"Low Bridge, Everybody Down"

8/1/2010

The Erie Canal is famous in song and story. This great canal links the waters of the mighty Hudson River (east) and Lake Erie (west) and includes an alternate, shorter route to Oswego on Lake Ontario. An engineering marvel in its day, many referred to it as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” Planning for the canal first started in 1808 and was completed in 1825. The Erie Canal unlocked the interior of North America and within 15 years of its opening became the busiest port in America. Immigrants found work along the canal and settled in the many towns, which sprouted along its path. In its day, the canal brought a flow of people and new ideas. These newcomers infused the nation with different languages, customs, practices, and religions. All 363 miles, of this man-made inland waterway, were built by the muscle power of men and horses. A ten-foot wide towpath was built along the banks of the canal for horses, mules, and oxen led by a boy boat driver or “hoggee.”

This map shows the entire Erie Canal route. We went north to exit the canal at Oswego on Lake Ontario.

As Jim and I found ourselves headed towards another historic stretch of America’s national and nautical history, we thought it fitting that the impressive Hudson River preceded the experience. After leaving New York City’s majestic harbor and spending five days moving up “America’s Rhine,” our heads were already slightly spinning from the weight of those imposing cruising waters.

Our plan though was to only travel the eastern section to northwest to Oswego since we were headed to Canada and the Trent-Severn Waterway and had a time schedule to adhere to. The Canal Corridor is made up of some of New York State’s most picturesque wildlife preserves where one can fish, bird watch and take tours of farms and wineries not to mention touring the canal by an old timey tour or charter boat.

Jim and I always talk about the history we are exposed to while traveling on the Great Loop – the Erie Canal is no exception. As we were in the thick of this legendary wonder, one that not only made its mark way back when but also continues to hold a certain fascination and well preserved folklore to this very day, we tried to imagine what this waterway was like in its heyday. Pretty heady stuff for a pair of boaters from northern Michigan, which is more known for its wide-open Great Lakes, timber, Indians and the automotive industry.

Our first stop was Waterford, New York; well know as being the eastern entrance to the Erie Canal. We arrived along with several of the boats we had been traveling with up the Hudson River including River Quest, Betty B and another Kismet. As a side note – many Loopers opt to go north on the Champlain Canal (all the way up to Montreal and back southwest to Kingston which is also situated on Lake Ontario) and part of the New York Canal System. Our boat was too tall for one of the low bridges to go the Champlain route.

We arrived in Waterford to find a wall full of boats as the water in the canal was rising rather quickly; they were basically stacking up due to a lock closure. This day was somewhat exciting for us in that once we arrived at our destination, we realized that we would not have any more tidal waters to deal with and we’d be into fresh water again – more like our familiar home waters of the Great Lakes. We’ll have 29 locks ahead of us before we leave the state of New York and its canal system. When we traveled the Erie Canal the dockage on each of the town walls was free, most don’t have power or any services, but when it’s free what’s to complain about?

Not only a reunion for the Loopers, the potluck was enjoyed by all of the boaters tied to the Waterford town wall.

It was a fairly rainy season and the water levels were higher than usual. At its highest, during our stay in Waterford, the water came just inches from the top edge of the wall we were tied to. We had to stay an extra day due to the lock closures and for the unsafe conditions to improve. When flooding occurs, the locks tend to fill up with debris, which must be cleaned out before normal operations may continue. This really wasn’t an inconvenience to us though because we loved staying on the edge of this quaint and friendly small town.

The volunteer harbormaster, Rob, was a big hit at the potluck while telling stories of the canal and leading us all in a chorus of the Erie Canal Song.

We had a chance to meet some of the other boaters on the wall, during our stay, and also some townspeople who came to walk along the waterfront during the day and night. I got my hand kissed by one of the harbormasters just like in France. There were six Looper boats congregated on the wall and one night we had a little impromptu potluck in front of the harbor office that included all the boaters on the wall. The volunteer harbormaster, Rob (the one who likes to kiss the women boater’s hands) stayed late to make sure our evening was warm and welcoming. He took the photos for us with our cameras and passed out bookmarks with the words to the Erie Canal Song on them (and of course he led us through a verse of the song). He told us appropriate stories, bid us goodnight and invited us all back to visit with him in the future. It is hard to express the warm and wonderful feeling we all felt that night as we returned to our boats to sleep while docked in Waterford along the historic Erie Canal.

     Erie Canal Song
     Low Bridge, Everybody Down
     (Written by: Thomas Allen in 1905)

     I’ve got a mule, her name is Sal,
     Fifteen years on the Erie Canal.
     She’s a good ol’ worker and a good ol’ pal,
     Fifteen years on the Erie Canal.
     We’ve hauled some barges in our day,
     Filled with lumber, coal, and hay,
     And we know ev’ry inch of the way,
     From Albany to Buffalo.

