Welcome to the final 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.
This is the final day of Muddy Paddle's adventure on the Erie Canal. We hope you've enjoyed traveling along with him.
Day 11 - Tuesday, Final Day
The exercise troop was on the dock early this morning shouldering straps. Their drill sergeant ordered them to the retaining wall near our boat, instructed them to attach to the ball and pipe railing above it and then lean in and out on command, in step with a techno tape from her boom box. It was a rude way to be awoken. Shauna climbed out of her bunk and went up to the quarterdeck to glare at them, but they were clearly more afraid of the drill sergeant. They then performed a routine on mats. The leering gent from last evening got to his park bench perch in time for this and remained to keep an eye on us even after the exercise troop dispersed.
We didn’t linger. Canal bridges open for boats at 7:00 AM. After mugs of strong coffee and slices of coffee cake, we called ahead to the Prospect Avenue lift bridge, and pushed off. The operator was ready about ten minutes later and when our light turned green, only a few cars were delayed. It was a cloudy but mild morning and the canal waters were mirror-like. As we returned to a rural stretch of the canal we saw birds and a fox trotting along the towpath. Lora and Shauna made some breakfast burritos which we enjoyed on deck.
Brent took the helm as we approached Middleport. We decided to stop here, see the town and replenish our ice chest. The bridge here was ready for us after a short wait, and Brent proceeded to dock us on the concrete wall next to the bridge. We hit the wall at an oblique angle with a full head of steam, knocking condiments off the galley shelves and ringing the ship’s bell! I jumped off the boat with a line before “Captain Crunch” could try it again and managed to pull the stern of the boat back to the wall and tie everything up parallel to the wall.
Shauna had called ahead to find out where the nearest convenience store with ice was located. The gas station attendant told us it was only a few blocks from the canal. Maybe it seemed that way if you were used to driving around here, but the gas station turned out to be almost a mile away. Nevertheless, the exercise was good for us and we found some interesting architecture along the way including a cobblestone church.
A breeze picked up later in the morning as we continued west. Brent brewed some fresh coffee just before we arrived at the Gasport lift bridge. The cabin top was cambered so I set my mug down on the deck as we throttled back to approach the bridge gently. Brent did the same. We were unable to raise the operator at first and a breeze was blowing us into the bridge. I tried backing us up while steering with the bow thruster but the wind kept trying to push the boat sideways. While stepping back and forth to see how much leeway I had on each side, I kicked both mugs over, making the steel deck both slippery and hot! After a few minutes of awkwardly trying to keep our boat in position, I gave up and headed the boat into an old wall. Brent tied us up and ran ahead to the lift bridge to ask some local fishermen there how we could get a hold of the operator. Just then, the bridge operator arrived by car and after picking Brent up, we went through the bridge.
We arrived in Lockport sooner than expected. Lockport is a small city situated right on the edge of the Niagara Escarpment, the same landform that underlies Niagara Falls. This geological barrier thrown across the route to Buffalo and Lake Erie represented a critical engineering challenge for the original canal builders. It was met by devising a flight of stair-step locks up the slope, cut right into bedrock. The “Flight of Five” as it is now known, was one of the great engineering achievements of the original Erie. The original locks were enlarged in 1842 and one side of these (the five ascending locks) remain. The other side was replaced by two massive concrete locks completed in 1914 during the construction of the twentieth century Barge Canal. They have a combined lift of 49 feet.
The approach to Locks E-34 and 35 passes through a valley of sorts with increasingly high terrain on each side. We saw a series of big nineteenth century houses with generous lawns along Market Street to the south. The Adams Street lift bridge has been closed to traffic for some time and locked in the raised position for boats. The Exchange Street lift bridge remains operational and when we spoke with the operator, he alerted the locks a short distance further west. The canal takes a slight jog to the left and the gates of the big locks loom ahead with turbulent water in the pool below.
