“Put yourself back in time to the end of the Ice Age, 15,000 years ago. Gigantic Lake Iroquois, far greater than Lake Ontario, was created when the ice retreated. Its waters eventually drained into the Atlantic and left a magnificent swampland. Or a terrible swamp guide, as the builders of the Erie Canal saw it.”
Our living history guide adjusts her bonnet and smoothes her long cotton skirt, as our group of seven cyclists huddle around her on the bridge. We gaze over its side into the canal and village below and try to imagine the scene she paints for us. A wooden packet boat carrying visitors glides underneath. Two trusty mules provide the power by pulling on a taut rope. They walk the gravel towpath alongside the canal, the same stretch we cycled minutes ago.
“Think of the swamp as an enormous plugged-up Finger Lake with muck. It was in this mire that New York Governor Dewitt Clinton took his first shovelful of dirt on July 4, 1817. Not at either end, but directly in the middle of the state. That way, he’d have to finish the most monumental feat of mankind to date, the building of the Erie Canal. If he didn’t, this middle section would be useless. It all began right here.”
The Erie Canal Village in Rome, New York, is an outdoor living history museum. A 19th century settlement was developed to give visitors a sense of what it was like for a canal boatman to disembark and come into a village. My family of four and our friends from Michigan are cycling the entire length of the 350-mile Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor from Albany to Buffalo. We are four days into our adventure, over 125 miles and more than one-third completed, and this is the first time we can actually feel what it must have been like back in the heyday of the canal.
Today’s canal is a recreational Mecca. Boaters cruise the modern-day Barge Canal and the cyclists travel the Canalway Trail, with a thirst for adventure not much different than those who came before. Brimming with the exciting, real-life history that even children find captivating, the Canalway Trail is a perfect combination of fitness and fun, and a great destination for a long distance adventure.
A work in progress, the Canalway Trail is over 60 percent completed. Construction is happening continuously, and it has become one of the best places to long cycle in the nation. When there is no canal trail to follow, New York State Bike Routes 5 and 9 provide the alternate parallel routes to link the trail corridors together. These east-west running, quiet back roads see light use and the few motorists you’ll encounter respect cyclists’ space.
We are toting a minimum of equipment to keep our loads light (to insure more fun) and have made prior reservations at inns and B&Bs along the way. Our schedule of seven days to complete the entire route from Albany to Buffalo allows adequate time to visit at least one site or tour one attraction, like the Erie Canal Village, each day.
Out of the entire 380-mile trail, our favorite stretch is from the Erie Canal Village in Rome westward to Syracuse on what’s referred to as the Old Erie State Park. If you are looking for a nice weekend cycling adventure and you’re not into long distance, the 36-mile Old Erie Canal State Park is ideal. This linear park incorporates an abandoned section of the 19th century Erie Canal. It possesses the magic to transport you back 100 years, for little has changed.
Massive cottonwoods drape their branches into the sluggish canal waters. Brilliant green duckweed covers the water like a blanket. In other places soil has filled in the canal and transformed it into a purple forget-me-not meadow. The canal trail is so quiet here that turtles can freely dig their shallow holes in the soil right along the trail. Some turtles are actually in the process as we cycle by, seemingly unconcerned with our spinning tires. Many eggs have already hatched, and we feel the rubbery, broken shells and wonder where the babies have crawled.
This section is what is known as the “Long Level,” because there was not a single obstacle for the early canal builders to build a lock over in more than 50 miles. There are three well-preserved aqueducts still carrying water to the summit of today’s Barge Canal. They are so well preserved because the modern canal that was dug in the beginning of the 19th century took a completely different route than “Clinton’s Ditch,” thereby preserving the original canal’s history and charm.
Besides being a wellspring for nature study, there are dozens of historic sites and museums along the Canalway Trail to provide learning and fun. Plus, these places give us the opportunity to get out of the saddle and stretch our legs.
