Erie Canal Cruising on the Colonial Belle

We had a beautiful day for an Erie Canal cruise from downtown Fairport to Pittsford and back. The sky was a rich blue and temperatures were delightfully warm, a classic picture postcard day for a ride on the Colonial Belle.

When we arrived at the Belle docked at Packetts Landing in Fairport, the staff of the family-owned-and-operated tour boat business was already hard at work. Mona, wife of the Belle’s captain, Lee Poinan, was busy selling tickets to a growing line of customers.

Bringing home the Belle
With a capacity of 149 passengers, the Colonial Belle is the largest tour boat operating on the Erie Canal today. Her fully enclosed lower deck accommodates dining and a full-service bar. The open-air top deck provides scenic viewing.

Originally built in 1961 and called the Dolly Madison, the ship served in New York City, Boston and Miami under various owners. It was cruising the bay in San Francisco when it went up for sale in 1995. Captain Lee realized it was the ship for him, and struck a deal with her owners. But how would he get the Belle home to Fairport?

Shipping her would have cost roughly $175,000, a prohibitive price, the captain felt. There was only one other viable alternative: Sail her home. Captain Lee and a three-man crew rigged the ship with extra tanks to hold 6,000 gallons of fuel and with ample provisions, they set off nonstop to Fairport. The journey took them south along the Pacific Coast through the Panama Canal and the straits of Cuba, then up the East Coast to the Hudson River, into the Erie Canal and home to Fairport. A trip of that magnitude, with a top speed of about 10 m.p.h., took seven weeks. It was surely a lesson in perseverance.

All aboard
A typical cruising day for the Poinan family starts early. In her office, Mona and her staff check on final reservations and ticket purchases. Captain Lee is busy studying the weather, and checking the ship’s safety status and general operative capabilities. Lee and Mona’s daughter, Tammee, and her husband, Jay, also a captain, are already on the Belle’s lower deck tidying the ship.

We are taking the Belle’s afternoon cruise, which travels through Lock #32 at Clover Street in Pittsford. My wife and I board first, in preparation for our interview and photos with his family and staff. As more than 70 people come aboard, the front row bow seats on the upper deck are quickly filled. Other passengers prefer the security and shelter of the lower enclosed deck. Regardless of the seat, the Belle offers excellent visibility for a tour of the Erie Canal.

Captain Lee sits at the helm and picks up his microphone. His introduction includes a hearty welcome and some important safety information. You won’t find a more soothing, reassuring voice; he is a true professional. Our captain started sailing as a youth and was known to row off by himself in his grandparents’ rowboat. He started his own medical supply company and retired in 1989 “to do something fun.” That’s when Captain Lee got into the cruise business.

He looks sharp, by the way, in his bright white nautical uniform, wide-rimmed hat and sporty sunglasses.

As we head up the canal, we hear Captain Lee conversing over the radio with the Fairport Bridge tender, who is securely perched atop his tower adjacent to the bridge. The tender must raise the bridge to safely allow our passage.

The land on the south side of the canal is higher than the land on the north side, and as we approach the bridge we notice that it leans oddly downhill. Built in 1914, it is the only canal bridge in the world with this odd configuration, and its uniqueness is duly noted in Ripley’s Believe It or Not. We hear the massive iron structure moan and groan as it strains to reach its upright position.

The song’s “low bridge” lyrics are serious
We progress along the canal and take in the simplistic beauty and serenity of our surroundings, the plush green vegetation and gently rolling hillsides. A paved walkway and bicycle path, originally used by the horses pulling the boats through the canal, lines both sides. The water itself is silky and glasslike.

Throughout our journey, we think, “What a wonderful way to spend a gorgeous day, so calm and relaxing.” Not so relaxing, though, was our travel under a handful of bridges that are very low with respect to the Belle. We were reminded several times by the captain to mind the “low bridge ahead.” We were cautioned not to stand up or reach out, and there were several occasions in which we had to lower our heads to near level with the Belle’s guardrail!

Throughout the cruise, Captain Lee imparts interesting parcels of information about the canal, its history and purpose. He told us that in 1817, workers began hand-digging the old Erie Canal to an average depth of 4 feet. Then, in the early 20th century it was modernized and enlarged to accommodate big barges. Today, the canal averages 40 feet wide and a minimum of 12 feet deep. We learned that George Washington was one of the initial proponents of the Erie Canal, and later, Governor DeWitt Clinton helped the project come to fruition. The primary purpose was to transport goods between Buffalo and New York City. Today, it is mainly used for pleasure boating.

The turnaround
Midway through our journey we arrive at Lock #32, but we must first pass under another very low bridge. Suddenly, two mammoth cast-iron doors start to slowly swing open to reveal a deep, long, narrow corridor of concrete and water. As we enter the lock, we cannot help but feel intimidated by its massive size. We have to bend our heads all the way back to look up to the ground above.

The captain slowly and methodically lowers the Belle’s speed to a crawl, and then cuts the power. Some of the crew are up top preparing to throw guide ropes down to help stabilize the ship as the lock slowly fills with water, powered by gravity only. We rise. It is a strange feeling to be slowly lifted up within this concrete cavern.

The canal system has dozens of locks constructed to raise or lower us to the next level of water. Before we know it, the next set of doors slowly opens. Just moments after exiting Lock #32, Captain Lee turns the boat around, re-enters the lock and reverses our journey back to Fairport.

It would be hard to find a friendlier crew to sail with, and the remainder of our trip continued to provide fun for all. Along with some historical tidbits and his continued reminders of low bridges, Captain Lee enjoyed telling several of his favorite stories. If you are aboard the Colonial Belle, you must ask the captain what happened to the tipsy fellow who reached up while underneath a bridge. We won’t spoil his story. Be assured it has a safe but unbelievable ending involving a paddlewheel.

The Colonial Belle cruises the Erie Canal from May to October. Private charters are available along with special event cruises and a variety of dinner options. For further information, visit ColonialBelle.com or call 585-223-9470.


by Ron and Collette Stochl
A retired teacher, Ron Stochl teaches digital photography in the Rush Henrietta Continuing Education program. He and his wife Collette also operate a small photography business. For more information visit StochlImaging.com, or call 585-233-4018. The Stochls extend special thanks to Marsha Hughes, retired English teacher, for helping them put this story together.