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 8 - Saturday
Bushnell’s Basin is a small hamlet just west of I-490 and east of the Irondequoit Creek. It was settled before the canal arrived and manufactured gunpowder and milled lumber. An inn was established in 1818 and after a long decline briefly became a nudist retreat. The inn was rescued from oblivion in the 1970s. Richardson’s CanalHouse became a high-end restaurant for Rochester area diners. Located a few feet below the canal berm, it is also an exceptional example of early-nineteenth century architecture.
I was up before dawn in hopes of sketching the inn. It was chilly and damp. Sketching in the dark is literally sketchy, but under a street lamp, I was able to rough the outline of the building and its wooded setting. As the sky lightened, I was able to add some detail and color. Brent caught up with me, and we walked into the hamlet to get strong coffee and a bag of really good bagels.
After breakfast, we said goodbye to our neighboring boaters, used the bow thruster to extricate the Belle from the adjacent boats and headed west over a very historic stretch of the canal known as the Great Embankment, an earthen berm elevating the canal above the Irondequoit Creek and valley. The first iteration of this high embankment was built between 1818 and 1822 and was heroically built with wheelbarrows and shovels, raising the canal high above the surrounding countryside. It has been widened and reinforced a number of times, notably after devastating failures in 1912 and 1974 which flooded the lands below. Vegetation has grown up along the sides of the embankment, but between gaps in the trees, one can still see fields well below the grade of the canal.
We entered Pittsford about ten minutes later. Pittsford is a pretty village with fine early nineteenth century architecture including the old Phoenix Hotel completed around 1820. Over the years, this hotel hosted DeWitt Clinton, Lafayette, Daniel Webster and Cornelius Vanderbilt among others. In the twentieth century Pittsford became a suburb of the growing city of Rochester. The historic buildings of the village are treasured and protected. The docks here were full of boaters, making even a short visit impossible.
On the west side of Pittsford, we could see the stub of a short channel where the Erie Canal bent north along its original path into downtown Rochester. The Barge Canal, built between 1905 and 1918 bypassed downtown Rochester. Demolition necessary for widening would have been too costly and disruptive. The canal was already snarling traffic as downtown lift bridges were constantly being raised and lowered, closing critical city streets each time.
We locked up through E-32 and E-33 which are situated in close proximity to each other just south of Brighton. We passed through about four miles of urban sprawl, malls, ugly highway bridges, and incessant traffic noise before reaching the relative quiet of Genesee Valley Park and our intersection with the Genesee River.
The Genesee River flows north from the cavernous valley now occupied by Letchworth State Park to the High Falls in downtown Rochester before emptying into Lake Ontario. The falls were a major source of water power and sprouted mills in the early years of the nineteenth century. Once the Erie Canal arrived and provided the means to ship grain in bulk inexpensively to Albany and New York, Rochester exploded in population and industry, growing from a population of 2,500 in 1821 to 13,500 in 1834. The river south of the city is languid and curving with park-like banks.
We encountered kayakers at the Genesee Waterway Center listening to music with earphones and unaware of our approach, so the Belle slowed to a crawl to avoid each of them. We passed the University of Rochester’s riverside chapel and passed beneath several city bridges before reaching the Corn Hill Landing. Just ahead was the Court Street dam and the end of navigation. Beyond the dam, the river is shallow, rocky and swift as it passes through downtown and over the precipice at High Falls.
We found plenty of room at the landing, tied up, locked up our boat and set off on foot to explore a little of Rochester. Our first destination was the 1842 Erie Canal aqueduct over the Genesee River, the second one built at the site. After the Barge Canal bypassed downtown, the stone-arched structure was modified in 1924 to carry subway trains through the trough of the closed canal while a second series of arches carried vehicular traffic above on what became Broad Street. The subway is gone and some canal aficionados still dream of watering the aqueduct for small boats. Other stone arch bridges remain over the river. The Main Street Bridge north of the canal was once lined by stores along the lines of the Pons de Vecchio in Florence so that walking down Main Street, there was no awareness of crossing over the powerful river. The stores were removed during urban renewal destroying this interesting anachronism but restoring a visual connection to the river.
We walked up State Street and the wedding cake-like Powers building toward the High Falls district north of downtown. We explored Brown’s Race and the stone ruins of the Triphammer forge before walking over the high Platt Street Bridge where we got a good look at the High Falls on the Genesee. Here, just beyond utilitarian rail and highway bridges, the river falls 100 feet straight over a cliff into a limestone chasm, pock marked by hydraulic tunnels once associated with the thriving milling industry.
It was here on Friday the 13th of November 1829 that Sam Patch, popularly known as the “Jersey Jumper” attempted to jump the falls before 8000 spectators, weeks after successfully conquering Niagara Falls. He failed to surface and his frozen body was discovered months later near the river’s mouth.
We attempted to get lunch at the Genesee Brewery on Cataract Street, but the line was long and we were anxious to return to our boat and find a quiet place to tie up for the night before it got dark. We met a couple from Texas with a smaller version of our boat tied up right behind us. They recently purchased it from the rental company in Macedon and they invited us to take a tour. We were impressed!
We got underway and headed up the river to the junction with the canal. Lora and Shauna made sandwiches and upon reaching the four corners of the river and canal, we turned west with hopes of reaching Spencerport for the evening. During the first hour, we passed through a channel cut straight through layers of limestone. This channel was bridged by about a dozen structures including highway bridges and a series of massive steel railroad bridges, most of which were abandoned. In Gates, at the western end of the rock cut, we re-entered the path of the original Erie Canal at Junction Lock. Here, the other stub of the original canal coming out of downtown Rochester remains. Quite a few folks in this area use the towpath for dog walking, jogging and photography.
Brent drove the boat the remainder of the way to Spencerport. The canal here passed through open fields and woods. One farm appeared to have found a new life as a wedding venue. After passing an abandoned dormitory barge, two fisherman darted out of a hidden boat basin into our path without looking and Brent had to throw the Belle into reverse in order to avoid running them over.
We arrived in Spencerport just before dark. Our boater friends from Bushnell’s Basin were here with a campfire and warily watched us dock our big, clumsy steel boat next to their fiberglass cruiser. They took our lines and exclaimed wryly that we were like “dog s--t on the bottom of their shoes.” We responded by picking up a six-pack of locally-brewed “Too Kind” beer for them at the in-town grocery. It began to rain. We buttoned up the Belle, prepared leftovers for supper and played a trivia game. Brent is very competitive and we got loud enough to probably annoy our friends and a few other boaters. After a few off-color outbursts, we figured it would be best to call it a day. It rained hard but we had a dry and restful night.
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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