Monday, June 21, 2010

15 miles on the Erie Canal

10 points for you if you can sing the song with these lyrics.

My mother- and father-in-law just completed their sail of Erie Canal. They described the trip so beautifully, I thought I'd share it:

"Our trip through the canal took 13 days. We negotiated 35 locks and cruised 338 miles, plus 7 miles on the Niagara River from Buffalo to North Tonawanda. It might be fun to regale you with tales of our harrowing adventures along the Erie. However, there are no such stories to tell. For the last two weeks, our days have passed with uniform pleasantness. The scenery we’ve watched slide by at our cruising speed of 5 ½ knots has been varied and interesting. The weather’s been good. The people we’ve encountered are lovely. The captain and first mate - those roles, by the way, are interchangeable - still communicate in a cordial manner. Life is good.

For you history lovers out there, construction of the Erie Canal began in 1817. It opened for service seven years later. Its impact was immediate and overwhelming cutting the cost of moving commercial products substantially. Freight rates dropped from $100 per ton to $5 per ton. The travel time across NY went from 6 weeks to 6 days. The canal offered, for the first time, easy, cheap access to the interior of the continent. This opened the gate for uncounted thousands of settlers and tons of manufactured goods to stream west and agricultural products to flood east. The flow of goods and people to and from the interior transformed New York City into the largest, most prosperous seaport in North America. I might add that the Erie Canal did not benefit the Native Americans. In fact, the canal and its traffic hastened the destruction of the culture of the indigenous people.

On a map, the Erie Canal meanders east/west across New York State. It connects Lake Erie on the west to the Hudson River on the east. Any description of a transit through the canal can be conveniently divided into the western and eastern halves, with Oneida Lake smack-dab in the middle.

The western half, where we departed, starts in Buffalo. It took half a day to leave behind the industrial landscape of metropolitan Buffalo. Then, for the next eight days, we slowly cruised through rolling farmland and orchards. “Pastoral” is an excellent description. It even has cows! For many miles on its western half, the canal runs high above the surrounding countryside, sometimes as much as 70ft. We never tired of the panoramic views of rural New York.

Scattered along the canal are numerous old towns. They were excellent places to stop for the night. It was fun to walk their streets, admire the architecture of their old buildings, and talk to the local residents. It was also a bit sad. Once-upon-a-time, these towns were thriving commercial centers. Now, most of the industry is long-gone. Today, most of these towns rely on the vagaries of tourism to make a living. Real prosperity seems to be a thing of the past.

Eight days after leaving Buffalo, we arrived in Brewerton, NY, situated on the western shore of Oneida Lake. Oneida Lake is 21 miles long and 5 miles across. That makes it a considerable body of water and one to be crossed on a mild day. We crossed on a lightly overcast day with perfect conditions for a blunt-nosed boat that dislikes punching into big waves and for a crew that has already had too much sun.

East of Oneida Lake the character of the land changes dramatically. Farms become less frequent. Woods are thicker and more prevalent. Two hundred fifty years ago, endless miles of old-growth forest carpeted the area. Now, those great forests no longer exist, but up-state New York is still very pretty to look at.

As we continued our eastward journey, the land became rocky and hilly, almost mountainous. Here, the Erie Canal begins its increasingly steep descent into the Hudson River Valley. Within the last mile-and-one-half, five locks called the Waterford Flight dropped us the last 169 feet to the Hudson River. According to our guidebook, The Waterford Flight has the highest “lift” within the shortest distance of any lock system in the world. Waterford claims to be the oldest incorporated village in the United States. Walking through the town, seeing the old buildings, and reading signs about where George Washington rode past on his way to the Battle of Saratoga, we have every reason to believe that Waterford’s claim is correct."

Sail on!!


  1. "I've got a mule, her name is Sal..."

    That's the only line I remember, ninth grade music class was a long time ago. I guess no one really uses mule power on the canal anymore.

  2. Best ever song about the Erie Canal: