Last summer, when I asked my cousin Richard if he and his wife would join my wife and me on a cruise along the Erie Canal, he looked puzzled. “You mean they still use that?” he asked.
Rich and Maryann live in New Jersey, so maybe he can be excused for not being up on his knowledge of the canal. But many Upstate New Yorkers also probably aren’t aware that the canal system remains very much in use today, both commercially and recreationally.
“After nearly 200 years of continuous operation, New York’s canals continue to play a vitally important role in the lives of New Yorkers all throughout the Empire State,” Brian Stratton, director of the New York State Canal Corporation, wrote in an email. He added that “the dream of DeWitt Clinton and his contemporaries is just as alive today as it was two centuries ago.”
As New York’s sixth governor, Clinton was a strong advocate for the construction of the Erie Canal in the early 1800s. He believed the project would have a great economic impact not only on New York but on the nation, and it has proven him correct.
The current governor, Andrew Cuomo, reported last year that the canal system today generates more than $6.2 billion annually in “commercial activity and support jobs” across New York. And Stratton calls the system “the economic backbone” of upstate.
My wife, Nancy, and I live in Horseheads, and for years we’ve been canoeing and kayaking on the canal system – specifically the Cayuga-Seneca Canal, mostly between Seneca Falls and Waterloo. While on the water, we almost always see a few charter boats easing along or tied up at one of the docks, and we often thought we’d like to try a charter ourselves some day. That day came last July, when we began a cruise of four days and nights with Rich and Maryann on a 42-foot houseboat.
Our boat was the Okeechobee, a 15-ton steel barge. It’s one of 10 Lockmaster boats offered in three sizes (ours was the largest) by the Mid-Lakes Navigation Company of Skaneateles and Macedon.
We got on the water on a Monday afternoon at the Mid-Lakes marina in Macedon. By the time we returned that Friday morning, we had covered about 100 miles at a leisurely 6 mph.
All the while, we were helping Mid-Lakes set a record for business on the canal system in 2014, according to Sarah Wiles, marketing director and a member of the family that owns and operates the company. She told me that gross revenue for 2014 was up almost 20 percent from the previous year. Mid-Lakes, which operates between Oneida Lake and North Tonawanda, chartered about 230 trips that put more than 700 people on the canal, she said.
Other charter companies and various commercial users of the waterways also were busy last year. And officials say that while there’s no way to measure recreational use, anecdotal evidence suggests that also increased.
“Traffic was significantly up, both recreationally and commercially,” Shane Mahar, deputy communications director for the Thruway Authority and Canal Corporation, told me. He said traffic rose 5.4 percent overall from the previous year.
Our brief journey took us through 18 locks, nine each way. None of us had experience piloting anything larger than a canoe, so we were a bit concerned about having to jockey the Okeechobee into and out of locks – and particularly parking inside those watery chambers, steering with a tiller rather than a wheel. But we got the hang of it with surprising ease, and we all took turns at the tiller. At each lock, Rich or I took the controls while the other three helped bring the boat to the wall and hold it there while the giant tub was filled with or emptied of water.
That first day was a short one, and we stopped for the night in Newark. We got an early start on Tuesday and cruised lazily all day, passing through the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge and reaching Seneca Falls in late afternoon. By then we were on the Cayuga-Seneca Canal, which we reached by crossing the northern tip of Cayuga Lake.
The next morning, Nancy and I grabbed two of the bicycles that came with the boat and went for a ride. We did the same thing two days later, in Lyons. That morning we took a brief tour of the town and then found the Canalway Trail and followed it for a stretch where it ran close to the water.
At both Newark and Lyons, official greeters met us when we docked. A man named Bob welcomed us to Lyons, gave us a brief history of the town, offered us the use of restrooms and showers at the nearby firehouse and borrowed my camera to take a picture of the four of us on the boat.
There was a shower on the boat, but it was tiny, and we gladly took Bob up on his offer. Besides the shower, the boat contained two sleeping areas, each with a double bed; a bathroom with a head or toilet and a sink; and a galley or kitchen with a propane stove and oven, a refrigerator and a dinette set.
It was cozy, to be sure. Think popup camper on water.
As popular as the canal system remains after all these years (it opened in 1825), there are ongoing efforts to put still more people on its waters and adjacent hiking and biking trails.
“We’re trying to get involved with the communities more,” said Bill Sweitzer, director of marketing for the Canal Corporation. “There’s a feeling of ‘Let’s be a steward of the canal.’ More and more communities want to revitalize and maybe turn some of the businesses around, literally, so that we’re not seeing the backside of businesses from the canal.”
According to the website eriecanalway.org, a record 28 festivals in 2014 celebrated the canal heritage of those communities and attracted hundreds of thousands of residents and visitors.
In October, Lockport hosted the first Locktoberfest, an event that’s planned as an annual celebration of the city, the Erie Canal and the Flight of Five Locks. The initial Locktoberfest marked the completion of the first phase of a project to restore the locks. Sweitzer and Mahar said they’d like to see Lockport’s model spread to other communities, and they believe it will happen.
“There’s a very deep connection out there to the canal,” Mahar told me. “The last 30 to 40 years, municipalities have really connected with the waterway and have made the Erie Canal their Main Street once again.”
They still use that? You bet.
Charter a House Boat
Where to rent: We chartered our boat through the Mid-Lakes Navigation Co. of Skaneateles and Macedon. Phone 800-545-4318, email email@example.com or go to www.midlakesnav.com. Other charter companies include the Erie Canal Cruise Lines of Cape Vincent (800-962-1771 or www.canalcruises.com) and the Erie-Champlain Canal Boat Co. Inc. of Waterford (518-432-6094 or www.eccboating.com).
What to bring: The charter company will help you prepare. We brought clothes (including a raincoat), groceries, toiletries, an iPod and player, a radio and a deck of playing cards. For the things we forgot or ran out of, we found places to shop wherever we docked for the night.
What we spent: Our cost was $2,181for the boat, plus supplies, which we split with my cousin and his wife. The cost included lock charges; there were no fees to tie up at the public docks we used or for electric and water hookups.
story and photos by Roger Neumann