Dave, one of two extremely friendly operators here asked us to wait as he locked down an eastbound tour boat. He then gave us the green light, guided us into the first lock chamber and took us up. The gates at the west end of the chamber opened and admitted us to the second chamber. Again, the gates closed behind us and we rose to the top of the escarpment. Once in position, he walked over to introduce himself and invited us to tie up on a wall that leads to the historic locks where excess water is discharged. It was a very kind offer that put us right in the center of Lockport’s most interesting attractions and spared us from having to resort to the upper terminal wall at least half a mile further west.
After securing the Belle we walked a short distance into town to visit the Erie Canal Discovery Center, situated in a nineteenth century stone church building. The Center offers a 15-minute documentary describing the construction of the first locks as well as interesting artifacts. We explored the “Flight of Five” locks which were recently restored to operation for small boats. The current locks were completed in 1842 and were in use for more than 70 years. The limestone walls and wrought iron railings have grooves worn in them from the repetitive use of taut tow lines hauled by straining teams of horses and mules. We picked up lunch at a nearby burger joint and ate at a terrace overlooking the locks. We went to the famous Lake Effect ice cream shop for sundaes and enjoyed them under a gazebo on Canal Street.
We were less than a day from Buffalo and the western terminus of the canal, but we did not have enough time remaining with the “Belle” to cruise there, find an overnight berth in one of the Tonawandas and still make it east to Seneca Falls. We needed to turn back now. We said goodbye to Dave, the lock operator and he prepared lock E-35 for our entry without any wait. I made a complete hash out of getting into the lock with the creeping transmission, banging the wall and lining up crooked. Up in the bow, Brent had almost no line to grab. In the stern, my boat hook inadvertently extended and I nearly lost my purchase on the line at my end. Fortunately, we went down quickly, entered E-34 and went down there just as quickly.
The huge gates boomed open. A tour boat was waiting just outside to lock up. We waved to the passengers, thanked Dave on the radio, and slowly got underway. “Captain Crunch” took the helm and we began the three-day return to Seneca Falls.
Transiting the historic Barge Canal system and discovering the communities that grew up along its path is a perfect way to reconnect with people, experience our state in a more intimate way and to better appreciate the history and natural beauty of New York State. The slow pace of travel along the canal encourages exploration, reflection, creative pursuits and the opportunity to get to know people and towns that are invisible while driving at high speeds to more traveled destinations and cities. The unplanned discoveries, minor incidents and occasional challenges enrich the experience and deepen its authenticity.
The Erie Canal and its branches once defined New York State and the ability of New Yorkers to accomplish what others could not imagine. The system still connects all of state’s major cities by water. It still links the Hudson River, the Great Lakes, the Finger Lakes, Lake Champlain and many of New York’s most popular recreational destinations. The canal system contributes to irrigation, flood control, and power generation. Importantly, it remains available albeit underutilized for commercial transportation, especially for oversized products such as turbines.
Today’s canal system is a significant driver of heritage tourism providing a scenic corridor for private, rental and tour boats as well as for walkers, paddle driven craft and bicyclists. It is strikingly beautiful. Landscapes both grand and prosaic come into focus at each turn and canal-side communities with historic main streets have rolled out the red carpet for visitors. In spite of this, New York State’s canals are still enjoyed by and appreciated by too few.
In recent years, the maintenance and operation of these canals, once managed by the NYS Department of Public Works and NYS Department of Transportation, has been transferred to the NYS Thruway Authority and now the NYS Power Authority, an organization headquartered in White Plains with little institutional affinity for navigation. The current Reimagine Initiative, begun in 2017, offers an opening to canal critics who feel the system costs to much, benefits too few, and should be dismantled into small recreational segments for local uses. Instead of diminishing our canals, the system should be protected as the critical waterway that connects virtually all of New York State.
I hope readers of this account will discover the Barge Canal while it remains fully operational. Explore its navigable waters, spend money in its towns, commune with New York State’s past and advocate for its continued operation as a navigable waterway and corridor for investment.
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.
That's all folks! Thank you for joining us on this Erie Canal journey. 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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