Welcome to the next episode in our 11-part account of Muddy Paddle's narrowboat trip through the Erie Canal and the Cayuga & Seneca Canal in western New York. The New York State Barge Canal system is in many ways a tributary of the Hudson River. It still connects the Great Lakes, the Finger Lakes, and Lake Champlain with the Atlantic Ocean by way of the Hudson River. Our contributing writer, Muddy Paddle, shares his experiences aboard the "Belle Mule." All the included illustrations are from his trip journal and sketchbooks.
Day 10 - Monday
I quietly brewed a cup of coffee and climbed out of the Belle for a short walk and a sketch. It is warm and humid and the sky was already threatening. When I got back to the boat, Brent was up and out and talking with a young village police officer. We treated ourselves to breakfast at a nearby diner and called ahead for the bridge operator before disconnecting shore power and casting off our lines. When we were lined up, the Main St bridge went up and we throttled up on our way to Albion and Medina.
We called the bridge operator at Holley and the bridges that he operates at here and at Hulberton were ready as we approached each. About six miles later, we arrived at Albion. Just as in Brockport, docking is situated between two lift bridges so we explained to the operator that we only needed a lift at Ingersoll Street. We tied up along the bulkhead with rotten timbers and were immediately beset by bees. It was hot and humid and it looked as though we were close to getting slammed by another strong thunderstorm, so we closed all of our window ports and hatches and locked everything up before exploring the town.
Albion is the county seat of Orleans County. The business district is centered along a north-south Main St extending perpendicularly south from the canal. A block of very early canal stores with hipped roofs and stepped parapets remains at the lift bridge. There are also handsome late nineteenth century commercial buildings with cast iron storefronts and bracketed cornices for several blocks south. The courthouse square begins two blocks south of the canal. A domed courthouse is at the center and impressive churches gather around the surrounding streets. We visited an antique store and picked up a couple of small and inexpensive souvenirs.
We walked up to the Post Office to see a terrific WPA mural of a generic canal town at a prosperous moment. A tug and barge are passing beneath the open lift bridge, farms are cultivating in the distance and a factory employing townsfolk belches coal smoke nearby.
The southern horizon was filled with an ominous purple cloud bank with white wispy clouds gathering around its base. A huge storm was rampaging only a few miles away from us but it seemed to be moving east and not likely to spread in our direction.
We walked over to the George Pullman Memorial Unitarian Church in hopes of experiencing its lavish Tiffany interior. Built in 1894 by Pullman as a gift to his original hometown, the church is a beautiful but scaled-down cousin of the famous Trinity Church at Copley Square in Boston. Pullman made his fortune building richly appointed Pullman cars for the railroads. Albionites have said that he got the idea from the long packet boats with sleeping bunks passing through town on a regular basis. Unfortunately, the church was closed.
Grateful for having dodged the big storm, we returned to our floating version of a Pullman car, waded through the bees and called the Main Street bridge for a lift. The operator was ready for us as soon as we were in place and traffic on Route 98 came to a stop for a few moments as we left Albion behind. We travelled through orchards and fields cultivated for corn and cabbage with only a fringe of trees and bushes along the banks of the canal. An eagle jumped off of a tree limb hanging over the towpath and swooped down over the canal ahead of us before ascending high above the farmland to our south. It was still hot and humid and the skies to our south remained dark purple and stormy.
We called ahead to the Eagle Harbor lift bridge and the operator was ready for here and also at Knowlesville a few miles further west. Eagle Harbor still has a brick church along the canal from its heyday as a small canal port, but little else remains.
About one mile further west, we passed over the Medina Culvert, a stone arched tunnel beneath the canal that carries Culvert Rd beneath the raised embankments of the canal. The culvert was begun in 1823 and lengthened as the canal was widened in the 1840s and again in 1916. We stopped the Belle here and stood up on the cabin top where we could see the road below us north and south. Unfortunately, there was no place to safely tie our boat up so that we could climb down and visit the site.
The humidity finally broke as the big wide loop in the canal east of Medina came into view with rooftops and steeples in the background. One portion of this loop serves as an aqueduct, carrying the canal above Oak Orchard Creek. The other portion serves as a wide boat basin with a long dock running behind Medina’s business district. Brent drove us toward the long dock but came in a little too fast. We hit the bulkhead hard. The steel hull “took another one for the team” but gave up little more than paint. “Captain Crunch” roughed up a little more steel trying to square the boat up, much to the amusement of three obnoxious teens mocking us out from a nearby picnic table.
The same teens who chuckled at our rough landing misdirected us when we asked about where we could find ice. After fooling around along Main Street for half an hour, Brent and I stopped in a Mediterranean style family restaurant and asked the hostess if she could tell us where we could buy ice. She said, “just a moment,” and returned a few minutes later with two ten-pound bags of ice, compliments of the house.
Meanwhile, a troupe of fitness fillies arrived at the landing and began a rhythmic exercise routine with loud music and drumsticks. They beat the pavement and steel railings hard while an elderly gent nearby took an unhealthy interest. Brent and I returned to the boat to make dinner only to find that the meat was ironically frozen solid. Given the racket next to the boat, everyone was ready to get dinner on Main Street. We opted for the same friendly restaurant with the free ice.
Medina’s Main Street features rows of remarkably well-preserved nineteenth century business blocks, many built from locally quarried Medina sandstone. These buildings include handsome cast iron storefronts, hooded windows and elaborate cornices and parapets. A tall sandstone opera house built in 1865 was being restored. The sandstone town hall included an exhibit on Medina’s famous quarries and stone cutters. Like many canal towns, Medina still has echoes of its Irish canawler heritage. Fitzgibbons Public House on Main Street is one of these icons. Medina has something many other towns are missing; music piped-in from the business district street lamps.
After dinner, we walked over to the Railroad Museum, well after it had closed. We were sorry to miss the 200 foot-long train layout in the New York Central freight house, but enjoyed seeing historic rolling stock on one of the sidings including two big GM diesel locomotives from the early 1950s painted in Twentieth Century Limited livery. We returned to our boat, played Pictionary at the galley table and took serious showers at the transient boater facility a short walk away. Some sprinkles came along at night but none of the anticipated thunderstorms developed.
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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