Baldwinsville – A Buzzing Village Fueled by the Canal

Lock 24 of the Erie Canal.

Just a dozen miles separate Clinton Square, in the heart of downtown Syracuse, from the “Four Corners” in the Village of Baldwinsville. Tracts of suburban homes mix with rolling countryside between the two. However, enough wooded hills and farmland remain for “B’Ville” to avoid urban sprawl and retain its busy, but comfortable, village identity.

The community’s soul has always been the Seneca River. Its shallows near flowing rapids provided a handy crossing for frontier travelers. In 1794, the McHarrie family trekked from Maryland to become the area’s first settlers.

“John McHarrie was a very enterprising gentleman,” explains historian Sue McManus of the local Shacksboro Schoolhouse Museum. “He successfully farmed the land and supplemented his livelihood assisting an ever-growing flow of voyagers and settlers negotiate the river shallows.”

The village was named for Dr. Jonas Baldwin. He and his wife Eliza first passed through the area in 1798, returning from Massachusetts in 1808 to make it their home. With projects driven by the influential doctor, a power-harnessing dam and the river’s first bridge among them, the settlement soon grew into a bustling, industrialized mill town. Harvey Baldwin (1797 – 1863), one of the family’s seven children, became the first mayor of Syracuse in 1848.

A River Destination
The channelized Seneca River is part of New York’s fine recreational canal system, today’s version of the Erie Canal. “More and more, Baldwinsville has grown into a prime destination for canal boaters,” says village mayor Dick Clarke. “Along with a scenic setting, everything is easily within walking distance for visitors…everything.” Besides numerous downtown shops, there are restaurants of every stripe from eclectic dining at Mohegan Manor to the always popular 1950s-style B’Ville Diner, a village staple since 1934. Eateries like the Lock 24, River Grill and the cozy Canal Walk Café offer outdoor seating, often with river scenery.

Mayor Clarke points to past industrial and mill sites along the river, for many years dormant and unused, gradually being developed into small parks, increased dockage, boat hookups and walking trails with benches. “It’s all part of a destination strategy. We want the river ever more accessible, a resource to enjoy.” Baldwin Canal Square, a green space with ample parking, is now a lively focal point in the center of town. The square hosts community events, among them an annual Oktoberfest and a weekly farmers market showcasing local produce, food, products and live entertainment.

Visitors wandering about Baldwinsville can’t miss the recently dedicated “memory markers” of B’Ville Voices, a unique public art project created from oral histories provided by villagers. A first of its kind venture in New York, local groups partnered with the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse, the cultural heritage group City Lore and others to highlight a trail of local histories and experiences. Uncommon sculpture incorporates stone and steel with descriptive plaques. Paired with quirky titles, they’re sure to spark attention: The Sun Never Sets on a Morris Pump, 121 Pies in a Day, The Four Corners Mural Project, Shovels on Parade, River Rats and more. The essence of the village is captured at each curious stop.

Volunteerism, a village strong point, helped create B’Ville Voices and was critical in the founding and operation of PAC-B, a TV channel that goes well beyond the common use of public-access television. Avoiding endless bulletin board-style announcements, PAC-B offers community oriented programming daily from 9 a.m. to midnight, all provided by volunteer videographers, editors, programmers and broadcasters. Live or on tape, B’Ville residents can keep up with local board meetings, community events, forums and “Remembering B’Ville” features. The excellent Baldwinsville school system takes advantage of PAC-B with broadcasts of everything from sports to music to its graduation ceremony.

Times to Celebrate and a Time to Reflect
Most villages have their traditional celebrations – Christmas, July 4th – and Baldwinsville is no exception. In addition, the Rotarians have sponsored Seneca River Day at riverside Mercer Park for 20 years. A day long festival with a classic cars display, art exhibit, demonstrations, food and fun is topped off with “The Great Seneca River Duck Race.” Several thousand multicolored plastic ducks challenge river currents toward cash prizes and gift baskets.

Memorial Day is special in B’Ville. It’s celebrated almost everywhere on the last Monday in May; a holiday of parades and picnics, flags and barbecue. The occasion for remembering men and women who died serving their country was established in the post-Civil War 1860s as May 30, and in Baldwinsville so it remains. “We’ve always celebrated Memorial Day exactly as intended on May 30, and strictly as a reflective occasion,” says the mayor. Whenever that day falls, B’Ville residents gather at 6 p.m. for a solemn parade through town ending at the village cemetery. Fitting words are spoken, flags are placed and time is taken for quiet remembrance.

Keeping Busy
Appropriately, Baldwinsville High School’s teams are nicknamed the “Bees.” The village is a very busy place. Visitors to downtown shops, restaurants and taverns forever find a challenge at the Four Corners. Try crossing the street or driving through at any time of the day!

The Seneca River splits at Paper Mill Island (sweeping river on one side, canal lock on the other) where The Red Mill Inn, nestled between two bridges, offers in-town lodging. The inn was once Mercer Milling, a Baldwinsville industry dating back to 1828. Behind the inn is the Paper Mill Island Amphitheater, one of the most scenic outdoor concert and event venues in the Finger Lakes. A festive place, musical groups from symphony to rock take to the stage spring, summer and fall. Large crowds gather in the open air relaxing on lawn chairs or on boats floating just off the island.

For walking, running, cross country skiing or snowshoeing, few places surpass Beaver Lake Nature Center, a few miles to the west of the village. Nine miles of mulched trails wind through woods, around water and across boardwalks. The center offers a wide range of nature programs, and wildlife abounds. Just to the east of the village, walkers and bikers enjoy peaceful miles of paved pathways through the woods and past the ponds of Radisson, a planned community of several thousand.

Still, the community’s vitality comes back to the Seneca River in the heart of B’Ville. Fishermen often line the bridges or wade in the nearby shallows. People walk and explore the river trails, pausing to take in shoreline scenery. Boats, kayaks and canoes endlessly ply its waters. Former village mayor Joe Saraceni grew up in the village and fondly contributed his memories to the B’Ville Voices project. “As kids we were always around the river – playing, swimming, fishing, boating. Oh yeah, we were River Rats.”

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by James P. Hughes

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