The Erie Rising

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The western half of today’s canal runs on almost the exact course of Clinton’s Ditch and the Enlarged Erie. All along the way, there are intriguing little glimpses of the past. In Spencerport, a section of what is now Main Street was once part of Clinton’s Ditch itself; Brockport was the home of the first factory to manufacture Cyrus McCormick’s reaper, which made large-scale farming a possibility in the Midwest; the goods, naturally, were shipped back East via the canal. The site of that factory is now McCormick Park. Rochester has a gorgeous aqueduct, completed in 1892, that used to carry the canal over the Genesee: Today, a road built on top of the aqueduct carries cars over the river. Rochester was, in the 182Os, the country’s fastest-growing town—indeed, the first boomtown in America. When the canal was paved over in the early twentieth century, the streets that replaced it were given names that resonate of the city’s watery past: Aqueduct, Basin, and Race. Craig Williams, of the New York State Museum, offers one more hint of the original canal: “Go to South Avenue, near Court Street, look south toward the river, and to the left, you’ll see a ditch. That’s it.”

For those whose attachment to the canal does not go as far as hunting down ditches, head for Pittsford, a jewel of a little town that shows how the canal can be used to advantage. In the late 1960s, state officials gave serious thought to paving over the town’s portion of the Erie Canal. Instead, they opted to try to make it pay, with efforts like the development of Schoen Place. The site of still-standing grain and coal towers on the banks of the canal, Schoen Place now offers a number of lively little shops; the coal tower is a restaurant, and excursion boats cruise to nearby Lock 32 from a new landing financed by local businesses. As a result, the canal area bustles. Moreover, just east of downtown Pittsford is one of the more dramatic remnants of Clinton’s Ditch, the Great Embankment, a huge earthwork about 70 feet high and nearly a mile long that carried the Erie across Irondequoit Creek. It remains America’s largest earth embankment. Some compared it with the Pyramids of Egypt.

 

They needed to be inventive. At the time Clinton’s Ditch was being dug, there was not a single engineering school in America. The building of the Erie Canal itself served that role, educating a generation of talented men who went on to build more and more canals.

For an example of contemporary inventiveness at work, visit the hamlet of Bushnell’s Basin, just around the bend from Pittsford. Vivienne Tellier understood the canal’s recreational possibilities long before the Canal Corporation and HUD came on the scene. In 1978 she bought Richardson’s Canal House, the oldest surviving canal inn on the system. The 1818 building had seen some tough times, serving as a nudist colony in the 1930s and a flophouse in the 1960s and 1970s. Now restored, it is on the National Register of Historic Places and offers elegant meals, as well as a friendly tavern. It shares a parklike setting with the comfortable and unfussy Oliver Loud Inn, built in 1812 and moved to its present site in 1986. The back lawn sweeps down to a beautiful stretch of the Enlarged ErieErie Barge Canal.

Fairport, four miles east, was a swamp before the canal; after, it became “a wild little boom town that traded in everything from silk to snake oil,” according to a tourist brochure. Today, it is a tidy place that has figured out how to put the water to work, with an excursion boat service, bike and canoe rentals, and canal-side caf»s and shops —surprisingly rare features along the route. The bike trail from here to Palmyra is particularly fine, well groomed and bucolic with the canal a friendly nearby presence. Just before Macedon, follow the signs and take a short tramp through the woods for a peek at an ancient Old Erie Lock 60, built in 1842, and one of the more appealing historical markers. “Through these hallowed gates,” it reads, “passed untold thousands.” Macedon also has one of the few bits of Enlarged Erie Canal that still hold water. Ask the lockkeeper for directions.