The Erie Rising

PrintPrintEmailEmailArmed with a faded picture and a dream, we set out from the supermarket parking lot. Our quest: one of the last visible remnants of the old Erie Canal. We check our equipment, hike through the wilderness of SUVs and shopping carts, and toil up a slope. At the summit, a full minute later, we scout ahead. Nothing but trees. We spot some natives. Following their directions, we negotiate our way through a trackless wasteland. And there it is: the Erie Canal, covered with brush and trees and chest-high ferns. We bushwhack along its route perhaps a quarter of a mile and reach our grail, an abandoned nineteenth-century lock. Exhausted with our efforts, we look for a way out—and spy a path leading back to Pittsford Plaza. A large sign reads: LOCK 62.

O.K., perhaps we made this a little more difficult than it needed to be. But if tracking the surviving bits and pieces of the old Erie Canal does not exactly require derring-do, it does reward patience and planning. It is also an excellent way to trawl an astonishing concentration of American history. Called the Eighth Wonder of the World when it opened, the 363-mile-long Erie Canal crossed upstate New York, linking Lake Erie to the Hudson River. It was in the words of the historian Paul Johnson “improbably the outstanding example of a human artifact creating wealth rapidly in the whole of history.” By connecting the sparsely settled West to the burgeoning cities of the East, the canal created a new sense of nationhood and of possibility. It was the making of New York City and the beginning of large-scale European settlement of the West. Perhaps more than any other single factor, the Erie Canal made plausible the idea of a country that stretched from sea to shining sea.

Today’s Erie Canal is not the original waterway. There have, in fact, been three or even four Erie Canals. The first, completed in 1825, was just 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide. Built and paid for entirely by New York State at a cost of $7.1 million, it was known as Clinton’s Ditch, after the New York governor DeWitt Clinton, who staked his political career on what proved to be a wildly successful venture. A second canal was soon required by the overwhelming traffic on the first. Known as the Enlarged Canal, this one was finished in 1862 and followed much the same course as Clinton’s Ditch (straightening out some doglegs along the way), but was 70 feet wide and 7 feet deep. In the 189Os, the state launched another enlargement—the third Erie Canal—that was never completed. Between 1905 and 1918, Clinton’s Ditch and the Enlarged Canal were subsumed into the Erie Barge Canal. This was much wider and deeper than its predecessors. It also offered electric instead of manual locks, tugs rather than mules pulling barges, and the capacity to handle boats carrying up to 3,000 tons of freight, 40 times more than the boats that had plied Clinton’s Ditch. But by the mid-twentieth century even this very big ditch had been superseded by the railroads, the St. Lawrence Seaway, and the ultimate killer, the New York State Thruway. Thence it sank into memory and disrepair.


Now, however, the Erie Canal is beginning to re-emerge as an economic force, thanks to more than a billion dollars of federal, state, and local investment and the stewardship of the New York State Canal Corporation, a subsidiary of the New York State Thruway Authority, created in 1993 to oversee the revitalization of the Erie and its lateral canals, the Champlain, Oswego, and Cayuga-Seneca. These waterways are at the heart of a strategy to boost tourism in a region that has been hit hard by military base closures and the decline of manufacturing. The hope is that lightning can strike twice, that the canal again can become—almost two centuries after its debut—a path to prosperity for upstate New York. The early signs are encouraging—hotel receipts are up 12 percent since 1996, and visitors to area National Park sites by 18.5 percent—but it’s no sure thing. Chuck Fortier, who rents pontoon boats to canalgoers, observes that progress is visible but nascent. “All the little towns have really improved their waterfront facilities,” he says, “but even people in Amherst [outside Buffalo] don’t understand that they have a canal in their back yard.”


One reason may be that whether by boat or by car, exploring the area still requires a high degree of self-reliance and pioneering zeal. The historical sites are not well linked, bike and canoe rentals are in short supply, and despite recent investments, the connections between the water and the shore are underdeveloped. But do it anyway. To travel the Erie is to encounter a beautiful new-growth forest as well as the history of transportation, engineering, agriculture, immigration, feminism, abolitionism, Indians, war, industry, and religion. Oh, and a few bizarre things too: JeIl-O Museum, anyone?