could also offer the best prices in the region for farm produce moving east .... [T]he combination was a sure recipe for success."

In 1825, Chicago consisted of little more than Fort Dearborn and a few settlements. Just a few years later, in 1833, Chicago incorporated as a city. And by 1836, Chicago was breaking ground on its own canal to link the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River.

All thanks to a New York politician.


Cronon, William. Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W.W. Norton, 1991.

Take a multimedia tour through the history of the Erie Canal at ePodunk. You will need Flash and Quicktime to view the presentation.

Chicago Authors: First Lines

"At 8:35 on a Tuesday night a car veered crazily down a Chicago street and hit a man stepping off the curb. The vehicle didn't even slow down. It squealed around a corner and out of sight. The first witness to reach the victim ascertained immediately that he was dead."
-- James M. Ullman, from "Dead Ringer" collected in Murder and Mystery in Chicago (New York: BP Books, 1987)

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Qwert / August 19, 2004 6:59 AM

History is cool. This story slaps the whammy bar.

Danny Howard / August 19, 2004 8:16 AM

Mmmm, delicious history! Thank you.


About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is a real, live Chicago librarian. If you have topic ideas or questions you would like answered, send your suggestions to and it may be featured in a future column.

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