Written, Produced, and Edited by Michaela Burrell, Kyle Criscitello, Henry Scharfe
In 1871, the town of Fairport was a quaint village in Upstate New York, nestled about 9 miles east of Rochester, a major center of commerce and trade along the Erie Canal. Given its proximity to Rochester and the Genesee River, the town was naturally selected to become a part of the Erie Canal upon the beginning of its construction in 1817. According to Dan Murphy in The Erie Canal: the ditch that opened a nation, the Erie Canal began construction with the purpose of connecting the Hudson River to the Great Lakes, thus allowing for mass commerce, innovation, and progress in both the American Northeast, and the country as a whole. The Fairport section of the canal was geographically considered an Oxbow, meaning it featured a strong U-shaped bend in the canal. It was here, on this comparatively short stretch of the mighty Erie Canal that the quaint little town of Fairport, NY experienced the unexpected wrath of not a hurricane, tornado, or any other natural catastrophe, but the wrath of the muskrat.
The muskrat, Ondatra zibethicus, is a semi-aquatic mammal that lives in slow-moving waterways. Its common name comes from the musk gland at the base of its tail, which secretes a musky substance that is used to communicate with other muskrats during breeding seasons. Muskrats are known as a keystone species, which means that other species in the same ecosystem largely depend on it. This means that, if muskrat populations were to decreased or diminished, the entire ecosystem would undergo a drastic, visible change.
The relationship between muskrats and humans finds its roots in the fur trade. Unlike some fur-bearing species, muskrats are generally easy to hunt. So long as their habitats are kept intact and their natural food sources are maintained, muskrats populations will thrive. Also, once a muskrat is caught and killed, it is astoundingly easy to remove their pelts without damaging them. The easier an animal is to trap, the lower the barrier of entry into the trapping business. This meant that, by the time of the collapse, muskrat was a commonly known species and fur type. The muskrat trade stood at roughly 2.5 million pelts a year around time of the 1871 collapse. Muskrat trapping steadily increased over the next few decades, reaching a peak of approximately 10 million pelts in the 1920s. Even today, due to their easy-to-trap nature and sheer abundance, muskrats remain the most important fur-bearing mammals in the Northeastern United States.
It is crucial that people leave muskrat habitats alone if they find them in a wetland. Any disturbance to their ecosystem, especially those that affect the water table, will trigger a response from the muskrats. If they sense their habitat is being degraded, muskrats will work to “fix” their home, which can create serious problems for human infrastructure. This wasn’t the only case of a muskrat damaging the Erie Canal. Reports from both 1912 and 1914 attributed breaks in the canal to muskrat activity. Furthermore, muskrats are astoundingly resilient. Like rats and other rodents, you’ll often find muskrats in locations where you wouldn’t expect to find any life whatsoever. Today, muskrats are reported to be living in every single borough in New York City. In fact, there is even a muskrat that lives in the infamous Gowanus Canal: a highly toxic Superfund site in the heart of Brooklyn, New York.
When provoked, muskrats can be vicious. One article from the Chicago Daily Tribune (Correction from Podcast: not the Boston Globe) in 1897 recounts the story of a man who was tormented by a pack of muskrats. A nearby house fire had driven the muskrats out of their den and in the direction of this passerby. The man was eventually able to escape from the muskrats, but he came back to with a shotgun to finish the job. When the skirmish was over, the muskrat death toll stood at four. 
According to a short news clipping from the November 25th, 1906 edition of The New York Times, burrowing muskrats caused infrastructural damage, this time in Trenton, NJ. The muskrats effects were not limited to areas along the Erie Canal, as the city of Trenton and its surrounding farmland experienced flooding in result of the bank collapse. Muskrats are present all throughout the northeastern United States, and thus so are the issues they cause.
In the Fairport-Perinton Herald-Mail on August 26, 1987, Perinton and the Erie Canal Part 3, Susan Roberts recalls the horrid collapse, recollecting that on April 1871, the town of Fairport, New York experienced a shocking canal collapse at the hands of a burrowing muskrat, collapsing a 510 ft section of the canal bank. This flood that followed this collapse washed away roughly 200 feet of the Erie Canal embankment, dropping the water level within the canal some 30-40 feet. As illustrated by Porter in The Erie Canal in Perinton, the canal water, ridden with mud and disease rushed over the canal’s concrete walls with brute force, causing this immense drop in water level that was felt all the way from the Pittsford lock in the west to the Macedon lock in the east. Now although a more barren and empty canal seems to create for a more efficient repair environment, this in actuality is simply not the case. After the collapse, vast problems occurred not only in the proposed nature of repair, but in the actual repair itself. Although the water level was significantly lower after the collapse due to the overflow, this consequentially made the canal more susceptible to muskrat burrowing, as a greater portion of the bank became exposed. Fluctuating water levels, as observed here, can flood a muskrat den, and in response, these resilient creatures react by burrowing farther into the bank or by digging a new, higher den chamber, making their presence not only more prominent, but more permanent as well.
