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.”
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.”
E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.