Boating On The Erie Canal

By Pat Piper

America's great canal system offers an inspiring history, friendly locals, a string of charming towns, and vast vistas that will make you want to stop, slow down, and in some cases, duck.

"Can you imagine how audacious this idea must have seemed?" says Peter Welsby, gazing at the rock walls on either side of us, that, two centuries ago, were dynamited to build the Erie Canal. Welsby is at the helm of Stasia Louise, the DeFever 44 trawler owned by friends Tom and Paula Blanchard. We've just crossed the Genesee River south of Rochester, New York, chugging west toward Buffalo, musing about what it must have been like, in 1808, when New York City Mayor Dewitt Clinton first suggested a canal. "It was just forest and Indians out here," says Welsby, "and the mayor was saying, 'Sure, we can do this.' When you look at the political climate now, could we even accomplish something like this today?"

Welsby, a member of the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor Commission, and Tom Blanchard, chairman of the Erie Canal Heritage Fund, are among a group of professionals donating their expertise to ensure that the history behind the building of this monumental 363-mile canal isn't forgotten in this ramped-up, need-it-now world. In 1808, Mayor Clinton looked past every naysayer a common occurrence when you've got that job and announced he wanted to build a waterway from Buffalo on Lake Erie, to the Hudson River. Clinton knew what he was in for, and soon newspapers had stories about "this dumb idea," calling it "Clinton's Folly" while offering lyrical comments such as: "In the big ditch will be buried the treasury of the state, to be watered by the tears of posterity."

The locks at Lockport, New York, shown in a 1905 postcardThe locks at Lockport, New York, shown in a 1905 postcard. (Photo: Erie Canal Discovery Center)

For nine years Clinton made his case, trying to convince folks that New York City could become an importer and exporter of goods from America's interior, using a canal. But there was a formidable challenge the "Dumb Idea Club" seized upon: Buffalo happened to be 564 feet higher than Albany. "How would you handle that one?" they carped. Add to this, Thomas Jefferson turned Clinton down as well, telling him to come back in 100 years. The state of New York was on its own. Mayor Clinton eventually became Governor Clinton, and guess what happened next.

On July 4, 1817, shovels went to work in Rome, New York, with one group facing west and the other group facing east. Eight years later, they completed a canal that was 40 feet across and four feet deep. Clinton made it a point to ride the new waterway to Buffalo, scoop two casks of water from Lake Erie, and carry it back to New York Harbor where he poured Lake Erie into the Hudson River. But the naysayers wouldn't let it go, saying the $7 million cost to build what they were now calling "Clinton's Ditch" was money down the drain. Well, just a few years later, the Erie Canal had paid for itself through the use of tolls. Whereas travel by horse-drawn wagon had once cost $100/ton and taken two weeks on the road, travel through the canal now cost $10/ton and could be completed in three-and-a-half days.

A Bridge To Understanding

Peter looks ahead, yells, "OK, here we go!" and the tension aboard rises. We're quickly joined on deck by his wife Trish and the Blanchards as Stasia Louise approaches another low Erie Canal bridge. Actually, that's redundant; almost every bridge, save interstate highway bridges, is low. Though the trawler's radar arch had been lowered for this very reason, we've had some, well, close calls. A surveyor by trade, Welsby had already studied the clearance charts for the canal, and maybe more importantly, for this approaching bridge.

"You sure about this one?" I ask, which, if you want the truth, I've asked as we closed in on almost every bridge on this trip.

"Well," he says, his eyes fixed on you-knowwhat, "this will prove me right or wrong."

Let me stop right here and explain something. When Tom invited me to join him and Paula, and the Welsbys, on their trip along the Erie Canal, I'd no sooner said, "I'm in," than my words were drowned out by Tom's warning, "You'll have to expect a few Erie Canal moments." I'm a cynic by nature and figured he was reading from a card printed out by some ad agency. "No problem!" I'd answered, "I'm looking forward to it." OK, back to the bridge we're about to hit.

The historian Ed Patton, co-author of the respected Erie Canal history book, America's Crossroads: Buffalo's Canal Street/Dante Place, The Making of a City, told me, "There was no reason at all to build a high bridge. For one thing, high bridges cost more to build. For another reason, the boats only needed three feet of water and were built low so the mules could pull them." Patton added that, in the early days, it was common for someone to yell, "LOW BRIDGE!" as a warning to anyone who might be sitting atop the coach roof escaping the heat during summer travel. Some things don't change.

We made it under the bridge with 11 inches to spare, according to The Surveyor, who announced it with such conviction to everyone onboard that I decided it wasn't worth arguing about. The Erie Canal also has 16 lift bridges, which "lift" the pavement from street level to allow boats to pass beneath. But here's a little known fact: The operator of the lift bridge in Albion, New York, is also the operator of a second lift bridge in Albion, and is also the operator of a third lift bridge 10 miles away on Eagle Harbor Road. So, passing under Ingersoll Street Bridge going westbound at Albion usually brings a comment from the operator that he'll "see you at the next bridge," and after going under the second bridge (Main Street), he'll say, "I'll see you in 20 minutes at Eagle Harbor." Those with a keen eye can see him dart from the second bridge, run down the stairs, jump into his car, and drive right by them en route to Eagle Harbor. On summer weekends, the New York Canal Commission, which operates the locks and lift bridges, brings in an extra worker to assist with the high amount of traffic on the water, not the roads.

