Erie Canal boating rivals vaunted European river cruises
Some folks dream of riding along canals in Europe, but we can do the same thing much closer to home.
Two of my friends and I navigated a 41-foot packet boat for a round-trip voyage of 88 miles on the Erie Canal from Macedon, N.Y., near Rochester, to Holley, N.Y.
A packet boat is a canal boat, a flat-bottomed barge-like boat that carries people and freight. We rented the boat from Mid-Lakes Navigation.
During our six-day voyage, we cruised through locks five times and gained passage under lift bridges a dozen times. We met plenty of interesting people along the way, who shared history with us. One was Tom Grasso, president emeritus of the Canal Society of New York State.
“You think that you are seeing New York going 65 miles per hour on the turnpike, but hop on a canal boat to experience the history and the countryside,” Grasso said. “Going canaling is the fastest way to slow down.”
We visited with him during one of the stopovers.
“The towpath (originally trod by mules that towed the early packet boats) are now bike paths, and the bicyclists are going faster than you,” he said with a laugh.
We discussed canal history while enjoying a gourmet feast at Richardson’s Canal House in Bushnell’s Basin in Pittsford, N.Y. It’s decorated in the Federal style with original chair rails and wall stencils the same as you would have found in western New York in the 1800s to 1820s. This restaurant, a favorite landing for canalers, is on the western Erie Canal just south of Rochester.
The canal, built from 1817 to 1825, connected the Hudson River north of New York City to Buffalo. Erie’s population had just topped 400, Buffalo was still a fort, and Albany was just a swamp before the hand-dug channel opened those areas to trade and settlement.
Earlier, Grasso had taken us around Richardson’s well-tended grounds to show us remnants of the original canal, which wasn’t much wider than a ditch.
“See that indentation in the lawn?” he said, pointing to a U-shaped depression that goes right up to the inn’s back porch. “This was the front of the inn when the canal came through here. It’s said that the boaters didn’t like the bartender, so they drove their mules so fast past here that the boat’s wake flooded into the door of the bar.”
I tried to imagine what that bartender did to provoke those canallers. You can see the remnants of the old canal yourself by walking to what is now the back side of the inn, which faces Marsh Road.
A shorter canal
During one of the canal enlargements, this bend was cut off as engineers straightened the water highway that passes through pastoral Americana.
“You cut off enough U’s, you get a shorter canal,” explained Grasso. “Thirteen miles was cut off the loops.”
Founded in 1818, Richardson’s flourished as the Erie Canal truncated at its door while builders struggled to finagle the canal across a deep valley just to the west.
One solution to crossing the valley was a proposed wooden bridge that would support a water canal across its top. However, locals opined that Lake Ontario’s heavy winds would blow over the five-story structure. Finally, they went back to the original idea of building a tall embankment and putting the canal on top of the earthen structure. Solutions engineered with the primitive technology of the day make up great stories of early American engineering feats.
“It’s a great engineering story unless you’re an engineer,” quips Grasso. “They built it (the Great Embankment), and five months later, the whole thing collapsed.”
500 miles of canal
The boat we used to travel the canal in was easy to operate, and it included two cabins, two heads, a shower and a galley with stove and fridge. Training included boat operation, radio communications and boat safety. In the evening, we tied up at village docks that offered water and electric hookups for free or a small fee. Some dockside amenities include showers, wi-fi and bicycles.
Teddy Roosevelt, while governor of New York, pressed for a wider and deeper canal to accommodate large freight barges. The “ditch” was upgraded using giant steam shovels from 1905 to 1918. The renovated channel, renamed and rebranded as “The Erie Barge Canal,” utilized natural waterways by incorporating seven rivers and five lakes on the east side of the now 500-mile-long canal system.
We passed by countryside that I’ve admired in Early American landscape paintings, but I had no idea that idyllic forests and meadows still existed in this neck of the woods. New Englanders settled the charming villages where we moored our boat for the evenings. A resurgence in restoring these historic towns makes for a variety of fun shopping, captivating museums and trendy restaurants.
On our last morning, we stood on the Fairport Lift Bridge talking with its operator, Larry Marling. This is the guy who raised the bridge for us and, as a canal worker for more than 10 years, he knows his Erie Canal.
“The bridge was built on a twist in the road back in 1914. Not one piece of the bridge is cut at the same angle,” he almost shouted over the hum of car tires on the steel grating of the bridge bed.
Besides being engineered for the road twist, the bridge floor is built at a 4% incline to compensate for the canal banks’ uneven elevations. The only lift bridge in the world built on a slope earned the Fairport bridge a mention in “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!”
Why go to Europe?
The boat rental was $2,200 for four nights. Other expenses included overnight dockage fees. Some are free and others are $10 to $14, plus what you would spend at a restaurant or for groceries. You can also set sail on your own boat, a rental boat or on half-day or multi-day cruise boats.
You can also explore the Erie Canal along the 365-mile long, off-road Erie Canalway Trail by foot, bicycle or kayak.
Many of my friends, who want to navigate small barges on canals in France or the United Kingdom, were surprised when I told them I was doing such a thing on this side of the pond. The nature, wildlife and pleasant New England-style villages along the Erie Canal rival those of Europe. Convenience and lower total travel costs made me ask them, “Why go to Europe when you can experience canaling right here?”