Erie Canal carries new cargo: tourists

New York waterway that changed the nation 175 years ago is now an attraction for visitors

Short Hop

July 28, 2002|By Naedine Joy Hazell | Naedine Joy Hazell,Special to the Sun

Zipping along the New York Thruway, past cornfields and onion farms, anyone could be lulled by the tedious miles upon miles upon miles, the hum of small planes and Christian radio preachers, the windy nudges of tandem tractor-trailers.

Who could be blamed, in such a state, for not noticing one of the wonders of the world, gliding quietly nearby, hidden by progress? This wonder, the Erie Canal, which transformed trade, transportation and the face of America 175 years ago, is largely forgotten today.

"A little short of madness," President Thomas Jefferson called plans for the canal, which was also derided as "Clinton's Ditch" for then-Gov. DeWitt Clinton.

When the canal opened in 1825, opinions changed. The Concorde jet of its time, the 363-mile canal cut travel time from Buffalo to New York City from six weeks to 10 days. Now, New York is banking on the canal again, this time as a tourist attraction.

The state's effort to make the Erie Canal buzz with tourists and excitement has met with slow but steady interest. Word is spreading among boaters, kayakers, bikers and canoers. Also, efforts are progressing to match the canal network with parallel biking trails.

A handful of the 40 canalside towns -- especially those in the canal's western portion -- have embraced the tourism potential.

Fairport is one such town. An early beneficiary of the canal -- a present-day brochure notes that it became "a wild little boom town that traded in everything from silk to snake oil" -- it's still benefiting, having replaced or renovated buildings along the canal route in the 1960s and 1970s.

Fairport's charming downtown of boutiques, cafes and antiques stores exudes front-porch friendliness enhanced by an ice cream shop, canalside dining and dining cruises.

It is a pleasure to enjoy Muddy Sneaker or Chocolate Ting-a-Ling ice cream from Lickety Splits on a bench near the canal. You can watch the boats go by and the lift bridge rise and fall to the boaters' needs.

Elsewhere, the changing elevations of the canal -- it flows downhill from Buffalo to Albany, dropping 568 feet as it goes -- require locks, and for boaters that means it's tough to rush on the canal, even if there weren't a 10-mph speed limit.

Touring a lock

From waterside Schoen Place in nearby Pittsford, visitors can shop, enjoy lunch al fresco beside the canal at Aladdins, feed the ducks or take a lunchtime cruise that includes a chance to see the operation of one of the canal's 57 locks.

"A lock is just an elevator for boats. ... It's easier than trying to go over waterfalls," explained Wendy, captain of the Sam Patch canal boat. She was reciting history for several dozen tourists on board for a 90-minute tour.

"Back before highways and tractor-trailers, the canal was the primary way of moving goods," Wendy said, as crew members served drinks and lunch.

The lift of these water elevators ranges from 6 feet to 40.5 feet, with the majority averaging 18 feet. The side walls are concrete, and the massive steel lock doors are operated electronically.

The Sam Patch, heading west on its outbound journey, is going against the canal's flow, and so will enter Lock 32 to be raised to the level of the canal on the other side of the lock.

A lock is a space between two sets of steel doors. Inside, the water level is raised or lowered (through large ports in the bottom of the lock), depending on which direction the boats inside are headed.

The process takes from 10 to 30 minutes, depending on the lock's lift, and the waiting adds to the leisurely pace along the canal, which is 10 times longer than its more famous counterpart in Panama.

Many canal boats -- owned by devoted barge vacationers or rented from one of the many marinas along the route -- are brightly painted and have ample shady deck areas for relaxing.

As water rushed into the lock raising the boats, the owner of Tucker's Toy Too chatted with a woman on the deck of Don Mar, who leaned back from her crossword puzzle and cool drink to discuss the new bike path near Palmyra. Many canal boats have bicycles strapped to their roofs or decks, ready to provide exercise and a chance to explore towns along the route.

Pittsford is a town worth a day's biking. Leafy and historic, it helps put the ring of truth into the canal's slogan, "Where the past is always present."

Long lawns dotted with hammocks, Adirondack chairs and croquet games back up onto canal docks that shelter kayaks and canoes. In town, there are inviting shops and cafes, and a park every few feet.

By Schoen Place, the coal tower once important to barge canal traffic is still important as a burger and sandwich restaurant. Across the street, locals and visitors line up for coffee, pastries and ice cream from Brad and Dad's, and many pay 50 cents for a bag of feed for the ducks (not that they need it, from the looks of them).

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