     Chorus:
     Low bridge, ev’rybody down!
     Low bridge, for we’re comin’ to a town!
     And you’ll always know your neighbor,
     You’ll always know your pal,
     if you’ve ever navigated on the Erie Canal.

We followed this boat through most of the locks today on our way to Amsterdam.

Finally, three days later, the closed lock we needed to travel through opened and we were able to continue on our way. Next stop was Amsterdam. Ten locks on our first day traveling northwest. Most of the towns on the canal have seen better days, however you can see how at one time they were all rather grand. We found a great neighborhood Italian restaurant, Bosco’s; they had the best calzones we’ve ever tasted. The trains run non-stop abreast of the canal where we tied up on the free wall. Great at first with a nice quiet sunset – a little noisy through the night though when trying to sleep.

We enjoyed a beautiful sunset, after our walk and dinner at Bosco’s, while tied to the wall in Amsterdam

Next stop was a 23-mile, two-lock, move in the rain to Canajoharie. Canajoharie is the home of Beech-Nut Gum. We spent the night rafted together with a few other Loopers on the town’s dock. We found it to be a rather nice small town but we got soaked walking around while exploring in the rain.

Digging for diamonds at the diamond mine in Herkner was hard work in the rain. Can’t say we’ve ever done this before.

After only one night in Canajoharie, 5 more locks and another 26 miles brought us to Herkimer. We took a cab to the Herkimer Diamond Mines to dig, with pick axes, for gems in the two mines they have. We came back with two large rocks as mementos of all that digging. A few miles up river is the home of Remington Arms. Although we didn’t tour the plant or museum ourselves, we received a report back from some friends that it was an interesting stop.

On our way to Rome we encountered some of these canal workboats.
Rome was another 2 locks and 28 miles up stream. Rome has a great deal of historical significance. In 1758 Fort Stanwick, known as the “fort that never surrendered” was built there. Fort Stanwick successfully repelled a prolonged siege, in August 1777, by British, German, Loyalist, Canadian, and American Indian troops and warriors commanded by British Gen. Barry St. Leger. At this juncture on the Canal, we traversed 20 locks and have risen 420 feet.

Sylvan Beach, our first “paid for” stop at a marina since we started this trek ten days ago, is an old resort town. A welcome treat after so many days on free docks with minimal or no services – we enjoyed the full showers, electricity and a sorely needed pump out.

We found lots of fresh produce today when we encountered this little fruit and bakery stand in a neighborhood close to the waterfront in Phoenix.

We left Sylvan Beach the next day and cruised 40 miles across Oneida Lake, with only two locks to negotiate. This is a 24-mile long, shallow lake that can be as rough as Lake Michigan. It is considered the fifth most dangerous lake in the U.S. Although it was quite rough, as the winds had picked up the last few days – we survived. Our goal this day was to make it to Phoenix where we tied up, all by ourselves, on a town wall right next to a beautiful park. We had a long walk around town and while walking back into the nearby neighborhood we found a fruit and veggie stand in front of one of the little houses. We found fresh asparagus and strawberries in abundance as well as home baked cookies and a cheerful gardener/baker to chat with. Then as we walked away we had to chuckle to ourselves as we realized how very little we needed these days to make us happy.

Only 20 miles left in the U.S. before we head into Canadian territory for the final stretch of our Great Loop boat trip. 620 miles to go!

Oswego, located on the shores of Lake Ontario, is our last stop in the states before entering Canada.

Oswego was our last stop in the U.S. until we got back to Michigan. An old port town that also has a rich military history between the French, English and Native Americans, Oswego sits at the mouth of the Oswego River and Lake Ontario. We stayed an extra day because Lake Ontario had high west winds predicted. We took advantage of the time to make our final provisioning before we closed our Loop. We also visited the 226-year-old Fort Oswego, an impressive original fort sitting on a bluff overlooking Lake Ontario. It was used to protect the entrance to the Oswego River.

We left Oswego with a flotilla of vessels at 7 a.m. One last lock greeted us just before we entered this vast lake. To our sheer delight, we had absolutely no wind and glasslike water conditions for our 65-mile trek (40 of it across the open waters of Lake Ontario).

We spent almost two weeks cruising the Erie Canal and it felt as though we were in a time capsule of sorts. It’s an unusual experience to travel along these types of historic routes where the roots are so strongly steeped in American history. The sight of the little warm and friendly towns perched on the horizon at the end of a long travel day speaks to you; they grab at your heartstrings and pull you on in.

     Chorus:
     Low bridge, ev’rybody down!
     Low bridge, for we’re comin’ to a town!
     And you’ll always know your neighbor,
     You’ll always know your pal,
     if you’ve ever navigated on the Erie Canal.