BOATING ABROAD PART ONE
It wasn’t just in England that canal mania took hold, in the 1780s a canal was proposed to link New York to the Great Lakes – Jane and Ian Ainsworth cruised it in their boat Carina and tell us all about it in a two-part story
Join us on a two-part journey along the Erie Canal in North America, which links New York to the Great Lakes and on to Canada
The Erie Canal has long held a fascination for me, perhaps because of an old song about it from schooldays that conjured up a mental image of horses and mules pulling working boats for long hours along it.
So, after journeying around America’s Great Loop from Florida up the intracoastal waterway to Albany, New York, ( CB, Jan-Feb, 2016) it was finally in sight.
The canal was first proposed in 1807, some years after the canal system had brought prosperity to the industrialised areas of England. The benefits of an East-West waterway linking Buffalo on Lake Erie, with Albany on the Hudson River and thus New York, were obvious. The Mohawk Valley, separating the Adirondack Mountains to the north and the Catskills to the south, was chosen for the route.
The original canal opened in 1825 for use by barges pulled by horses and mules. As a result of the canal construction, Buffalo grew from a population of 200 settlers in 1820, to more than 18,000 in 1840. New York City became the Atlantic home port for the Midwest, and New York became known as the Empire State.
Since the early days, there have been many modifications in both the route and the depth of the canal. By the 1890s, canal traffic was declining, as in England, because of competition from railways and better roads. In 1905 work was started on the New York State Barge Canal, which combined the old Erie Canal with parts of the Mohawk River.
The Barge Canal was large enough to allow the use of motorised vessels, and the mules, horses and towpaths became history. Bruce Springsteen sang a haunting rendition of the Erie Canal song written in 1905 by Thomas S. Allen to commemorate the old days, and if you search for Bruce Springsteen and Erie Canal on youtube you’ll see his video which includes old photographs and a historical commentary. The canal is now part of the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor to recognise its influence on the commercial development of North America and its importance as a work of civil engineering and construction. It is now part of, and managed by, the New York State Canal System.
So it was with some anticipation that we left Coeyman’s Landing, ten miles south of Albany on the Hudson River, to start our journey through the Erie Canal and on to the Great Lakes and Canada.
We felt slightly apprehensive about the locks. We were au fait with English locks on English canals, and had travelled up the Thames from Limehouse Basin to Oxford, but American locks were an unknown quantity.
The guide to the New York State Canal System afforded some insight – pictograms showed the crew attached to long ropes which dangled deep down into the bowels
‘The flight is said to be the largest in America, but it didn’t really compare with Foxton Locks or the Tardebigge flight’
of the lock. How hard would it be to hang on to the rope, if the lock filled quickly causing turbulence and strong currents, or there were strong winds?
Then there was the question of etiquette. The guide stated clearly that it was not part of the lock-keeper’s job description to assist boaters. Presumably they would just look on sardonically in the face of boaters’ ineptitude.
In fact, the lock-keepers turned out to be unfailingly efficient and friendly, and it proved not too difficult to grab the long dangling rope with the boat hook, but we found out for ourselves that the fenders need to be much higher when you’re going into the locks than when you’re docking.
At Waterford, where the Erie Canal starts, following the Mohawk River, sometimes alongside it and sometimes a part of it, there’s a flight of locks in quick succession as the canal rises steeply above the Hudson Valley. The flight is said to be the largest in America, but it didn’t really compare with Foxton Locks or the Tardebigge flight. But they were on a much grander scale, and the dark blue and gold livery lent an attractive cohesion to the New York State Canal System which is perhaps lacking in the UK’s Canal & River Trust.
Where the canal has been incorporated into the Mohawk River, there are impressive weirs and dams beside the locks, and near to Lock 8, you can see the ruins of Lock 23 on the old Erie Canal. This lock was once an important unloading point for the town of Schenectady, but it was abandoned when the Barge Canal was opened in 1918.
We stayed a couple of nights at Canajoharie. Although little more than a village, it has many old buildings and an impressive public library and art gallery, the gift of a local industrialist, Bartlett Arkell. The gallery was built to house his collection of copies of European masterpieces, and original American art, including works by Winslow Homer, Childe Hassam and John Singer Sargent. Mr Arkell was a marketing visionary – he founded the Imperial Packing Company in the 1890s but thought that a healthysounding name would appeal more to his customers and renamed it Beech-nut, as it expanded into the packing of meat and other produce. He was fascinated by circuses and marketed his products by having model circuses tour the country, with Beech-nut girls in fancy dresses and aprons handing out samples of his products to awe-struck children.
