The Western Canal
The canal's western terminus today is technically
in Tonawanda, where it joins the Niagara River. The original canal
continued parallel to the river down to Erie Harbor in Buffalo.
You can still boat down to the "Queen City" on the Niagara River itself.
You will pass through a federal lock at Black Rock, which lifts your craft
the final few feet to Lake Erie's 571-foot level.
When in Western New York, you should take a short drive
up to Niagara Falls. These mighty cataracts
were a major barrier for travel to the interior of North America. This
is why the champions of the canal (led by Gov. DeWitt Clinton himself)
wanted the terminus to be at Buffalo. If you can navigate to Lake Erie,
you have in effect by-passed Niagara.
You also need to go to Buffalo's Erie Basin. Today
it is a marina for pleasure boats, but in the golden years of the canal it
was a booming commercial port, where grains were transferred from Great Lakes
steamboats to Erie canalboats. Many granaries can still be seen along the
Buffalo River, and some are still in operation today (such as General Mills).
Tonawanda has a great canal park. It is a nice
place to stroll around, talking to boaters from all over the country.
Still, it's time to get this trip started. The canal here for about a
dozen miles is Tonawanda Creek. Again, this is different from the
Old Erie, which was always in a separate ditch. Then the canal leaves the
creek bed and enters the Deep Cut, blasted out of dolostone, the
very hard rock that caps Niagara Falls. When completed in 1825, it was considered
one of the greatest triumphs of engineering anywhere in the world. Using
human and animal power, augmented by DuPont's black powder, they created
a channel level enough to avoid locks, but tilted just enough to keep water
flowing in from Lake Erie.
Eventually, you enter the city of Lockport, the
home to the most famous locks along the canal. Here, the canal needed
to climb up (or step down) the Niagara Escarpment. Nathan Roberts, a
self-trained engineer from Canastota, designed a flight of five consecutive
double locks. When they were completed, they were almost as celebrated
as Niagara Falls, just a few miles away to the west.
First, you should visit the Niagara
County Historical Museum and the Erie Canal Visitor Center to learn about the canal here in Lockport. Then you want to explore the locks
themselves, just a couple blocks away. Today boats make the passage over
the escarpment in two steps, Locks 34 and 35. The spillwater tumbles over
the remains of Nathan Roberts' original five locks. There is a plan in operation
now to make these historic treasures open to small craft. For now you
can walk along the towpath and see the canal from several different perspectives.
Of course, you must go through the modern locks
yourself either on your own boat, or on a tour with the Lockport Locks & Erie Canal Cruise line. You can't comprehend how great the drop is until you actually
sit at the bottom and look up. After the tour, take time to stroll through
the city itself, which sprang up almost overnight during the construction
of the canal in the 1820s.
As you follow NY Route 31 eastward, you basically parallel
the Erie Canal. This is the Long Level, since there are no locks
between Lockport and Rochester. But the landscape is not boring! You pass
through the small towns of Gasport, Middleport, Medina, Albion, Holley,
Brockport, and Spencerport. Take time to see
the waterfronts of these villages, with their 19th century buildings. Particularly
interesting is the Oak Orchard Aqueduct in Medina. The canal passes
far above a waterfall from a concrete culvert. Brockport's waterfront is
also special, with a sculpture sponsored by the Art Walks on the Water
Near the canal, especially to the north along US Route
104 are the unique cobblestone houses. These fascinating buildings were
constructed of round stones of glacial origin. A good place to learn about
cobblestones is in the hamlet of Childs, just a few miles north
of Albion. The Cobblestone Society
does tours of several structures in their community. There are several
hundred of these structures within a short drive of the canal between Lockport
and Syracuse. Some can even be seen from the canal itself.
In the suburban community of Greece, the modern
canal swings south around Rochester. As stated previously, the Old
Canal went through the city itself. Today it is paved over by Lyell Ave.,
Broad Street, and I-590. But you can still see relics of the past here
in the Flower City. The most impressive structure still remaining is
the Genesee Aqueduct (the Broad Street Bridge).
This water bridge made of stone arches carried the Erie Canal over the
turbulent Genesee River. Just a short distance north of here are the three
falls of the Genesee, where flour was milled in the 1800s. These mills made
Rochester the first boom town in the nation, and the canal provided cheap
transportation to to take the flour to New York Harbor.
There are two remaining locks from the Enlarged Erie
locally. One is along I-490 east of downtown. The other one is found behind
Wegmans Supermarket along Monroe Avenue (Rte. 31) near Pittsford.
In the village itself, the modern canal and the older versions have rejoined.
This is a spot that should be visited, since Pittsford is one of the most
attractive of the canal towns. At Northfield Commons and Schoen
Place, there are many shops and restaurants, and it is the home port
of the Sam Patch, a tour boat run by Cornhill Navigation Co. It is one of
a couple boats that you board to see the canal on the east side of Rochester.
It takes you through modern Lock 32, and along the Great Embankment
in Bushnell's Basin. Here the canal crosses the Irondequoit Valley,
a major barrier. To accomplish this feat, a ridge 70 feet high needed to
be built. Canal boats float by even today above the treetops of the valley
Another canal town worth visiting is Fairport,
home to the strange tilted Lift Bridge. It is also the homeport of the
another good tour boat company. Fairport is an ideal spot for biking and
strolling, with nice parks and outdoor eateries. One geographic feature
must be mentioned. The canal sits in the bottom of an east-west trending
valley. This basin was formed by meltwaters at the end of the Ice Age, one
of many examples of how the glaciers influenced the path of the Erie Canal.
The route continues eastward into Wayne County, featuring
the canal villages of Macedon, Palmyra, Newark, Lyons, and Clyde.
If you are driving, stay on NY Route 31. You can also boat, walk, and cycle
along this scenic route. You are drumlin country, gentle oval-shaped
hills deposited by glaciers over 10,000 years ago. There are thousands
of them in Wayne County, and many tour above the canal itself. All these
villages have embraced their canal past, and they are all interesting places
to visit. In Macedon you should visit modern Lock 30. You can actually
walk across the lockgate here. Just a short walk down the canal are the
remains of Old Lock 60, built around 150 years ago. The lockgates
are gone, but the masonry is still in good condition. Just before reaching
Palmyra, you enter a Canal Park, which features two outstanding structures
from the Enlarged Erie, the Aldrich Turning Bridge (for mules) and
the Mud Creek Aqueduct. The modern canal is just a short stroll to
the north, featuring Lock 29. The village itself has a unique distinction
- it has a church on each of the four corners of its main intersection. Palmyra
was also an important link of the Underground Railroad.
If you like seeing working locks, you will find them
in Newark (Lock 28B), Lyons (Lock 28A and Lock 27), and
Clyde (Lock 26). Located near most of these modern
structures are the remains of locks from the Enlarged Erie, showing you
that the routes nearly match in this part of the state. Lock 27 is particularly
impressive, since Canadaigua Outlet tumbles into the canal at this point.
Beyond Clyde you enter the Montezuma Marshes,
one of the problem areas that needed to be conquered by the engineers
and laborers on Clinton's Ditch. Workers had to struggle against both
malaria-carrying mosquitoes and the muck of this extensive wetland. This
leads you into the central section of the canal, which not only includes
the modern "Barge Canal", but also the Old Erie (on a very different route),
the Oswego Canal, and the Cayuga-Seneca Canal.
Click on the arrow to continue the journey eastward
into Central New York!
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