The 600 cyclists who have joined the 17th Annual Cycle the Erie tour, organized by Parks & Trails NY in July, get to visit several fascinating museums in small canal towns which each contribute to our understanding of the significance of the Erie Canal as a technological marvel and a force propelling the United States as a global industrial power.
At Lockport, which is itself a living-history museum, on the first day of our ride, we got to see the astonishing “Flight of Five” locks complex, and its small museum. At Camillus, the half-way mark of our 400-mile ride from Buffalo to Albany, we visited Sims Store, a re-creation of a 19th century general store that would have served the boats traveling along the canal. Still to come, the Chittenango Landing Boat Museum which offers a look at how the canal boats were built; Canastota, which offers a delightful Canal Town Museum, in a tiny house that was once a bakery, and Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site, featuring sections of all three alignments of the Erie Canal and a fascinating historic exhibit in a house-turned-museum.
But Syracuse is where the “official” Erie Canal Museum is located – it offers the most expansive collection of artifacts, and the most comprehensive history, starting the story well before Clinton pushed so obsessively for his Ditch. It is all the more remarkable because it is a maritime museum which is not on the water – indeed, the expanded canal was moved north of the city.
And, as we ride into the downtown historic district, with some magnificent architectural jewels (like the Niagara-Mohawk building, an Art Deco palace that is simply breathtaking), what we appreciate most is how the Erie Canal was the “Mother of Cities” – as historian Ben Willis had said at the lecture the evening before – and Syracuse is one of her children.
“The Erie Canal was the Mother of Cities,” he had said, showing a chart with population comparisons of how cities like Albany, Syracuse, Buffalo, and even small towns like Lockport exploded, “It was the 8 th Wonder of the World, the pathway to an empire, and a school of engineering.”
“German masons who came for the canal, stayed to build cobblestone houses, churches. The canal was a whole way of life.”
The museum opens especially early, 7 am (it also was open last evening, with shuttle bus transportation from our campsite), to accommodate our riders and we are able to be among the first to see the new $960,000 exhibit and museum improvements (which would not officially open until October).
When I arrive at the museum, Ben Willis, a volunteer, is already in animated discussion with some of our riders: Before the Canal, he says, it would take 6-8 weeks for a mule to carry less than a ton versus 6-8 days to transport up to 200 tons of freight on the canal. The cost dropped to one-tenth, $12 per ton, 60c for barrel of salt.
New York State financed the building of the Erie Canal (without any federal help) by selling $7.7 million in bonds and earned revenue from fees on goods shipped, but also taxed salt (because salt was brought out of salt springs that were owned by the state).
The success of Clinton’s Ditch was quickly apparent and in just 10 years (after paying off the $7.7 million), it had to be widened to handle all the traffic.
Willis notes that there were no real engineers at the time. The initial designers were surveyors. “They knew how to do property lines but were not engineers.” The biggest problem was figuring out the elevations. But when they completed the canal, these self-taught engineers started the engineering school, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy.
He is showing off one of the innovative methods devised to clear the trees – a contraption that looks like a military armament, but actually had giant wheels to move it and give leverage to pull out stumps.
One of the unique features of the Canal Museum is the chance to visit the Weighlock Building, built in1850 – the only remaining weighlock building in America. “That it is most unique thing about Syracuse,” Willis says.
The Museum has just reopened after being closed for 6 months to open the new exhibit (which officially opens in October), its first major renovation since the 1990s when a new entrance and visitor’s center was added to the original 1850 building. The new exhibit features new interactive elements.
“There are a couple of things we wanted to do,” says Daniel Ward, the curator of the new exhibit, who also is one of the 600 riders on the Cycle the Erie tour. “Not only are we the Erie Canal Museum, but also the interpretive center for the heritage area (downtown Syracuse Canal district). We have to somehow explain why we are a maritime museum with no water around us. That’s because the building was built when the canal went through the city, the city was built around the canal, then in the 20th century, canal was rerouted to the north of the city.”
Indeed, a city bank actually had a float-up window, the forerunner of a drive-up window.
“To change the interpretation, we took a look at the fact that in 1962 when the museum opened, it was the first and only canal museum. But during the time since the Clean Water Act started making the inland waterways not smelly places, a lot of communities have turned back to the canal, turned it into several hundred miles of a kind of resort area.
“By cleaning up the canal, and making it pleasant, all these communities have been putting together small canal museums – Lockport, Camillus, the boat museum at Chittanago Landing, Canastota’s Canal Town Museum. Because there are so many, and they all have something they do particularly well, what we do particularly well is tell the introductory story. Because we are the oldest, have the most experience, and have huge historical collections. We are internationally known research facility on canals.
“We are a good starting off point (even though we are in the middle of the 353-mile long canal). But if people came here first, they would have basic general understanding, and then they can talk with our staff, and we can send them to places where can increase their understanding, by experiencing something different. If they want to know how canal boat built, Chittenango; what the tow path was like or see a lock, we send them to Baldwinsville (Lock 24, a Barge Canal lock). If they want to see a stone aqueduct, we send then to Camillus and let them ride a boat over one.
