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 9 - Sunday
The rain let up in the morning and I went out to do a little thumbnail sketch of the village (above). One of the locals was interested in what I was doing and came over to chat. He worked as a garbage man and told me that “he sees everything.” He noted that the white steeple in my sketch became the subject of a favorite photograph he produced when he saw it gleaming against a dark storm cloud. A hole in the cloud admitted a single shaft of blinding white light trained right on the church. He printed this image many times with different hues and colors and still considered it one of his best pieces.
Brent manned the range and made frittatas for breakfast. After several reinforcing cups of hot coffee, we disconnected our shore power, cast off lines and headed west under the Union Street lift bridge. This is the first in a series of 15 similar lift bridges we will pass beneath, all built between 1910 and 1918.
These bridges were a practical necessity for many canal town business districts where obtaining sufficient vertical clearance for tugboats and motor ships with conventional fixed spans would have required long approaches blocking access to essential stores and businesses situated in close proximity to the canal.
The bridges are built with riveted Warren trusses and rise and fall on four legs placed in caissons. The caisson on one side features an electric motor and a counterweight approximating the dead weight of the bridge. Cables linking the legs together beneath the bridge deck transmit the lift equally to all four legs. The bridges typically feature an operator’s tower with good visual range up and down the canal, stairs that allow pedestrians to cross when the deck is raised, crossing gates and signal lights to stop traffic and a clanging bell to alert everyone that the bridge is in motion. They are a defining feature of the western portion of the canal for both the boaters and the towns.
We reached a second lift bridge about 30 minutes later in Adams Basin. Adams Basin, once a port for warehousing and shipping agricultural products is now quiet with only a few houses and barns. A mid-nineteenth century canal inn survives on the north bank of the canal and was fittingly used until recently as a bed and breakfast. The bridge operator spoke with us on channel 13 and was ready for us when we arrived. There was no traffic to disrupt here. As we continued west, he pleasantly transmitted “Have a nice day, captain.”
Today’s destination is Brockport. Docking is situated between two lift bridges and unlike Adams Basin, both carry plenty of traffic. The bridge operator shuttles between the two bridges by bicycle. We called ahead to let her know that we needed to pass under the Park Avenue bridge but not the Main Street bridge. Appreciating the heads-up, the bridge was already up as we approached with plenty of cars backed up. Other boats were on the wall at Harvester Park and we had a tricky piece of parallel parking to perform to claim our space.
Brockport was founded in 1823 when it briefly served as the western terminus of the Erie Canal. Heil Brockway built packet boats here and operated a successful line between Rochester and Buffalo soon after the canal was completed. A college was established here in 1841 which evolved into today’s State University College at Brockport, the institution that now dominates the village economy and culture. And in 1846, Cyrus McCormick, founder of International Harvester, produced the first successful mechanical harvesters in the world at a Brockport foundry, hence the appellation “Harvester Park.”
In many ways, Brockport is the quintessential canal town. Its Main Street is perpendicular to the canal and lined by two and three story brick commercial blocks with cast iron storefronts and bracketed cornices. Steepled churches rise up around the fringe of the business district. Brick and frame houses fill out the blocks more distant from the canal and the college campus stretches west from the residential neighborhoods to farm fields outside of the old village. A modern area of banks, supermarkets and fast food is located about a mile south of the canal. The banks of the canal were lined with livery stables and storage buildings, several of which remain and are now used for businesses and restaurants. The village is keenly aware of its history and has pioneered a “museum without walls.” Street signs are custom made with silhouettes of canal boats, trains and trolleys. The presence of the college has supported restaurants, local brewing, coffee shops, a really nice bookstore and even a symphony orchestra!
We removed our bikes and set off to visit the 1894 Soldiers Memorial about a mile east of the village. After the Civil War, a local initiative got underway to establish a veterans’ cemetery in town. Following the philosophy that “if you build it, they will come,” a chapel, vault and observation tower were built to promote the project. Only several veterans were buried before the project petered out. The Gothic-styled tower with a spiral staircase to an observation gallery was neglected but survived for decades and became a destination for many college students. By the 1970s, the spiral stairs were mainly broken and the gallery had begun to collapse. In recent years, the tower was stabilized without the gallery and rededicated. We had a little difficulty finding the site off Owens Road but got help from neighbors who directed us to a hill behind a fire station. The truncated tower is now well cared for and well worth looking for.
We remounted our bikes and rode into the village and then over to the college campus for a little tour. The town and campus are compact and pedestrian friendly. We checked out menus at several restaurants and decided to return in the evening to a place in an old canal building next to the Main Street lift bridge.
After putting our bikes back on the boat, we decided to make a short three-mile boat trip to Holley to visit the canal park and waterfall. Holley is a small town built around a large square surrounded by two and three-story commercial buildings with cast iron storefronts. A Romanesque style campanile of a former church presides at the head of the table so-to-speak. The canal by-passed the square in 1856 and today, only the East Avenue lift bridge suggests the presence of a town while transiting the canal. We docked at the canal park, and planned to picnic at the gazebo, but a young Marine in his dress blues and his bride were there for photographs as we carried lunch off the boat.
We found a picnic pavilion nearby and decamped there. After lunch, a couple of kids showed us the way to the waterfall. The waterfall is associated with a waste weir or spillway on the canal. After cascading down a steep, rocky bank, excess canal water flows into a creek which then flows north into a culvert and under the canal.
We returned to Brockport, walked around Main Street and Market Street and had a pleasant dinner alongside the canal. After dinner, we went out for ice. In the evening we played a trivia game. We had a restless night on the wall. It began with a couple of loud drunkards on the opposite bank of the canal sitting on a park bench and repeatedly asking “eh?” followed by colorful but innumerable f-bombs. Voices really carry over the water. Later, a deranged duck relentlessly pecked the Belle’s steel hull waterline in search of mussels. I woke up early, wrote in my journal and went back to bed for a few more hours.
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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