The Tale of Three Canals
The Erie Canal has been a major focus of my life since 2006. The New
York Geographic Alliance asked me to plan a very exciting program
for the summer of 2007 called the Grand Canal
2007. We invited teachers from all across the state to
participate in a week-long geography institute along the Erie's path.
It included time on the water,
traveling through scenic sections of the canal, and time on land, visiting the many historic
sites stretching from Buffalo to Albany and down the Hudson River.
At least twenty different organizations signed on
as partners in this venture. They include museums, boat companies,
historical societies, canal towns, the New York State Dept. of Parks
and Recreation, the Canal Society of New York State, and the National
Erie Canal Historic Corridor.
This institute helped the Alliance to re-energize
itself. We have over 900 members currently, and number continues to
grow. This summer we are sponsoring another summer institute at Cornell
University in Ithaca, NY. We call it GORGE-ous Geography
Institute 2011. The focus will be on training Teacher-Leaders,
but we will also be learning about the Finger Lakes and the Canal
Country of New York. If you are
interested in being a participant in this institute, visit the website
the New York Geographic Alliance. Click on the LOGO above!
Much of my free time has been taken up with
contacting canal people across the state. But during the summer of
2006, I have been visiting places along the Erie on both the Old Canal
and the modern "Barge" Canal. Yes, the Erie Canal is an active
waterway. You can easily travel across much of New York State in a
boat, not only from Buffalo to Albany and down the Hudson River to New
York City, but also up to Lake Champlain, to Lake Ontario (Oswego), and
to the largest Finger Lakes (Seneca and Cayuga).
I don't want to complicate matters any further,
but there was actually a third canal from the middle to late 1800s
known as the Enlarged
Erie. It still relied on mule power, but the deeper water allowed
larger boats with bigger cargoes. Most of the remaining abandoned
(such as culverts and aqueducts) are from this waterway. Its pathway is
the same as Clinton's Ditch.
Today's Erie Canal has a similar route from east
to west as it did in the days of DeWitt Clinton (the father of the
canal). There are a few significant differences, however. The modern
canal is much deeper and wider than either "Clinton's
Ditch" or the Enlarged Erie. It has motorized canal locks much
taller than the original structures. Most significantly, the Barge
Canal uses natural waterways for much of the route, including the
Seneca and the Mohawk Rivers and Oneida Lake. The older canals were
totally manmade ditches.
This means that there are several sections where
the route of this modern canal is different from the 19th century
waterways. For example, the older canals both went through downtown Rochester.
Today's canal skirts around the southern and western boundary of the
city. More significantly, in Central New York, the original Erie
traveled along a nearly level route through the villages of Montezuma,
Jordan, DeWitt, Chittenango, Canastota, and Durhamville, as
well as the city of Syracuse. The modern Erie completely
bypasses these towns, using a natural water route around twenty miles
So, if we are to discover the Erie Canal, we have
to visit sites both modern and historic. It is relatively easy to visit
the Barge Canal. You can get there by boat, or you can hike or bike in
along the towpath trails. You can also get to most locks on the modern
car. They are fun places to visit, especially when a boat is locking
The remains of the Enlarged Erie present a greater
to a visitor. Some of these structures have been left to the elements
over a century. Fortunately, however, state and local governments and
organizations have rediscovered this New York State treasure. Today, a
section of the abandoned canal (especially in Central New York) is
There are trails along the banks, perfect for a quiet stroll or an
invigorating bicycle tour. Many stone structures from the Enlarged Erie
are still standing, in remarkably good condition. Finally, there are
many sites of interest
along the Old Erie, including museums and historic parks, helping us in
a journey of rediscovery.
So let's the hit the road (and the water too), and
see what everyone can experience along the canal ways of New York.
on the arrow to continue!
Not sure where some of these
places are? Not to worry…
Click here to see maps of the three main sections of the Erie Canal -
Western, Finger Lakes, Mohawk.