“That changes the function of our institution, because it is not just our museum, but we are also educating people where to continue. What we had before was self-contained. This is a much different approach. We treat all the museums as part of our interpretive scheme.”
Ward has designed an interactive video that will take visitors through the visual process of weighing a boat and charging a toll, and in the process, teaches math, engineering and commodities and lays the groundwork for a tour of the historic part of the building. You can play the weighlock game on the museum’s website.
Here at the museum, I learn that the idea of a canal in this place goes back to colonial days -even George Washington, when he was a soldier in the French & Indian War, saw the potential. “He was a good surveyor. He wrote in his day book that they should get surveyors up there. George Washington knew a great deal about canal building, it was one of his great interests.”
These individuals who worked on the Canal were self-trained on this project and had to invent engineering techniques and tools. Of the three who headed the project, Benjamin Wright was the closest to an actual engineer.
Here I learn about Nathan Roberts, who designed the “Flight of Five” Lockport locks to overcome the challenge of the 60-foot drop, and that his design was the winner of a competition to solve the problem.
“To this day, it is still one of the most staggeringly unusual designs for its time. He was incredibly visionary to figure how to lift boats 60 feet up over an escarpment like that. He knew [going through five locks] would take time, so he built two parallel steps of locks, so boats could go in both directions. That’s an advancement in canal engineering. To this day, I am still impressed,” Ward says.
Other parts of the museum do a superb job of transporting you to that time when this was an active Weighlock building – with offices that convey what a business enterprise it was, what a tavern of the time looked like, what kinds of goods traded and sold in the general store, how people lived.
“The canal was a whole way of life.”
But visiting the Weighlock Building is definitely the highlight, that delights adults and kids alike. You can walk on a full-size replica of a line boat in the weighlock.
Here it is explained that the early method of weighing used hydrostatic displacement but the boat owners were skeptical of the method, so they had to utilize scales, instead. “These guys weren’t sailors (who would have known displacement) – they were merchants who used scales to bring cargo onboard.”
There is so much that is so engaging in the museum – even the staircases are made so you can see the elevations of the different locks along the entire canal, and the elevator is painted so you feel you are getting into a lock, yourself.
The renovations are also adding a theater with space to show a film and the technology to host a lecture that could be seen around the world.
“We give it a broad telling of the history, from before the canal and up to the present day. We start with the idea of a canal, and bring it up to fully operational canal today.”
Indeed, a key message you come away with from the Erie Canal Museum, is how canal keeps reinventing itself, and with it, the society around it.
Peak use of the Erie Canal was 1951, a time when the canal was fetid with pollution – oil slicks and raw sewage. Then the Clean Water Act of 1972, prohibiting dumping and requiring municipalities to have treatment plants, changed the way shippers and factories could do business.
So, up until the 1980s, the canal was almost exclusively for commercial traffic and was too polluted, fetid and crowded for the recreational boater, or, in fact, residential buildings anywhere near the canal. That’s all changed. Now, the canal is almost exclusively for recreational purposes, but that is changing, too, with the changing upstate economy and a resurgence of manufacturing.
“We are seeing again bulk cargoes being shipped by barge, and heavy items like transformers, wind turbines that are being manufactured upstate,” Ward notes. “That can happen all along the canal.”
As it is now, when you take a houseboat on the canal (as I did a few years ago), you feel that the gatekeepers and bridge lifters are there just for you, and you wonder about the expense (though even now, the Canal runs a small profit over the operational expense, not counting the economic impact of visitor spending in the canal towns).
But as Ward notes, “There are many other uses of the Erie Canal other than shipping. The canal is the largest source of irrigation for upstate agriculture. People don’t think of NY as powerfully agricultural, but it rivals other states, producing a range of foodstuffs – orchards, vineyards, dairy operations. Riding along the canal trail, you see the white pipes of the irrigation system.
“The canal also has dams, many have electrical generating capacity – this is a big hydroelectric project. Even if we took all the boats off canal, we would still need to maintain it, because it is flood control for upstate New York, which otherwise would flood all the time.”
Here, I appreciate the ecology of the Erie Canal – not just for the people whose towns, livelihoods and lives revolved around the canal, but how it impacted the environment.
Ward, who is one of the cycle the Erie Riders (so I get several opportunities to talk with him over the course of our eight-day trip), remarks how international traffic brought the zebra mussel, an evasive species, into the canal. “It is a like a vacuum cleaner of the ocean bottom. It cleaned the water, but was bad for boats” and once the mussels had done their work of cleaning the water, they died off. The canal water had never been clear – it was brown – but now, it was so clear, sunlight penetrated to the bottom and seaweed grew, creating new problems for the boats.
And you can see the social ecology as well – as the canal is cleaned up, there are new housing developments that are popping up alongside, as we saw at Rochester, Spencerport, Fairport, (They are not intrusive, though – indeed, the entire Barge Canal was just placed on the National Register of Historic Places and is part of New York State’s Heritage Corridor). The small canaltowns are reinventing themselves – and the structures that had been factories and silos and such in places like , like Pittsford and Cohoes have been re-purposed for condos and offices, as well as to cater to new manufacturing ventures like manufacturing wind turbines.
