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.

As the Cayuga sliced through the green water, spotted sandpipers ran along the stony banks. Great blue herons stood on snags and docks and took off with slow flaps when I came too close. Families of Canada geese—mother and father on either end with goslings in between—made forays into the canal. Red-tailed hawks, ospreys, and turkey vultures flew overhead. Belted kingfishers hunted from branches hanging over the water. In one four-mile stretch along Montezuma—a malarial swamp during the canal’s construction and now a national wildlife refuge—eight bald eagles, including one adult and two young birds in a nest atop a high-tension pole, considered my passing. Toward dusk, metallic-blue barn swallows with orange bellies swooped and dived in front of the boat, hunting for insects.

The Cayuga’s top cruising speed is 5.6 mph, not much more than the canal’s original speed limit of 4 mph. Each lock—and there were often several in a day’s journey—could take up to 40 minutes to navigate. Upon approach, I would radio the lockmaster and let him know whether I needed east- or westbound passage. Then I would control the Cayuga while the water rushed in or out through valves in the lock’s floor.

When given the green light, I would pull the boat into the lock, place her along the cement sidewall (a feat with a boat that acts like a bath toy because it has no keel), and grab hold of a weighted line that ran down the side of the lock—slick with ooze from the canal water and sometimes covered with zebra mussels, the scourge of the Great Lakes. Huge metal gates would slowly shut behind me, and the lock would either fill or empty. The Cayuga might rise only six feet or, in the case of the double lock at Seneca Falls, the height of a five-story building.

Herman Melville once wrote:

Advance into knowledge is just like advance upon the Grand Erie canal, where, from the character of the country, change of level is inevitable; you are locked up and locked down with perpetual inconsistencies, and yet all the time you get on.

One day, as I stood at the tiller and motored toward the town of Newark, a line of angry thunderstorms raced toward me. I had three locks to go for the day. After the first, the lockmaster called ahead and had the next two get ready for me. At the last one I yelled up to the lockmaster and asked about the state of travel and traffic on the canal this year. “Judging from all the boats for sale on the side of the road, I think it’s going to be a bad one,” he said. Then he pointed to the Cayuga and shouted over the wind, “I sure hope Mid-Lakes Navigation makes it. I’d hate to see these canal boats go.”

I pulled up to the wall in Newark and threw the stern line to a man who happened to be standing there, willing to help, just as big splats of rain hit my boat. I made the Cayuga snug, then hunkered down in my knotty-pine bunk. The rain pelted the steel roof and I wondered about the future of the grand canal, which has so far managed to weather almost 200 years of periodic economic storms.

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