Fairport, New York, has a lift bridge over Main Street that's in Ripley's Believe It Or Not because one side is higher than the other. "Nothing's square on that bridge," Fairport Dockmaster Doug Wendl says, as the bridge "lifts" nine feet to allow a boat to pass beneath.

One Neighborly Mule

Wendl is a dockmaster and part-time school-bus driver, who is well aware of the town's history. We talk as he shakes hands with a few bike riders asking where they can find "Sal," the wooden statue of a mule. Sal is mentioned in the Erie Canal song as "a good ol' worker and a good ol' pal, 15 miles on the Erie Canal."

He points them to the bridge: "Cross the bridge and Sal is waiting for you on the left under a tree." He turns to me, "One idiom we hear all the time [that] came from the Erie Canal is 'knowing the ropes.' That began because every canal boat operator had to know what to do when approaching another boat going in the opposite direction. Sometimes, one just dropped his lines, let them sink, and the other boat could float over the submerged tow rope. Other times, they had to get the ropes around the other boat and attached to the mules again so each could continue."

Historical map of the Erie CanalMap:

He looks to the water and is silent for a moment. "There were so many Erie Canal doubters back in the 1800s when Clinton was trying to get this built," he says quietly, watching an eastbound canal boat, the 54-foot Sam Patch tie up on the other side. These boats are rented for a weekend, or longer, and stop in waterfront towns for the evening so passengers can sample the local fare. "The success is outdated now, but you know what? The Empire State is the result of this. It connected New York City on the Hudson River with cities on the Great Lakes, and this is what brought people inland, and what made New York City a major trading port."

Wearing his dockmaster hat, Wendl walks to our 44-foot trawler with a welcome package and collects the overnight docking fee of $11, and that includes access to showers, a pumpout station, and electric service. Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. I even offered to pay.

Right Now And Back Then

You can still see evidence of the "towpaths" or mule trails that Sal's ancestors used a century ago. Most have become bike paths and, to add one example of Wendl's reference to "outdated," it's common to see a trail once used by a mule to pull a boat, now a haven for cyclists, while just beyond it a freight train that replaced boats carrying goods on the canal clatters by. Farther ahead, in Tonawanda, New York, the Erie Canal veers from south to west along what is called the "Tonawanda Cut." From here, it's a straight shot to the Niagara River and less than 20 miles to Buffalo. Though there are three parks on either side of the canal today, years ago a "park" meant stopping to wait for the wind to die.

Photo of Tom Blanchard guiding the Stasia Louise across mirrorlike Erie Canal watersTom Blanchard guides the Stasia Louise across mirrorlike Erie Canal waters on the way to Buffalo, New York.

"As soon as a boat with a pair of mules made that turn," Patton recounts, "everyone checked the winds. Remember, winds travel from west to east, and if there was a lot of wind, they had to double up the mules to continue west."

There are 34 locks that lower and raise the water level on the canal today. Back when the canal first opened, there were 83 locks and that 564-foot difference between Buffalo and the Hudson River required some big thinkers. Patton sees it this way: "The Erie Canal was America's first engineering school," he says. "Now, there were locks in place in Europe, and our military engineers already had a pretty good sense of how things worked in a lock, but this was happening just a few years after the end of the War of 1812, so the French and British were reluctant to help this former colony learn how to transport not only commercial, but military, goods." American engineers started to work on building a lock system on their own. At Baldwinsville Lock 24, the machinery they built to raise and lower the water in 1910 is still at work.

In the aptly named town of Lockport, the early Erie Canal had the famous "flight of five," five locks that raised or lowered boats a total of 50 feet. Today, the five have been replaced by two, Locks 34 and 35, which together handle the 50-foot difference.

Watching the locks is another Erie Canal moment. I can listen to Congress argue about something on C-SPAN for two days and sincerely believe society is doomed, but after locking through the Erie Canal and watching how something man-made is so efficiently well-thought-out and works so beautifully, I can say mankind has a future.

Photo of Bausman's Lock in 1982Bausman's Lock, shown here in 1982, was a critical part of the Schuylkill Canal system until it closed in 1888. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Gardens And Greetings

When you dock for the night in Lyons, New York (Lock 27 is here), chances are good you'll be visited by Dave Stoop, a local soybean farmer who makes it a point to check the flower garden growing a few feet from the water. Included among the roses and lilies, all donated by local wholesalers, is peppermint. Lyons was, and still is, a producer of peppermint oil throughout the world, and the canal was a major way for the Hotchkiss International Prize Medal Essential Oil Company to move its goods.

"I've met the most interesting people here," Stoop says. "Yesterday, there was a guy from New Zealand on the same boat Paul Newman had in the 1981 film 'Absence of Malice.' He was exploring the canal, and talking about taking the boat all the way to Nantucket." Stoop and other "boat greeters" talk about how they remember boaters stopping in Lyons from year to year. "People on boats are looking for conversation. That's one of the best parts of exploring. The canal has long been a sleeping giant. It's had its day as a moneymaker; now it has a quieter existence." Stoop is right. While the canal still carries some commercial cargo, the majority of use is by recreational boaters.