“Everything reinvents itself – just like the Canal. When I was boy, there was no accommodation for pleasure craft, no tie ups. It was a barge canal. Now there is balance,” Ward says.
“Often the Erie Canal gets separated in people’s minds from the Port of New York, but New York City is the terminal port of the canal system. Our current work is trying to reconnect idea of NYC – we’re coming up to the bicentennial of the opening of the canal, which was a celebration in New York Harbor.”
The museum now offers a marvelous animated display of Governor Clinton coming into New York to spill water from Lake Erie into the Hudson, “The Wedding of the Waters” with simulated fireworks. (There were cannons set up all along the route and it took hours for the sound that started in Buffalo to make its way to New York City.)
He points to the Mount Vernon Museum, at 421 East 61st Street, which was a hotel that opened in 1820s to accommodate visitors who wanted to travel on the Erie Canal on packet boats.
“New York City was an insignificant port city, dwarfed by Boston and Philadelphia, and became a great city, as a result of this engineering.”
Here’s the thing I come away with: It wasn’t that people were different then, that they had more guts, gumption, daring. If anything, what this journey back in time shows is that people are exactly the same – Governor DeWitt Clinton was mocked for the project, which was called “Clinton’s Folly” and “Clinton’s Ditch”; President James Madison refused to give federal funding, questioning the role of the federal government.
“Farmers didn’t want to give right of way,” Ward tells me, “they didn’t envision a global economy. It turned out to be great for them. They went from local subsistence economy to global. When the Erie Canal was built, it was the wave of future.”
So many morals to be drawn to today.
(Erie Canal Museum, 318 Erie Boulevard East, Syracuse, NY 13202, 315.471.0593, eriecanalmuseum.org.)
The entire Erie Canal corridor has been designated the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor (www.eriecanalway.org).
50 Miles to Go
I have already had a late start on this, the fifth day of our eight-day, 400-mile bike tour, leaving about 8:30 am. But I am absolutely transfixed by the Canal Museum – the displays are utterly fascinating – and linger for almost two hours.
We ride at our own pace and at this point, I am riding on my own, being at the very end of our 600-riders pack, so grateful for the markings that have been painted on the road to alert me to turns. I have nearly 50 miles to go for today’s ride, which will end at Fort Stanwix in Rome, where we will camp.
It’s times like this that you get in your own head – the rhythmic pedaling, the even-paced movement of scenery gliding by, and listening to NPR on my headphones. Exercise for mine and body.
I am fairly amazed that there are still a few people at the morning rest stop at Chittenango Landing Boat Museum, which, through preservation, reproduction, construction, and interpretation of the Chittenango Landing industrial complex, instructs about the construction and repair of canal boats and the social history of the Erie Canal era. There are people in period dress and it looks like a historic village (7010 Lakeport Rd, Chittenango, NY 13037, 315-687-3801, clcbm.org/)
Then, an unexpected surprise at Canastota Canal Town Museum housed in a former bakery and residence dating from 1873. From the outside, you wouldn’t think much at all of the tiny frame structure, but once inside, it’s like a Harry Potter experience – the rooms are chock full of fascinating artifacts and portraits that make the inside seem enormous. It is a surprisingly fine museum, which adds pieces of understanding to the historic puzzle – here the focus is on people – including important people who contributed to building the canal, like Nathan Roberts (who devised the “Flight of Five” Lockport Locks and lived in Canastota and I can see a portrait of him) as well as those who owned the very existence of their town to the canal. (122 Canal St., Canastota, NY 13032, 315-697-5002, www.canastota-canal.com)
We can visit the Erie Canal Village in Rome, where the first shovel of dirt was turned for “Clinton’s Ditch” and where mules still pull boats along the canal.
I arrive at Fort Stanwix National Monument in Rome, where we are actually camping out right outside the fort’s walls, making us look like a military encampment. They are keeping the Fort open until 9 pm for us to visit, and keeping the Visitors Center, with its superb exhibits, open all night for our use.
It proves a highlight of this already remarkable experience.
The 18th Annual Cycle the Erie Canal ride is scheduled July 10-17, 2016 (www.ptny.org/canaltour). In the meantime, you can cycle the trail on your own – detailed info and interactive map is at the ptny.org site (www.ptny.org/bikecanal), including suggested lodgings. For more information on Cycle the Erie Canal, contact Parks & Trails New York at 518-434-1583 or visit www.ptny.org.
Next: Patriots, Loyalists & Indians at Fort Stanwix
Cycle the Erie Canal 400-mile tour affords extraordinary view of ‘Real America’ and slideshow
Cycle the Erie 400-Mile Bike Tour: Lockport, a Town Birthed by the Erie Canal and slideshow
Cycle the Erie ride reaches Seneca Falls, Birthplace of Women’s Rights Movement and slideshow
Cycle the Erie: National Women’s Hall of Fame personifies struggle, achievement and slideshow
Cycle the Erie: Seneca Falls to Syracuse crossing half-way mark of 400-mile tour and slideshow
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