The New York State Barge Canal system is in many ways a tributary of the Hudson River. Initiated in the early nineteenth century and reinvented in the early twentieth century, New York State’s canals are part of an integrated waterway linking the Great Lakes, Lake Champlain and the Finger Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean by way of the Hudson River. The nineteenth century development of the Hudson River Valley including its expanding cities and canalboat tows is inextricably linked to the history of these canals.
Our contributing writer, Muddy Paddle, has previously shared his adventures on the Hudson by canoe, and aboard the Half Moon. He loved boating, but as he reached retirement age, long distance paddling and its lack of creature comforts became a little less appealing. A narrow boat canal adventure was exactly what was needed. Muddy went to college along the canal and during his working years maintained many connections to the canal and its communities. Touring the canal in a comfortable boat with a dry cabin and a well-equipped galley was very appealing. His wife and best friends would join him.
All the included illustrations are from Muddy Paddle’s sketchbooks.
There are several excellent canalboat rental outfits but Muddy selected a well-worn narrow boat from a private owner for this trip. He and his crew members picked up the boat on the Cayuga and Seneca Canal in Seneca Falls and planned to travel north to the junction with the Erie at May’s Point and then west on the Erie to Buffalo. The all steel Belle Mule was a retired hire boat measuring 46 feet in length, 12 feet in beam and a draft of about 3.5 feet. She featured a virtually flat bottom with a rounded bow and stern. Her cabin was built of steel and contained a galley and salon at the after end and two compartments forward, each with a head, and bunks for four. She had been designed to recall the shape of a nineteenth century horse-drawn packet boat. The Belle was powered by a Yanmar diesel beneath the quarterdeck and a bow thruster for help in docking in tight quarters. She carried a pedestal helm with a steering wheel and engine controls. The quarterdeck was protected from rain and sun by a canvas canopy. A marine radio was carried under the canopy with the microphone hanging directly above the helm.
The weather was terrible for the the entire week before Muddy’s departure and rainwater flooded the Erie throughout central New York. The Finger Lakes were over their banks flooding Penn Yan and discharging millions of gallons of water into the Seneca River and other feeders of the canal including the Clyde River. An advisory was issued temporarily closing the Erie but allowing the Cayuga and Seneca to remain open. So Muddy changed the itinerary to explore the Finger Lakes in hopes that the Erie would re-open later in the week, which it did. His illustrated account of the adventure, taken from his on-board journal, is presented in the following pages.
Day 1 - Saturday
We sailed to Seneca Falls aboard Brent’s Silverado. The bed of the truck was filled will gear and provisions and the hatch was covered with a tarp due to the never-ending rain. The weather improved as we plotted our final approach to the village. Arriving at the Water St bulkhead, we met the boat owner’s representative, Lou. Lou turned over the keys and we took the boat out for a brief shakedown cruise on Lake Van Cleef to get acquainted with her operation and handling.
Lake Van Cleef is a product of the early twentieth century Barge Canal. The falls on the Seneca River, and the stone locks carrying boats around the falls were dammed and flooded in 1915 to create two massive concrete locks with a combined 42-foot drop and an adjacent hydroelectric plant. Many of the water-powered factories in Seneca Falls were demolished in preparation for the flooding and the character of the village was forever changed. The old Cayuga and Seneca Canal locks and building foundations remain intact at the bottom of the lake. We had a nice ten-minute cruise before returning to the wall, moving our gear aboard and then berthing the truck at a village lot.
After getting the boat settled, we motored under the George Bailey bridge (Seneca Falls is said to have been the inspiration for Bedford Falls in the Jimmy Stewart film “It’s a Wonderful Life”) and continued several miles west on the C&S Canal to Waterloo to take in Memorial Day weekend celebrations.
Founded on the site of a Cayuga village destroyed during the American Revolution, Waterloo was settled in the 1790s, named “New Hudson” in 1807 and then re-named “Waterloo” in 1816 in commemoration of Napoleon’s 1815 defeat. The village retains fine early nineteenth century houses and later nineteenth century commercial blocks.
Waterloo bills itself as the birthplace of Memorial Day, first celebrated here in 1866. At Lafayette Park, we found an enormous display of flags, food vendors, and bands playing country, swing and rock. A tribute rock band belted out Judas Priest and AC/DC and a country band performed “Sentimental Journey.”
We visited a Civil War re-enactment camp and listened to the Erie Canal song accompanied by guitar. The “Erie Canal” song was tamed and published by Thomas Allen as “Low Bridge, Everybody Down” in 1905, but earlier versions referenced the darker side of life along the canal. One of the many folk stanzas still circulating at the time the song got cleaned up referred to Sal as an alcoholic cook who “died in sin, and had too much gin; ain’t no bar where she didn’t go, from Albany to Buffalo.”
We had a food truck dinner at the park and returned to the Belle for the evening where we watched fireworks above the village from the cabin top. Lou stopped by before we turned-in for the evening and asked us if we wanted to go out for a few beers. Brent lied and said that he was an 67 and “too old for that kind of nonsense.”
Muddy Paddle grew up near the junction of the Hudson River and the Erie Canal. His deep interest in the canal goes back to childhood when a very elderly babysitter regaled him with stories about her childhood on the canal in the 1890s. Muddy spent his college years on the canal and spent many of his working years in a factory building overlooking the canal. Over the years he has traveled much of the canal system by boat and by bicycle.
Muddy Paddle's Erie Canal adventure will return next Friday! To read other adventures by Muddy Paddle, see: Muddy Paddle: Able Seaman, about Muddy Paddle's adventures on the replica Half Moon, and Muddy Paddle's Excellent Adventure on the Hudson, about his canoe trip down the Hudson River.
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