The gallery includes a display of the model circuses and photographs of Beech-nut marketing events. He was a benevolent employer and his workers enjoyed generous holidays, a comfortable lounge in which to relax during their breaks and even a grand piano to use.
Our next stop was Little Falls, but between there and Canajoharie was the biggest lock on the Erie Canal – Lock 17, with a lift of 40ft. We ended up sharing the lock with a $3million boat being transported to its new owner on Lake
Michigan, but the lock overshadowed both us and our neighbour.
The landscape became more hilly as we approached Ilion, where we had arranged to leave the boat for a fortnight while we visited our family in Washington DC. Don Sterling, the dockmaster at Ilion, very kindly took us to the station at Utica, ten miles away, to get our train at 6.30am. We were in plenty of time to admire the station’s splendid architecture.
On our return, we decided to stay a couple of days in Ilion to go to an evening open air concert in the town plaza and to hire a car and have a day exploring the tree-covered mountains and lakes of the Adirondacks. Even small towns in North America seem to make the most of the summer, and local businesses support many concerts and other events. In the mountains, we found a tourist information bureau which supplied us with a rudimentary trail guide and we climbed to the top of Pinnacle Watch Hill.
We had nearly reached the summit of the canal – the stretch between Locks 20 and 21 marks the highest point, so that at Lock 21 and beyond, we were descending rather than ascending in the locks. This marked a point on our westward progress.
So far on the canal there had been few other boats, although we had seen several working boats bearing the New York State Canal System livery. But, as we approached the wide expanse of Oneida Lake, 20 miles long and five miles wide, there were several marinas and lots of small craft out on the water. The lake crossing was a welcome change after the enclosed feeling of the canal.
It shouldn’t be assumed that the weather in America is really any better than the weather at home. At Rome, we
moored on the public dock and enjoyed a violent thunderstorm, during which
Carina was pelted with hailstones the size of large marbles. Fortunately, we were downstairs in the cabin at the time.
We weren’t so lucky the day after we crossed Oneida Lake. The clouds were so black that we didn’t need the weather forecast to tell us we had a good chance of getting drenched. We agreed that we would go two miles to the next lock, tie up at the free dock there and wait for the rain to pass.
Unfortunately, we then decided to take a chance and go through the lock and tie up on the other side. Two minutes later, we had passed into the lock, the gates had irrevocably clanged shut behind us, and the rain poured down, heavy, sharp and penetrating. We hung
onto the ropes and got soaked to the skin while the lock emptied. The lock-keeper smiled and wished us a nice day.
At Three Rivers, we left the Erie Canal to follow the Oswego Canal to Lake Ontario. The Erie Canal turns west at this point and carries on to Buffalo, but this part of the canal has many low bridges and we would have had to dismantle Carina’s bimini, not a task to be undertaken lightly. We had also decided by this time that we would do the part of the Great Loop which includes the Trent-Severn Waterway, Georgian Bay and the North Channel in Canada, which meant crossing Lake Ontario from Oswego.
Leaving the Erie Canal after our journey of several weeks felt like an epic moment, which was not reflected in the bland landscape, the grey weather, and the small, apparently insignificant, blue sign pointing the way.
At Oswego we moored on the free dock. The area had once been home to textile mills and other businesses. In the evening, we walked round Fort Ontario, one of the many star-shaped forts constructed throughout America, and the scene in the 1750s of battles between the British and the French and Indians.
The next day we got up early to make the seven-hour crossing. To make the trip that day was not one of our better decisions and we learned the hard way that weather forecasts are not always accurate. After a worrying and very uncomfortable few hours, we landed at Prinyers Cove, Prince Edward County, Ontario, and at that point, we had no idea of the delights Canada held in store for us. *Nextmonth:onwardsintoCanada.
The scenery above Little Falls
Lock 2 on the Erie Canal
Movable dam at Lock 8
Canajoharie: typical small town America
Ruins of Lock 23
Lock 17 – the biggest on the canal
Route the Ainsworths took
Dredger near Ilion
Beautiful views from Pinnacle Watch Hill
Approaching Lock 23 Weir on the Oswego River Waiting for Lock 19 to open