The Erie Canal was one of the wonders of the early years of the United States and a major trade conduit. Today, the Erie Canalway draws about 4 million visitors each year. Shown here is the Seneca Falls New York Canal Lock. © Ilene MacDonald / Alamy
The Erie Canal’s time has come again. Completed in 1825, it was one of early America’s greatest engineering feats, a visionary trade conduit dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World. Then railroads and interstates eventually made it obsolete. In 2000, after decades of neglect and decay, a government-private partnership uniting federal, state, and local participants began rehabilitating it (and adjoining canals) as the Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor; the official name was later changed to the Erie Canalway. Today, the Canalway draws about four million annual visitors. Last summer, my wife and I were among them.
Many bicycle, like we did, or else jog, hike or stroll along sections of the Canalway’s flat towpaths, which are in good to excellent condition for around 75% of its 524 miles. Others sail the waterways on rented canal barges or boats of their own. However these sightseers travel, whether they eat fast food or fine cuisine, stay at sumptuous bed-and-breakfasts or dirt-cheap motels or something in between, they come upon varied, often breathtaking views and discover rich, eye-opening history.
The Erie Canal had a long and difficult birth. Originally 40 feet wide and four feet deep, it had 85 locks, gently rising 500 feet as it covered 363 miles from the Hudson River to Buffalo, New York. It took eight years to dig: thousands of Americans, recent Irish immigrants, and native Americans tackled the fearsome job with only picks and shovels and horse power. For their pains, they earned around 80 cents a day—twice what many would have made elsewhere.
While construction plodded forward, detractors called it “Dewitt’s Ditch” or “Clinton’s Folly,” swipes at Dewitt Clinton, one of the country’s most dynamic political figures. As New York City’s mayor, Clinton established the public school system and Manhattan’s familiar street grid. For years he unsuccessfully championed building the canal, taking on the likes of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, strict constructionists who deemed federal financing for “internal improvements” like canals unconstitutional. In 1817, then-president Madison vetoed the Bonus Bill that Congress, led by Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, had passed to pay for new national infrastructure like roads and canals. The dogged Clinton, now New York State’s governor, finally changed tactics. Later that same year, the New York legislature approved its own funding for the $7 million project. That outlay—roughly equivalent to $140 billion today—was repaid within a decade by tolls on canal use; $1 million was collected even before the canal was completed.
When that long-awaited day arrived on October 26, 1825, Clinton triumphantly rode a canal boat east from Buffalo to Albany, then proceeded south down the Hudson River to New York City. While New Yorkers celebrated, a huge flotilla assembled in the harbor to watch the governor empty a cask of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic Ocean. The newspapers called it “The Marriage of the Waters.” Clinton’s new trade route, slicing through the Adirondack Mountains that hem in the eastern United States, dramatically reshaped our young nation. It made the vast arable Ohio Territory more accessible for faster settlement, and cut the cost of shipping goods between the heartland and the seaboard by 90 percent. As Clinton had foreseen, connecting the canal to the Hudson River helped transform New York City into the country’s leading business center and port.
Cycling the Canalway last summer, my wife and I found each section had a distinct character with charming and evocative sites: rehabbed and untouched canal infrastructure, historic landmarks, once-prosperous towns seeking comebacks, local museums crammed with unusual lore. Below are highlights, going from west to east.
Erie Canal Discovery Center
At Lockport, 15 miles east of Niagara Falls, we stared at the most daunting challenge facing Clinton’s engineers: the 70-foot high Niagara Escarpment. One of the two original sets of five locks carved from solid rock remain, alongside a pair of modern locks; boat through them or climb alongside to experience how they work. The nearby Erie Canal Discovery Center offers interactive stations with first-person tales from canal workers (called “canawlers”)—a surprising number were women—as well as famous travelers’ anecdotes, detailed timelines, old-time canal songs, and kid-oriented exhibits, including interactive computer games and scale-model barges to pilot through scale-model locks. Catercorner to the museum is the First Presbyterian Church, with ten stained-glass windows by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Eateries abound: we enjoyed dinner at Shamus Restaurant and DeFlippo’s.
Historic buildings, Cobblestone Museum
Even as the canal was a-building, it spawned new towns built from signature materials close at hand—towns that grew and thrived as canal traffic increased and the demand for goods and services along the way multiplied. We rode the unshaded gravel towpath 16 miles from Lockport to Medina, whose town center is gorgeous reddish-brown sandstone replete with carved facades. We stopped for lunch in its heart, where the Shirt Factory Café serves good homemade soups, sandwiches, and pastries in a landmark building. A few blocks away, the canal crosses over Culvert Road—a surreal treat listed in Ripley’s Believe It or Not. On South Main Street in Albion 10 miles east, we admired magnificent examples of the region’s cobblestone buildings; the 1858 Greek Revival courthouse fronts a shady square and stately historic district—a sharp, revealing contrast to the strip malls and dollar stores now at its edges. The Cobblestone Museum lies a mile or so north.
