The Erie Rising

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In the nineteenth century, boats could head up the CayugaSeneca Canal in Seneca Falls to join the Erie at Montezuma to reach Syracuse, a ragged settlement ("It would make an owl weep to fly over it,” one visitor complained) that the canal turned into a city. Now the canal has entirely disappeared from the city it made, but there is one spot where its past is present: the engaging Erie Canal Museum, housed in an 1850 Greek Revival weighlock building. The only one still standing of the seven weigh stations that made the canal into a financial winner, the weighlock building was almost destroved to make room for an overpass in the early 1960s. Today, the museum, which has a resident ghost (considerately, she appears only after visiting hours), presents a history of the canal.

The canal’s chief purpose was to carry freight, but right from the beginning, there was considerable tourism as well. Visitors would board boats to see the Famous Five, make their way to Niagara Falls, or just go to the next town over, now that travel was so much easier. The earliest passenger boats could sleep upwards of 30 in the long interior cabin, men and women separated by a curtain, everyone, according to the visiting English writer Harriet Martineau, “lying packed like herrings in a barrel.” But by day at least, cruising the canal could be great fun. Passengers would chat, sing, flirt, or just watch the world slip by at perhaps four miles per hour, perfectly safe and without the arduous effort of riding on bad roads. It was cheap too: just three cents a mile, four with bed and board.

From Montezuma east, the old canals and the Erie Barge Canal parted ways, with the latter generally running north of the earlier ones in the canalized Seneca River. The Barge Canal goes through some stunning territory, including the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, and it too has some compelling history on its banks—its builders blasted more rock, excavated more soil, and poured more concrete than did their counterparts on the Panama Canal—but we chose to follow the earlier route. It’s helpful to have a bike strapped to your car at this point. Moreover, a bike is an excellent way to travel the Old Erie Canal State Park, a linear path that runs along the Enlarged Erie from just outside Syracuse to Rome, 36 miles away. The trail, which is wonderful for hiking and biking and has putins for canoeing, cuts through towns like Canastota and Chittenango, the proud birthplace of Frank Baum, of Wizard of Oz fame. Both communities have canal museums, and Chittenango has the only exhumed and restored dry dock on the old canal; on it rests the frame of an authentic canalboat.

 

Some canal towns, like Seneca Falls, became natural centers for reform, and some, like Palmyra, grew their own notables. Others had bizarreness thrust upon them. That is what happened to Oneida. In 1848 this little town about halfway between Syracuse and Rome became home to one of America’s odder social experimenters, the Perfectionists. Led by the brilliant, charismatic, and very strange John Humphrey Noyes, the Perfectionists believed that the millennium had already arrived and that to lead a perfect life required them to live in perfect equality and community. They took this belief to its logical conclusion, disdaining monogamy, in Noyes’s words, as “egotism for two.” Instead, he devised a system of “complex marriage,” in which exclusive attachments were banned in favor of variety, based on degrees of spiritual development. Unlike most Utopian groups, the Perfectionists were economically successful, beginning with a steel trap business and later founding the Oneida flatware industry, the kinds of business that could not have existed without the canal to take the goods to market. With these profits, in the early 1860s, the group built the Mansion House, a Victorian Gothic monster of some 250 rooms where up to 300 of them lived together, mostly in remarkable harmony. The group disbanded in 1881, buckling to outside prÀs- sure and the inevitable stresses of their unusual way of life. The Mansion House now contains 40 apartments—some of them occupied by descendants of the Perfectionists—a conference center, and 9 comfortable rooms that can be rented by the night. A stay allows visitors to wander through this gorgeous mess of a place, checking out the library, the meeting hall, the lounge, myriad hallways, and a replica of the rooms of the original inhabitants, furnished starkly, with a single narrow bed. There are regular tours as well.