Travel October 2009

A Hundred Miles on the Erie Canal

Cruising across upstate New York, at five miles per hour

Philip Scalia/Alamy

Every time I steered my boat past a stone bridge abutment, I’d begin to whisper-sing, “Low bridge, everybody down / Low bridge, for we’re coming to a town.” Certainly that irrepressible song is what comes to most people’s minds when they hear mention of this historic waterway, even if they’ve never “navigated on the Erie Canal.” As a native upstate New Yorker, I had decided it was time to broaden my canal repertoire, and get on the water.

My boat, hired for a week, was steel, sleek, and low-slung, and painted maroon with yellow and green trim and a knotty-pine interior. Mid-Lakes Navigation built these self-skippered canal boats to be both rugged and comfortable. With a full galley, a head with a shower, beds for six, and bicycles for trips ashore, the Cayuga became my home as I explored the central part of the Erie Canal and its connecting waterways—which bisect New York through the backsides of towns like Palmyra, Newark, Lyons, Clyde, Seneca Falls, and Waterloo.

SLIDESHOW: A photo tour of the Erie Canal, narrated by the author

It’s hard to fathom the impact the Erie Canal had on the growth of our newly minted democracy. The canal, which some might call America’s first economic stimulus package, was the brainchild of Jesse Hawley, a failed businessman who wrote—from debtors prison—anonymous articles envisioning a canal that would connect the Hudson River to Lake Erie, linking the port of New York with the West and turning wilderness into wealth. His ideas finally found an ally in the prominent New Yorker, and future governor, DeWitt Clinton.

Construction began in 1817 and took eight years, thousands of workers, and $7.1 million to complete. Solving engineering problems required sheer genius, and involved draining swamps, constructing aqueducts, making cement that hardened underwater, clearing forests, and building the massive locks. When finished, “Clinton’s Ditch” covered 363 miles, was about 40 feet wide and four feet deep, and rose 573 feet through a series of 83 locks. When the waterway opened, in 1825, it unlocked the floodgates to western settlement. Even though within decades it would be eclipsed by the railway, the Erie Canal was an important—and cheap—mode of transporting goods across the state for more than a century.

The canal has been enlarged several times, and today looks like a languid river. In many places it runs parallel to or completely obscures the original canal, which had towpaths on either side so mules could pull barges through the murky water. Every so often I’d spy what looked like Roman ruins made of limestone block—a bit of the old canal.

Cutting through farm fields, forests, and the outskirts of towns, the canal is used mainly by recreational boaters and state barges, and fishermen. People fish from chairs bolted to flat-bottomed bass boats, and from rickety wooden docks jutting into the water. At every opening in the lush vegetation along the shore, chairs face the water: plastic chairs, wooden chairs, Adirondack chairs, lounge chairs, kitchen chairs, and overturned buckets.

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