The history of humans and muskrat in New York is one of failed mitigation and unintended consequence, as we see time after time the actions of humanity not successfully removing these muskrats, but rather aggravating them further. When the engineers responded to the collapse by naturally attempting to flood these dens as an attempted method of muskrat removal, then consequentially made the situation even worse for themselves and the future of the canal. Due to this raising of the water level in an effort to drive out the muskrats, the engineers actually made the bank weaker. If a muskrat decides to build a den chamber that is closer to the surface, as they do when their chambers are flooded, then the bank is greatly weakened, making the bank in turn more vulnerable to pierces from livestock and other large animals.
This weakening of the bank holds immense ecological importance because with the weakening of a bank naturally comes greater erosion, which in turn causes even more environmental weaknesses. The runoff and erosion ultimately created by this faulty engineering response may have worked in harmony with the agricultural flooding caused by the initial collapse. Fertilizer runoff washed inward to the canal by the flooding may have polluted the canal further due to the weakened bank, which in turn may have led to algae blooms and nitrogen overproduction. Although the engineers, so driven by a faith in progress and human domination over nature were so confident in their mitigation strategy initially, they ended up causing much greater destruction to the town of Fairport than the muskrats did in the first place.
While the engineering response was inherently flawed, its implementation went just about as smoothly as its ecological results. In order to repair the broken infrastructure of the collapsed canal section, workers were called in. By today’s standards these 800 or so predominantly Irish immigrant and local hands for hire were no ordinary workers though. Due to growing aggravation from frigid upstate New York Weather, horrid, disease ridden working conditions, and no shortage of whiskey to drink, these workers quickly became extremely agitated. The workers felt their services were not receiving sufficient pay, and upon rejection of a pay raise, the workers rioted, going as far as tossing a horse into the canal. The insurrection was short lived though, as the 54th Regiment was called in from Rochester to stop the revolt and were immediately successful in ending the worker riot upon appearance.
So now, with a deeper understanding of the 1871 Fairport collapse and the ecological history between humanity and muskrats, can we really decipher who caused the collapse? Was the collapse a result of human faith in “progress,” or muskrat revenge on human activity? Although it seems like it on the surface, the story here is not one of nature’s brutality. Humanity’s drive for industrialization was the real agent of ecological destruction here. The engineers behind the building of the canal didn’t seem to put much consideration into the effects that the canal would have on nature because their ultimate goal was focused on environmental exploitation, not ecological betterment. This comes as no surprise though, as the engineers and contractors building the canal wouldn’t necessarily have had a strong understanding of the local landscape given their delocalized presence and strong desire for national progress. Their focus was on building the canal, not on the local environment the canal was being built on. The powerful, resilient, and seemingly vengeful muskrats were likely never even considered when the plans for the canal were being made. The industrial revolution necessitated fast development. Developers had little time to think of something as seemingly-benign as the ecological effects of the muskrat. In a way, Muskrats reveal how narrow the environmental outlook was at the time, uncovering how deeply connected humanity and nature truly are. Muskrats redefine the connection between humanity and nature, as we constantly question, does the environment shape our action, or do we shape its action? In the same way we shape the Muskrat’s behavior, they shape ours, and in this way, humanity and nature are deeply interconnected.
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Primary source credits:
1. “Attacked by Muskrats: Oswego County Man Bitten by Them as They Were Fleeing from a Swamp Fire.” Chicago Daily Tribune (Chicago, IL), October 31, 1897.
2. Morganstein, Martin. Joan H, Cregg. (2001). Images of America: Erie Canal. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing. Pp. 108.
3. “Muskrats Cause a Flood: Eat Holes in a Canal Bank and Thirty Feet Collapse.” The New York Times (New York, NY), November 25, 1906. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/ abstract.html?res=9E0DE6D8173EE733A25756C2A9679D946797D6CF&url=http:%2F%2Ftimesmachine.nytimes.com%2Ftimesmachine%2F1906%2F11%2F25%2F101717182.html&legacy=true.
4. “Muskrat Causes Erie Canal Break.” Boston Daily Globe (Boston, MA), July 6, 1914.
5. Roberts, Susan. “Perinton and the Erie Canal Part 3.” Fairport-Perinton Herald-Mail August 26, 1987.
Calder, Rich. “Muskrat mania.” The New York Post. Last modified May 18, 2011. https://nypost.com/2011/05/18/muskrat-mania/.
Laut, Agnes C. The Fur Trade of America. New York: MacMillan, 1921.
Link, Russell. “Muskrats – Living with Wildlife.” Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Accessed October 10, 2017. http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/muskrats.html.
Murphy, Dan. The Erie Canal: the ditch that opened a nation. Buffalo: Western New York Wares, Inc., 2001.
Porter, Sweet A. “The Erie Canal in Perinton.” Perinton Papers. Perinton Historical Society, 1971.
Roberts, Nathan M. and Shawn M. Crimmins. “Do Trends in Muskrat Harvest Indicate Widespread Population Declines?” Northeastern Naturalist 17, no. 2 (2010): 229-238. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40664877?pq-origsite=summon&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.
Schmidt, Arno Erdman. The Accomplished Muskrat Trapper. Chicago: Boyle Brothers Inc., 1922.
Taft, Dave. “It’s a Beaver! It’s a Big ‘Water Rat’! No, It’s a Muskrat.” The New York Times. Last modified April 29, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/01/nyregion/ its-a-beaver-its-a-big-water-rat-no-its-a-muskrat.html.