Spencerport Depot and Canal Museum
Nineteen miles east of Albion, the Spencerport Depot and Canal Museum anchors an especially lovely towpath stretch lined with shady trees and original bridges and locks aplenty. Here local folks jog, walk their dogs, bike, and boat. The museum, in a converted trolley depot, and its landing sit at this gemlike hamlet’s center. Our walk around town disclosed well-kept 19th-century frame houses and stone churches, and good eateries like Grandpa Sam’s.
Like Spencerport, other old canal towns that now double as suburbs of Rochester have invested heavily in restoring, improving, and promoting the waterway. No surprise, then, that some stretches of towpath here attract lots of locals and tourists. Sixteen miles east, we found Pittsford’s landing at Schoen Place buzzing as it must have in its heyday: now, however, the attractive site houses restaurants and shops in repurposed structures, like the Village Coal Tower Restaurant, which offers classic American food. From there we cycled along the “Great Embankment”—a dramatic 70-foot high skyway level with tree tops above the valley floor—into Fairport, where a million-dollar rehab has yielded another spruced-up, service-filled section of canal frontage and a steady stream of visitors.
The ‘Burned Over District’
Palmyra, center of 1820s religious revivalism so fierce the area was known as the “Burned Over District,” lies nine miles east. Mormon prophet Joseph Smith was born here, memorialized by his house and the Historic Palmyra Museum, both set in a typical canal-town center of grand frame houses from the glory days. Packed with vintage goods and memorabilia, the Phelps General Store Museum zestfully reincarnates how Americans shopped and what they bought before malls and superstores and the internet. Past and present coincide charmingly at an old lock and aqueduct spanning the canal in Palmyra Macedon Park, where a waterfall feeds a favorite local fishing hole. The rustic towpath led us over the Aldrich Change Bridge, which let horses and mules cross the canal without being unhitched from their barges—one of only two such original crossover bridges left.
Ideas have always travelled with trade, and the Erie Canal disseminated new unsettling beliefs. The Burned Over District’s fundamentalist fervor also fired movements for social reform like abolitionism and early feminism. So it’s no coincidence that twenty-five miles southeast of Palmyra, Seneca Falls hosted the 1848 convention of abolitionist women who launched the suffragist movement; they are honored in the National Women’s Hall of Fame. The Cayuga-Seneca Canal, an Erie offshoot, winds through the picture-postcard downtown and unfinished Women’s Rights Historical Park; we ate lunch overlooking it from the pleasant deck behind the friendly Downtown Deli. Wineries and dining spots stipple the shores of beautiful Cayuga Lake, open to boating, fishing, and swimming. In nearby Waterloo, unpretentious Abigail’s serves dependable Italian dishes and fresh seafood with an all-you-can-eat salad bar.
Old Erie Canal State Historic Park
Our journey’s next segment reentered more rustic surroundings. From Dewitt, 32 miles east of Seneca Falls, Old Erie Canal State Historic Park runs 36 miles to Rome—a National Recreational Trail and canoe- and kayak-friendly stretch. Green Lake Park’s two glacial lakes offer fabulous picnic spots. When we continued to Chittenango, 11 miles east of Dewitt, we discovered a 19th-century repair barn—the renovated home of the Landing Canal Boat Museum. Here we learned how these craft—some 100 feet long—were built and maintained, and marveled at the dry docks—the only ones surviving from “Clinton’s Ditch.” L. Frank Baum, Wizard of Oz author, was born here; the sidewalks are yellow brick.
An unexpected jewel in Canastota
Our most unexpected jewel surfaced when we cycled the gravel-and-dirt trail to tiny Canastota, seven miles east. Here the Canal Town Museum packs two floors with surprising data lovingly gathered, thoughtfully arranged, and well-annotated by dedicated town volunteers. Historical maps, photos, diaries, letters, and artifacts invoke the textures of daily life before, during, and after the canal’s heyday. The town’s economy was diverse. It manufactured still and movie cameras (the Biograph, an early form of movie projector, was invented here), electric drills, furniture, cut glass, knives, even innovative packaging. Varied crops were farmed: the “mucklands” (humus-rich soil from drained swamps) drew onion-growing Italian immigrants. We both grew so absorbed in the past here that we lost track of time.
The Erie Canalway offers plenty more: the restored 1842 Nine Mile Creek Aqueduct in Camillus Park; the kid-friendly Erie Canal Village outside Rome; Revolutionary War sites like Fort Stanwix; Eliphalet Remington’s 1828 rifle factory in Ilion; one of the world’s highest lock lifts at Little Falls. But as Bilbo Baggins sang, “The road goes ever on and on.” To plan your trip, start with www.ericanalway.org; www.canals.ny.gov; and www.ptny.org.
About the Author
Gene Santoro, reviews editor of American History magazine, is the author of Myself When I Am Real: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus and Highway 61 Revisited, a collection of essays about American music and culture.