The next must-see attractions heading west across the Finger Lakes region are the Canastota Canal Museum in the little village of Canastota, with its fascinating collection of authentic Erie Canal memorabilia; and the Chittenango Landing Boat Museum in Chittenango, where the structural frame of an authentic Erie Canal packet boat rests entombed in the archaeological excavation of an original dry dock.
Once you reach Syracuse, the trail terminates. Here the canal was filled in, and auto roads have been built overtop. The road route through the city can be cryptic and the traffic sometimes dangerous, so consider shuttling around. However, first check out the superior Erie Canal Museum downtown.
I’m sure you are thinking, “How can all of these museums (there are 20 in all) be that different and worthy of a visit?” (our kids’ argument at first). Each of the half dozen that we visit focus on a different aspect of canal life. The museum experiences combined, make our trip across the Erie Canal much richer.
The Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse is located in a landmark 1850s “weighlock” building, the only surviving canal boat weighing station in the world. The real jewel is the replica of a full-size packet boat that you can board for a realistic experience of canal life. The second floor houses absolutely gorgeous paintings by local artist Mark Topp, who created large canvases depicting life in downtown Syracuse and Clinton Square during the canal boom years.
You need to take a short walk down to that very spot with its surrounding buildings of stunning architecture, and try to imagine the clutter of hundreds of boats, the pungent smell of mules, and the rowdy conversation of canal men. This was the “harbor” for the canal, at the halfway point and the intersection of the Oswego Canal heading north to Lake Ontario. The canal men’s lives were completely consumed by this waterway, the life-blood of the state and fledging nation.
Why is the Erie Canal so important? When one thinks of major historical landmarks, battlefields, cathedrals and Mount Rushmore come to mind. Yet this humble waterway transformed the economic life of America. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Allegheny Mountains were the Western Frontier. The Northwest Territories (which would later become Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan) were rich in timber, minerals, and farm products. However, transporting these valuable goods took weeks, as overland travelers had to maneuver along rutted turnpike roads that were either hard-baked by the sun or a muddy quagmire in winter.
Governor Clinton envisioned a canal from Buffalo on the eastern shore of Lake Erie to Albany on the upper Hudson River, a distance of almost 400 miles. In 1817, Clinton convinced the state legislature to authorize $7 million for construction of a canal 363 miles long, 40 feet wide, and four feet deep. With the exception of a few places where black powder was used to blast through rock formations, all 363 miles were built by the muscle power of men and horses. It was the engineering marvel of the age.
In 1825, Governor Clinton officially opened the Erie Canal as he sailed the packet boat Seneca Chief along the canal from Buffalo to Albany. After traveling from the mouth of the Erie to New York City, he emptied two casks of water from Lake Erie into the Atlantic Ocean, celebrating the first connection of waters from east to west in the ceremonial “Marriage of the Waters.”
The canal spurred a great westward movement of American settlers to the Midwest, gave access to the rich land and resources west of the Appalachians, and made New York City the preeminent commercial center of the United States. In less than a decade, the number of bushels of wheat transported down the canal from Buffalo increased from 3,640 to 500,000 bushels; four years later it reached one million. Within 15 years of the canal’s opening, New York Harbor was the busiest port in America, moving tonnages greater than the ports of Boston, Baltimore and New Orleans combined.
Between 1835 and the turn of the century, this network of canals was enlarged twice to accommodate heavier traffic. Between 1905 and 1918, the canals were enlarged again. Today, the waterway network is known as the New York State Canal System, and it is enjoying a rebirth as a recreational and historic resource.
“It’s finally starting to make sense,” my kids comment. As we partake in this slower, more suitable mode of travel and soak in all the learning, we are absorbing all that the Erie Canal was and still is. We are coming to understand the impact and importance of this remarkable canal, and it is turning into much more than a recreational bike ride. It is becoming an exercise in imagination.
