The Erie Rising

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The canal is a pleasure boaters’ domain. There are several ways to get on the water: House- and canalboat rental companies have opened along the route, and several outfits offer short cruises for tourists who want to see the landscape from the water or to experience going through a lock. David Edney, a writer and canal enthusiast, commends the Erie to canoers and kayakers. The current can be deceptively stiff, he admits, and it’s an adventure going through a lock in a canoe, clinging to a side rope. But the rewards? Moments in the swamps in Wayne and Cayuga Counties during bird migration season when “you can feel, at times, like you’re alone at the dawn of creation.”

If you float through it in a leisurely manner, the canal takes about a week to traverse. We chose to use a mix of transport- foot, bike, boat, and car—starting near the western end of the canal and making our way east. First stop: Lockport, the last bit of the first canal to be completed.

Before the diggers descended in 1823, the area that became Lockport was mostly forest. The site presented two problems. First, going east from Tonawanda, the canal would have to make its way through the backside of the Niagara Escarpment, a truly nasty ridge of bedrock; second, it would have to drop some 60 feet down the face of the escarpment to continue on its course from Lake Erie to Rochester. So the workers cut a two-mile-long channel through the solid-rock escarpment and built a series of five locks, each lifting boats 12 feet. These took almost two years to finish. One set of the 1859 version of the “Famous Five” locks is left of what had been a dual system. Just how big a deal these locks were at the time—even the Marquis de Lafayette came for a look—can be gauged by the inscription carved into the base of the original: “Let posterity be excited to perpetuate our Free Institutions, and to make still greater efforts than their ancestors, to promote publick prosperity, by the recollection that these works of Internal Improvement, were achieved by the spirit and perseverance of Republican Freemen.” Today’s Lockport is struggling to regain that confidence. The 1970s left an unhappy architectural legacy, and the downtown is pockmarked with abandoned buildings and dusty businesses. But the town has not given up and is vigorously using the draw of the Famous Five to lure tourists. A new Visitors Center provides good maps and a bit of local history; the canal banks are neatly planted and maintained, and a boat service offers guided tours of the locks, while trolley tours rumble through the leafy older bits of town.

 
 

As you head east from Lockport, consider hiking along the newly refurbished Canalway Trail, a multiyear, multimillion-dollar effort by the Canal Corporation to match all 524 miles of the canal network with accompanying hiking trails. The section from Lockport to Palmyra—about 75 miles—is complete and a pleasure to use. Along the way, the towns of Medina and Albion are making earnest efforts to restore the canal to the heart of things. Both communities are rich in Victorian architecture and odd bits of canal lore. Culvert Road in Medina, for example, is the only place where one can drive under the canal. Dozens of newly restored Main Street shopfronts are made of the same Medina sandstone that was used to construct some of the original canal aqueducts- and, oddly, part of Buckingham Palace. In addition, the Pullman Universalist Church in Albion, locally famous for its Tiffany windows, was founded by George Pullman, who lived in the town before making his fortune in the Midwest by designing and making sleeping cars. Pullman got the idea for the railroad berths from the canal passenger boats, in which bedding was suspended from the ceiling and walls. Albion is sprucing up its canal heritage with a waterfront park, complete with nineteenthcentury-style lamps and benches. It is also renovating an 1837 bank building into offices and a hostel for canal travelers.

Like many of the improvements in the 29-county Erie Canal Corridor, these projects were funded through economic development programs run by the New York State Canal Corporation and the U.S. Departments of Housing and Urban Development and of Agriculture. But places like Albion illustrate a common problem. In its great days, the canal was the equivalent of the railyard—necessary, sure, but drawing a rough trade. Many communities therefore turned their backs on the waterway, siting respectable shops and offices a few blocks away. A century or more later, it is proving difficult to connect the canal to Main Street. For example, in Clyde, a desperately depressed little town near Syracuse, locals would love to draw some tourist trade, but to get to the town from the boat landing, travelers have to cross vacant lots and a set of railway tracks.