My Final Erie Canal Moment

On my flight home, I was reading The New York Times and came across a story about New York City's efforts to team up with Cornell University and use Roosevelt Island as a technology center. It quoted Seth Pinsky, head of the city's Economic Development Corporation, saying, "New York City faces another Erie Canal moment" if it wants to become a global hub of innovation. A tech center would give the city "an ace up its sleeve," he said, similar to what New York did when it had the Erie Canal ready to compete with other East Coast cities in the 19th century. I had to call his office.

"Mr. Pinsky is a history buff," said Patrick Muncie, Vice President, Public Affairs of the New York City Economic Development Corporation. "He uses that phrase whenever he wants to show how the canal was a game changer in attracting business. We're at a comparable moment in history right now."

My friend Tom Blanchard had been right all along. When he talks about the canal, his passion for it comes from his heart. In fact, he and Paula will have traveled the canal nine times together as Stasia Louise heads east toward Albany and then south along the ICW to Florida this year for the winter.

Questioning Peter Welsby's ability to measure clearances became for me an Erie Canal moment. Watching technology from a century earlier still working so effortlessly and accurately today was another. A third was seeing and feeling how a "sleeping giant" continues to make people slow down, unplug earphones, look up from their iPhones, and say "wow." 

Pat Piper is a BoatUS Magazine associate editor, and editor of BoatUS Trailering Magazine.

— Published: October/November 2012


Saving Our American Canal System

Tracks, like arteries, connect towns that once played a role in the commerce of the nation, sometimes buried or forgotten, but still there, waiting to be revived. In towns across the country, boaters are doing just that.

For Ed Kirchoff, who leads the 35-member Berlin Boat Club in Berlin, Wisconsin, the difference is stark. Without the Eureka lock, you can travel about three miles down the Fox River, and maybe a half-mile up. With high water in springtime and with a small boat, maybe a little farther, but Berlin, once a stop along the commercially important Fox and Wisconsin waterway, is pretty much landlocked. With the Eureka lock functioning, though, he says, "you could put a boat in at Berlin, and literally go anyplace in the world." That's because the Fox River connects to Lake Winnebago, and Green Bay, and the rest of the world. It's not the straightest connection, which is why the Army Corps of Engineers abandoned the river in the 1950s,after commercial traffic became nonexistent, but the connection to the world — or at least the canal to it — led the Berlin Boat Club to take over the maintenance of the lock shortly afterward. Members of the club volunteer time to tend to the grounds and keep the lock working.

Kirchoff's father worked on a major restoration project in the 1970s, so he has a nostalgic interest in keeping it running, and emphasizes the practical aspects of a working canal — it brings people in, and they spend money. David Barber says the canal system "gives people a place to go boating in a slow, depressurized way." Barber, head of the American Canal Society, would like to see people taking the slow boat all across the country. He acknowledges that restoring a canal can be a tough sell, but can rattle off a list of small projects underway across the country. The projects often begin the same way his own interest in canals started: with a simple hike along the banks. Clearing the towpath next to the canal takes a lot of volunteers, but it isn't technical or expensive. If people can access the area, they may want to do more, and he says the response comes quickly — he's been a part of canal projects where it was difficult to move machinery for all the sightseers coming by to see what was going on.

Barber has spent time on the canals of England, and credits history with their preservation. Canals there remained in use until after World War II, so their commercial obsolescence coincided with the post-war boom in leisure time and boating. In the U.S., railroads overtook the waterways more quickly, and many canals had fallen into disuse and disrepair by the time anyone thought to take a pleasure cruise along them.

The Schuylkill Canal Association oversees a three-mile section of the Schuylkill Waterway, including a lock and lock-tender's house, in southeastern Pennsylvania. The association took over in the 1980s, when the state was reluctant to keep it up, and today it's the larger of two usable sections of a system that once stretched more than 100 miles. The waters are accessible to canoes, kayaks, fishing boats, and small powerboats (as long as the power comes from an electric motor — no gasoline allowed). The canal once carried as much as 1.7 million tons of coal to Philadelphia from the cities to the west.

"It's a great educational program," says Daley. "With a hands-on demonstration, we're able to show people how the lock worked, and the important role the waterway played in the Industrial Revolution. We're an excellent recreational facility for boating and fishing." Daley says the Schuylkill Association has been lucky in dealing with the local, state, and federal governments who have a say over the waterway — the money for the restoration came from a federal transportation grant, but other would-be canal restorers often face bureaucratic hurdles. The Eureka lock in Wisconsin, for example, is owned by the state. After the federal government was out of the picture, the boat club managed it under a 10-year lease, but in 2003, the state Department of Natural Resources declined to renew the lease, and the locks again fell into disuse. In 2009, with the help of the nearby town of Rushford, the boat club managed to get it back. It took three years and $300,000 to restore it, but the locks were open for business again in June.



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