Another shorter, but very pleasant bike ride is from Jordon to Port Byron in Cayuga County east of Syracuse. The highlight of this 11-mile section is the unique Sims Store Museum in Erie Canal Park outside Camillus. Liz and David Bebe greet our group in period clothing and offer us hot coffee and a piece of homemade cake. The replica of an 1860s canal-side store is fascinating, as well as the lock-side shanty, and an operating outdoor lock exhibit. The remarkable thing about this 300-acre park is that it was entirely built and maintained by a large group of 120 dedicated volunteers. They even pooled their talents and built three canal boats, which offer dinner cruises from mid-June to late August.
The nearby Nine Mile Aqueduct is one of 32 aqueducts that carried the canal over rivers, ravines, and roads. The stone arches supported the towpath, while the canal itself was carried in a wooden trough resting on stone piers. Nine Mile Aqueduct is getting a complete restorative overall, (with a floor consisting of 80 heavy timbers!) and when finished, will be the only navigable aqueduct of the 32. How’s that for volunteer effort!
Pleasant back roads take you through the tiny picturesque villages of Clyde and Lyons until you can once again rejoin the constructed Canalway Trail. But don’t miss the fascinating tour of County Jail in Lyons, where inmates sketched charcoal drawings all over the walls.
These lovely villages are excellent places to refresh yourself. The mom and pop food establishments, B&Bs, and inns along the Canalway Trail also cater to cyclists and don’t mind the inconvenience of bike storage, or typical trail dirt and bike grease that is a natural part of cycling. They offer treats like complimentary cold sodas or homemade ice tea upon arrival and perhaps a snack, godsends after a full day of exercise. Everyone makes us feel like family and no request or need is too much to ask. The tourism departments and chamber of commerce in these Finger Lake counties can’t do enough for you. They will help you plan and make the necessary contacts to insure your trip along the Canalway Trail is one of the best memories you’ll have.
If the old sections of the Erie Canal are for canal lovers, the completed stretch from Newark all the way to Lockport near Buffalo is for canal town lovers and boat lovers. Here, the trail follows the actual Barge Canal, which was built right over Clinton’s original Ditch, and the canal is still very much “alive” as a functioning canal. Water traffic is a familiar sight from historic repro tugs and gorgeous wooden canal boats that can be rented for a water adventure, to impeccable yachts and pleasure boats. There is also the opportunity to observe how a lock raises and lowers the boats, always an entertaining pastime while taking a break.
The real gems are the towns, however, for it is amazing to find these attractive “ports” nearly as active as they were in the canal heyday. Tremendous money, hard work, and each community’s love for their town has turned them into beautifully restored canaltowns, but with all the charm of a century ago. Many canal-side festivals are held throughout the year, but the locals don’t hesitate to enjoy their waterway on a daily basis. Indulge in a cone of ice cream on a canalside bench, a steaming cup of coffee or a cold brew at a trailside establishment, or a splurge at a unique gift shop. You can join a dinner cruise, observe how a lift bridge operates, or feed the ducks, which I’m happy to see can still be enjoyed by teenagers!
Cyclists can ride for a straight 100 miles on a fine, packed-cinder trail uninterrupted nearly to Buffalo, or follow it through Palmyra, Macedon, Fairport, Pittsford, and all the way to Lockport, for over 70 miles of uninterrupted cycling. Or, you can hop on the 13-mile Genesee Riverway Trail, which leads you into downtown Rochester and north to Lake Ontario. The Genesee Valley Greenway also runs southward, for 50 miles through Letchworth State Park, often called the Grand Canyon of the East because of its 600-foot deep gorge. It will eventually encompass 90 miles and extend nearly to the Pennsylvania border.
The Erie Canal is the most commercially enduring and historically significant canal in the United States. Cycling it (for a day or a week) will give you a delicious/rich taste of the heritage and culture our forefathers created 200 years ago. This quote couldn’t be more true. “Build it and they will come.” They are still coming today.
photographs and story by Cindy Ross
Cindy Ross is an outdoor travel writer. She and her family have trekked over many miles of trails. Scraping Heaven is one of her most popular books, and it depicts a family’s journey along the Continental Divide.