I’ve gotta mule, her name is Sal, 15 years on the Erie Canal…
Remember this song from elementary school? I had forgotten all about it until about three months ago when we got the idea to include the Erie Canal in our itinerary. Now seeing parts of the canal in person and reading many of the historical signs, this song just won’t go away. (The rest of the lyrics are at the end of this post—read at your own risk.)
|The original route. The Hudson flows from |
Albany to the Coast
The 360-mile canal route runs from Albany to Buffalo, as the song says. It was and still is an engineering marvel. First started in 1817 and completed in 1825—ahead of schedule and under budget. Since then, extensions of it connect many other areas and regions. A major widening project was completed 100 years later in 1925.
|Old canal near Syracuse|
|The old (L) & new (R) at |
|A "new" (1925) section on the |
at St. Johnsville
|An old section near Syracuse|
It was a huge economic engine that made New York the Empire State, opening up the Great Lakes region and bringing unimaginable wealth to Buffalo and other towns along the way. Coal, wheat, lumber, people, steel, ore, and later autos were transported on it all the way to the Hudson and New York City. By 1845 there were 4,000 boats on the canal, operated by 25,000 men, women, and children, plus about 2-4 mules or horses per boat.
|Footings for an aqueduct above river tributaries|
About 18 months ago we read Peter Zellen’s The Accidental Superpower, who argued that one of the reasons the US is a superpower and will keep it so is our great proliferation of navigable waterways. Seeing the canal and reading the many interpretive signs along the way really drives that point home.
|View of canal from our campsite |
at St. Johnsville, NY
We only bicycled three small parts of it, both in the old and newer sections. We also stopped at a couple of significant parts around Little Falls, Lockport, and Buffalo. The grade was easy, but mostly on crushed stone in 90 degree heat and 90% humidity. It made us wonder what it would have been to be a little boy or girl leading the mules in bare feet 12 hours per day.
|A very old abandoned section. |
A major garbage and toxic
waste dump until about 15 years ago.
|The Maxwell School, circa 1924|
|My old dive from 42 years ago. |
My roommate & I organized a rent strike
over no heat and too much vermin.
We also visited part of the Syracuse University campus, where I received my MPA in 1974. Too many new grandiose buildings have cropped up and crowded the campus since then, making it very unappealing. Syracuse, with its abandoned 100+ year old factory buildings then and now, is still depressing and an example of poor urban planning and crazy traffic. I also found my old apartment building, a sole survivor standing alone among vacant lots in a dicey part of town. It was a dive then, and it still is. Some things don’t change after 42 years.
Niagara Falls are spectacular, but on the American side the park was crowded, dirty, and highly commercialized. However, we found the nearby historic town of Lockport on the Erie Canal much more enjoyable. It has both the original narrow 1825 canal and the modern 1925 canal next to each over with locks that covered 60 feet of rapids.
|The lobby at city hall|
Buffalo was a very delightful city. We loved its city hall, waterfront, and neighborhoods with gigantic 100-175 year old mansions. We toured two Frank Lloyd Wright homes built for Darwin and Isabella Martin, who made their fortune creating a soap and household mail order business at the turn of the century.
|Buffalo city hall|
|The Darwin Harris Home in Buffalo|
Today, the 26th marks the one month anniversary of this trip. It seems like an eternity ago, but also just like yesterday. We’re now heading home, sort of retracing our steps, but staying at different places along the way. Once we get through the Midwest and into the wide open spaces of the Rockies, we’ll really believe we’re homeward bound. We’re antsy to get back, but we’re committed to enjoying every mile until we return.
"I've gotta mule, her name is Sal,
15 years on the Erie Canal.
She's a good old worker and a good old pal,
15 years on the Erie Canal.
We've hauled some barges in our day,
Filled with lumber, coal, and hay.
And every inch of the way we know,
From Albany to Buffalo.
Low bridge, everybody down,
Low bridge, because we're we're going through a town.
And you'll always know your neighbor,
You'll always know your pal,
If you've ever navigated on the Erie Canal."