Hit the Road: History flows on Erie Canal

Hit the Road: History flows on Erie Canal
Today’s Erie Canal in New York is a source of recreation and relaxation, but when construction (digging) was completed in 1825, the canal was a tremendous boost to commerce and transportation. It cut costs, and travel time from Albany to Buffalo went from two weeks to five days. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

What was the towpath for the Erie Canal in New York is now a recreational resource that stretches several hundred miles throughout the state. The Erie Canalway Trail is also part of the larger Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, established in 2000. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

The song I learned many years ago in grade school (let’s just say it was sometime in the last millennium) keeps running through my head as I walk along the portion of the Erie Canal that passes through Pittsford, N.Y.

       I’ve got a mule and her name is Sal

      Fifteen years on the Erie Canal

      She’s a good old worker and a good old pal

      Fifteen 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

When I sang this song as a kid, I really had no concept of the history that it invoked. And quite honestly, even though I grew up in Rochester, New York (eight miles north of Pittsford), I don’t remember having actually seen the Erie Canal. Besides, the canal system had been expanded from its original network and renamed the Barge Canal, which is what we called it. 

So I’m getting reacquainted with the second-longest canal in the world (China’s is longer) on this crisp October day.

Canals were a major force for commerce and transportation when they began operating in the early- to mid-1800s. The Erie Canal, completed in 1825, ran 363 miles from Albany, New York to Buffalo, New York. It was 40 feet wide and 4 feet deep, and travelers could get from one end of the other in five days, not the two weeks it took to traverse the route in a crowded, noisy, dusty, bone-shaking stagecoach. (And you thought your last airplane ride was bad … )

People and goods continued to move up and down the canal by shallow-draft barges until the railroads came along. The canal-versus-railroad competition continued until the early 1900s.

Today, the Erie and other canals in this country are mostly sources of nostalgia and outdoor recreation. They draw boaters, kayakers, bikers, hikers, dog-walkers and looky-loos who make good use of the water and the former towpath where mules and horses once “hauled those barges … filled with lumber, coal and hay.”

Graffiti with upbeat messages can be found on some of the bridges along the trail that once was a towpath for the horses and mules that hauled the barges on the Erie Canal. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

And lucky for us, and unlike in other areas of the country, most of the Erie Canal still exists. The towpath I’m hiking through Pittsford (http://www.townofpittsford.org/home-discover) is lined with enormous, lush elm, black oak, hemlock and maple trees. Many of their trunks are nearly smothered in some sort of prolific vine, and their leaves are just beginning to change from summer green to gold, orange and red.

The path along this segment of canal near Rochester, New York, is now part of the larger Erie Canalway Trail — a wide, clean and flat thoroughfare that  seems to go on forever.

It makes me feel as though I really could walk to Albany or Buffalo.

In fact, you can walk or bike that distance and more if you have the time. Most of the trail is groomed, safe for all ages and from what I can see, accessible. The signage is excellent and the trail passes by locks and low bridges, historic sites, picturesque villages, boutiques and restaurants and plenty of photo-worthy scenery. Many of the commercial districts of the towns along the canal are just feet from the trail or nearby, so you can enjoy gourmet offerings like the ginormous sweet and savory crepes (excellent gluten-free buckwheat crepes available) at Simply Crepes in Pittsford (http://simplycrepes.com).

In 2000, the U.S. Congress established the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, which includes the Erie Canal. According to the National Park Service, this corridor “stretches 524 miles across the full expanse of upstate New York, from Buffalo to Albany and north along the Champlain Canal to Whitehall. It threads 234 diverse communities connected by a waterway that changed not just the landscape of our state, but also our nation and its history.”

Visit https://eriecanalway.org and www.nps.gov/erie/index.htm. For more photos, visit www.facebook.com/elouise.ondash.

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