“There’s only one in New York State, only one along the Old Erie, and it’s right here in Camillus,” said Dr. David Beebe, speaking proudly of the recently dedicated limestone “water bridge.” Originally constructed in 1844, the fully restored (and once again navigable) Erie Canal aqueduct over Nine Mile Creek is the sole example of its type anywhere along the historic waterway from Albany to Buffalo. It is the crown jewel of the 7-mile-long Camillus Erie Canal Park.
Beebe and his wife Liz have long been a driving force behind the ever-expanding canal park, an invaluable community resource for local folks, school groups and visitors of every stripe. Their vision, combined with the hard work of more than 150 dedicated volunteers, has yielded a 420-acre park with a recreated canal store/museum, exhibits and historical signs, and miles of manicured towpath trails for hiking and biking.
“I can’t stay away from the place,” says canal park volunteer Linda Vishnesky. “The Erie Canal truly gets in your blood.”
Like many suburban communities in the Finger Lakes Region, Camillus is both a town and a village, citified and countrified. Along with tracts of contemporary homes and commercial development, a part of Camillus retains a rural air with pastoral farms scattered among its hills and up and down its country roads.
Decades ago, several miles of rolling farmland along the old West Genesee Turnpike separated Camillus from the City of Syracuse. With a growth spurt in the 1950s, suburban development quickly filled in fields and meadows connecting the two. Nestled between two large hills, and maintaining a small town feel, the Village of Camillus separates the more residential and rural parts of the township.
More historic attractions
Several small museums exist in Camillus, among them the Wilcox Octagon House, a fine example of the quirky eight-sided construction mode made popular in the 19th century by philosopher and innovative thinker Orson Fowler. Only a small number of octagonal buildings remain scattered across New York State, and even fewer provide the public a view of the unusual features extolled by the somewhat eccentric Fowler, an encircling porch, connected rooms and a central circular staircase.
At the Wilcox House, visitors can see the basement kitchen/pantry where all the meals were prepared and then sent to the main floor dining room via dumbwaiter. The home, built in 1856 by abolitionist Isaiah Wilcox, is rumored to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad.
In 2007, the Camillus Cutlery Company closed its doors after more than a century of forging some of the finest knives in the industry. Its 1876 origins made it one of America’s oldest knife companies. Millions were produced over the decades, quality implements for all uses, household knives, utility and sporting knives and specialty knives for electricians and carpenters. During World War II alone, the cutlery shipped more than 13 million to the allied forces for various military uses – knives for combat weaponry, machetes and surgical implements.
Camillus also produced knives for the Boy Scouts of America, unique character knives (from George Washington to Babe Ruth to Buck Rogers) and products for major companies. The factory may be gone, but Camillus knives are still very much in demand by serious collectors everywhere.
“Whether or not you have used or owned a Camillus product, anyone into knife collecting is well aware of the Camillus Cutlery, its history, and its superior products,” said Dan Barriere, a local resident and avid collector.
Every community is proud of the academics and activities of its schools, and Camillus is no exception. Named a 2009 Blue Ribbon School of Excellence, Camillus’ West Genesee is often connected with music or lacrosse. In addition to the music department’s choral, jazz and concert music, the Wildcat Marching Band has captured 30 New York State Field Band Championships in 36 years, including a 15-year streak from 1989 to 2003. Nationally, the marching band has been a five-time Bands of America finalist.
The West Genesee men’s lacrosse program, under longtime coach Mike Messere, has captured 15 state championship trophies since New York instituted its state tournament in 1977. Raised in the upstate New York lacrosse hotbed, West Genesee players have frequently gained high school or college All-American status. Many have gone on to coach at the high school and college level, among them the present coaches at Syracuse, Penn State, Lemoyne and SUNY Cortland. In addition, West Genesee’s ice hockey, women’s lacrosse and football teams have brought state championships back to Camillus within the last decade.
Camillus is a welcome spot to visit – hike or bike, fish or golf, shop at the farmers’ market, or participate in a local celebration. In season, you can take a walk through the sunflower maze at Veterans’ Memorial Park at Gillie Lake or soak up some history with a prime rib dinner cruise in the Erie Canal Park. There may be no better way to get a view of that classic restored aqueduct – close up!
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by James P. Hughes