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 6 - Thursday
We had a peaceful night on the wall in Newark. Newark was once a substantial canal town, but there is little evidence of its historic role along the canal itself. The town developed at the site of Miller’s Basin and then absorbed the small settlement of Lockville to the east. Newark gained notoriety in 1848 when the Fox sisters began communicating with spirits in a small house north of town. Spiritualism became established as one of many new belief systems and utopian communities rising out of central New York’s “burned over district.” The Fox sisters’ house was moved to the Buffalo area by canalboat in 1915 and became a shrine at Lilydale. Lilydale remains a spiritualist center, but sadly the house was lost to fire in 1955.
We visited the old canal stores at the site of Lockville with their stepped gable party walls and the distinctive rounded corner facing the canal and the preserved walls of old lock 59 nearby.
Fueled with Dunkin Donuts’ muffins, we got underway around 9:00 AM. A few raindrops fell, but it didn’t amount to anything. In less than an hour, we reached a broad, crescent shaped section of the canal at Port Gibson. Referred to as the “widewaters,” this lake-like stretch is picturesque and full of wildlife. A bridge and church spire were reflected in the still morning water. We approached Palmyra about an hour later. In spite of its proximity, Palmyra’s old business district and churches are not visible from the canal due to topography and trees.
Palmyra was settled in the last decade of the eighteenth century. The principal streets were laid out in 1792 and a blockhouse was built to protect settlers in 1794. Located on the Ganargua Creek which permitted small boat navigation to Clyde River at Lyons, the place was originally referred to as Tolland or Swift’s Landing before being named for the ancient city of palms in Syria. It’s hard to imagine a less likely place name for this swampy and leafy place.
The Montezuma Turnpike arrived from the Syracuse area in 1815. The Erie Canal was completed here in 1822 leading to an immediate development boom. Three boat basins and a drydock were built and a series of brick store buildings and houses were added to the burgeoning village before 1830.
Palmyra was already an important commercial center when Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon here in 1830 and founded the Church of Latter Day Saints. Smith and his followers were not welcome in Palmyra and moved west to Ohio in 1831. The church he founded eventually returned to the village and acquired his farm, the brick store building where the Book of Mormon was first published and of course Hill Cumorah where the 1400 year-old golden tablets were first revealed to Smith. These sites are preserved as touchstones of the Mormon faith and today draw many thousands of pilgrims from around the world.
The village also features a remarkable ensemble of nineteenth century church architecture where Main Street and Church Street intersect. Four churches with prominent spires stand at each of the four corners almost like a four-poster bed.
After passing beneath the Church St bridge, we tied up at the south wall near the approach to Lock E-29. As a courtesy, we radioed the lock to let the operator know that we would not be requesting a lift until later in the day. Our goal for the day was to experience the village and to visit Joseph Smith’s farm about two miles to the south. We untied our bicycles from the Belle’s cabin top and walked them over a bridge spanning the Ganargua Creek into Aqueduct Park. The park includes a scenic canal aqueduct built in 1857 and a change bridge built to facilitate the the movement of tow animals from one side of the canal to the other. After a long history in several locations, this particular bridge was reassembled here where its use can be interpreted.
After riding past several tree-lined blocks of homes, we found ourselves in the countryside experiencing its smells and sounds. It was overcast, but we were grateful as we climbed the grade to the Joseph Smith farm without the sun beating down on us. Lora, who hadn’t been on a bike in many years, slowed down too much on the hill and tipped over into the ditch, spilling snacks out of her bag. She had a soft landing but looked around quickly to see if anyone noticed.
We arrived at the Joseph Smith Farm visitor center and locked our bikes up at a picnic table. Almost all visitors come by car or bus, so our arrival was met with some curiosity. We were greeted by a senior couple from Colorado who serve as church elders and docents. The husband told us a little about himself and then summarized the early life of Joseph Smith and the founding of the Church of Later Day Saints before taking us on a long walking tour which included Smith’s two homes and the Sacred Grove.
The farm had undergone an extensive restoration, taking it back to its appearance in the 1820s. This involved closing the old farm road and removing the pavement, building a bypass for modern vehicular traffic, recreating the 1818 Smith log cabin where Smith received his first visions and conducting an extensive restoration of the farmhouse where Smith lived between 1825 and 1829. All of this work was carefully informed by archaeologists and architectural historians based on extensive physical evidence. The investigations of the the farmhouse were so detailed that nail holes were matched and whitewashing gaps on interior boards revealed the original placement of furniture.
Although we were presented with copies of the Book of Mormon at the conclusion of our tour, the docents were respectful; educating and not proselytizing. The majority of visitors are Mormon and their visits are conducted as spiritual journeys.
We rode our bikes back to the village in search of a quick lunch. We stopped at a pizza joint on East Main Street and as soon as Lora lost forward momentum, she tipped over again, skinning her knee. The pizza shop had outdoor picnic tables and was located across the street from the Grandin Building where the Book of Mormon was first published. This building has also been restored by the Church of Later Day Saints and is part of the pilgrimage made by faithful church members to Palmyra.
After lunch, we stopped in several stores and visited the Alling Coverlet Museum. This is a small but outstanding museum dedicated to nineteenth century carpet coverlets and the process of weaving them using programmed designs on punch cards, predecessors of the computer punch cards of the 1960s and 1970s.
As we were leaving, we encountered a mother and son, bicycling from Boston to the west coast. We were ashamed to have complained about our sore bottoms! We returned to our boat and made a dinner of grilled chicken, scalloped potatoes and asparagus and enjoyed it outdoors in a picnic pavilion. We watched a movie and called it a day.
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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