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

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