I had known that Erie Blvd east and west, stretching as though the wide brim of a top hat over downtown Syracuse to the south, had been named after the old Erie Canal. What I did not know was that it WAS the old Erie Canal - filled in and paved over.
The men of New York State wanted to put interstate 690 directly over Erie Boulevard, formerly the Erie Canal. The women of the City of Syracuse wouldn’t let them do it and today the the elevated highway runs parallel and just north of the old canal.
We had seen this before. The leading men of Savannah, Georgia, were perfectly willing to demolish 200-year old buildings for the sake of parking garages—if it interferes with making a buck, what good is it? It was the leading women—often their wives—who banded together into historical societies to thwart them. They wield tremendous power today and you cannot make an unapproved interior change on your own home if it has been designated an historical landmark. Trim one of the ancient oak trees on your own property in Charleston, the guide told us, and it will cost you a ten thousand dollar fine.
The Erie Canal Museum would be a go-to destination even without the many touches that make it a truly special visit in an overall compact package—the museum is not large. Take the elevator to the 2nd floor and it is as though entering a canal boat.
Descend the stairs and the mural on your right is the descending elevations the canal traverses from Buffalo to Albany.
Navigating a mini-maze of interpretive posters lining the walls, one comes at last—if you’ve taken the time to read them as you should—to the original weighlock building—where canal boats were weighed and tolls were accessed. Tolls were an integral part of how the canal was to be financed. They were discontinued in 1883 when they had served their purpose and there were railroads to compete with. This stands in contrast to the New York State Thruway, which was also to be funded only temporarily by tolls. However, the time for the tolls to be phased out came and went—the State decided that they liked the idea of tolls—and the oldsters who remember how it was supposed to be have just about died out.
The weighlock building is circa 1850 and it is the only remaining one in New York State. Enter through a side opening, leave through the canal-side door and lo! there is a full-scale boat to climb aboard and into. As you do you find yourself immersed in the chatter and sounds of the times and I had to remind myself that it wasn’t real—it was broadcast from some unknown source but there was no way—or desire—to track it down—better not to resist and just immerse oneself in the air of the time.
Here is the view from the stern. They don’t let you climb the stairs, though passengers on the actual boats could.
Some vessels were even dedicated to passengers:
Here is a view from the bow:
As long as you didn’t get in the crew’s way, you could fish or do any other thing atop deck.
Since the proposed Erie Canal would open the infant United States to westward expansion, and that could have been seen from the start, it is surprising that Thomas Jefferson did not get behind it, even though the idea intrigued him. It would be built (and funded) by New Yorkers. Maybe the project was seen as too audacious. Such a feat had never been attempted—not even close. Mockers called the underway project “[Governor DeWitt] Clinton’s ditch.” Some had thought it impossible to complete within their lifetimes, but it took only seven years—and the labor of thousands of workers.
The engineers rounded up for the project had no experience in such an undertaking—they had only done a bit of surveying—and they figured out things as they went. Aqueducts were built to carry the the canal over marshes, such as in the Montezuma swamps, where workers toiled in two-foot deep water, and over the Genesee River. To traverse low-lying areas like the Irondequoit Valley, raised embankments were created for the canal to flow between. “What they did not understand, they conquered by diligent study unfettered zeal, and sound common sense,” wrote the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1890. Benjamin Wright and James Geddes were two of the lead engineers and there is a major thoroughfare though Syracuse named after Geddes. As for Wright, the name is too common to tell what is named after him. More likely any such street would be for those two who invented the airplane.
The first segment of the canal, from Rome to Utica, opened in 1819, which must have somewhat silenced the doubters. The canal when completed was an immediate success. Within ten years it was widened, which threatened structures that had been built to close to it. Much later, it was expanded again into the Barge Canal. Spur canals connected the main one to nearby lakes—in order of length, the Champlain Canal, the Oswego Canal, and the Seneca-Cayuga Canal.
“Surely the waters of this canal must be the most fertilizing of all fluids, for it causes towns—with their masses of brick and stone, ...with their churches and theaters, their business and hubbub, their luxury and refinement, their gay dames [No, not that kind of gay] and polished gents, to spring up, till in time, the wondrous steam may flow between two continuous lines of buildings, through one thronged street, from Buffalo to Albany,” wrote Nathanial Hawthorne in 1835. However he must have been unusually chipper that day—his completed vision would take awhile—for the next year he bemoaned “the dismal swamps and unimpressive scenery that could be found between the Great Lakes and the sea coast.” (1836)
Mules were the method of moving freight during the 1800s. They were intelligent and more sure-footed than horses. Accordingly, the 2nd floor of the canal museum features a poster exhibit on mules, their habits and history. Canallers —that’s what those who made their living in that transport mode were called, and they developed a separate culture often looked down upon by the communities they serviced—grew very fond of their mules.
Their idiosyncrasies were noted: “A mule will labor ten years, willingly and patiently for you, for the privilege of kicking you once,” said William Faulkner.
And also their value: During the Civil War, the Confederate Army captured a U. S. Army general, along with 40 mules. President Abraham Lincoln, who almost lost the Civil War for want of a competent general, reportedly said: “I am sorry to lose those mules” when he was told of the loss.
Though Pete Seeger and others sung it “fifteen miles on the Erie Canal” (leading to the misconception that that is as far as a mule went on any given shift) the song was actually “fifteen years on the Erie Canal.” The songster had been on the job for only 15 years and was looking at his way of life being phased out by the Barge Canal, which would be open to new-fangled motorized traffic. It is yet another of the things that I learned at the Erie Canal Museum.
Outside the museum is a statue of a tow path mule and driver—who was often a teenaged boy—before the elevated superhighway that the women shoved to the north so it wouldn’t obliterate the canal site.