The Erie Rising

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CAN THE CANAL SPUR A SECOND GREAT ECONOMIC AWAKENING? PERHAPS. BUT PEOPLE HAVE TO SEE IT DIFFERENTLY.

The Old Erie Canal State Park ends just outside Rome, at the Erie Canal Village, where more than 20 canal-era buildings have been assembled. The canal builders started the digging here in 1817, cutting east to Utica and west to Syracuse along the easiest landscape in the region. The idea was to achieve early success and demonstrate the promise of the enterprise before tackling tricky places like Lockport. There is a waist-high stone monument commemorating where the first shovel of dirt was turned, though this is, at best, an educated guess. There is also a remnant of Clinton’s Ditch and a lovely bit of the Enlarged Canal on which visitors can take a short trip on a mule-drawn packet boat of pre-Civil War design. But the village as a whole is a bit tired, with the buildings in need of paint, the grass in need of mowing, and the museum in need of a dehumidifier and serious updating.

 

The original Erie Canal ended in Albany; the Barge Canal in Waterford, where the Mohawk River enters the Hudson River. And between these two places is a sad little remnant of yet other social experimenters, the Shakers. Like the Perfectionists, the Shakers believed in living communally; unlike the Perfectionists, they believed that sex was sinful and were therefore celibate. Although the Shakers began in the late eighteenth century, it was during the pr»-Civil War canal era that they came into their own. An ordered, and orderly, existence had its appeal to people troubled by the pace of change. At their peak, around 1850, there were perhaps 6,000 Americans living as Shakers. Their first settlement was in Watervliet, a stone’s throw from the Albany airport. There are eight original Shaker buildings on the site; across the street (and adjacent to a minor-league baseball stadium) is a Shaker graveyard that is the final resting place of Mother Ann Lee, the illiterate English millworker who founded the group. Watervliet is special because it was the first, but the site is shabby and ill marked. For those interested in Shaker history, a better bet is to check out the buildings at the Darrow School in New Lebanon or the Shaker Museum at Old Chatham, both about an hour from Albany.

Can the canal be the catalyst to a second great economic awakening? Perhaps. “People have to see the region differently,” says Susan Christopherson, of Cornell’s Department of City and Regional Planning and the author of two reports on the effect of the recent investments in the region. “Most think of this area as the rust belt, but it should be described as the tree belt. It has one of the fastest-growing forests in the country and is an ideal recreation environment.” Projects like the Canalway Trail, now 45 percent complete, could contribute to a new image of the area. There are those who envision a thriving Erie canalboat vacation industry—complete with onboard chefs and full pampering—to rival that of Europe. The area’s history is proving fertile in other ways. New industries like photonics that have their roots in the region’s past industrial triumphs are emerging. And true to its tradition of being hospitable to groups that swim against the American mainstream, guess who just turned up near Johnstown to revive the area’s once-thriving cheese industry? The Amish.

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