The Central Canal Section
Montezuma! It's a word that sounds so forboding!
In Central New York it has nothing to do with Spanish Conquistadors
or a stomach ailment you get in Mexico. It is the name of a wetlands north
of Cayuga Lake, another vestige of the Ice Age. Today, it has been largest
tamed. Much of it has been drained, and the Thruway cuts through its middle.
But in the early 1800s it was a wilderness. It was here that Irish "bogtrotters"
struggled to build an important section of the Erie Canal. Many of them
died from malaria carried by mosquitoes. But finally, in 1819 the middle
section of the canal was in operation from here to Rome ninety miles away.
It included a beautiful stone aqueduct that carried the canal over the
Seneca River. It still partially stands today.
Today the modern "Barge Canal" passes through the marshes
in Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. This is a great place
to visit especially during the bird migration seasons in spring and fall.
It is also the point where a "lateral" canal, the Cayuga-Seneca, meets
the main Erie line. The smaller branch canal connects the two largest
Finger Lakes (Cayuga and
Seneca) to the rest of the artificial waterway. It makes it possible
for boaters to travel all the way to Ithaca or to Watkins Glen. The Cayuga-Seneca
Canal passes through the twin villages of Waterloo and Seneca
Falls. Both of them have important claims to fame. Waterloo
was the first community to have a planned ceremony to honor the dead of
the Civil War, and therefore is the recognized home to Memorial Day.
Seneca Falls was the home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the tireless
warrior of the women's rights movement. In 1848 she and Lucretia Mott
organized the first meeting for equal rights for women, including the
call for suffrage. Today these historic sites are preserved by the Women's
Right National Park, a short walk from the canal.
The central section of the canal system is unique because
the modern canal is far removed from its 19th century predecessors.
Today, boaters travel on the Seneca and Oneida Rivers as well as on
Oneida Lake, the largest lake completely inside New York. The Old Erie
took a more southerly route, including through the city of Syracuse itself.
To me the old route is much more interesting, due to
its history. That being said, a cruise along the newer waterway is certainly
worth the trip, since it is one of the most peaceful sections of the Erie
system. Make sure to stop in the "new" canal towns of Baldwinsville
and Brewerton. Compare them to the villages found along Clinton's Ditch.
The boat trip continues eastward on Oneida Lake to Sylvan Beach.
An man-made section of the canal connects to the Mohawk River in Rome.
You will need to explore the sites of the Enlarged Erie
Canal mostly on land. The easiest landmark to find is the Port Byron
Lock right by the NYS Thruway between Exits 41 and 40. The Canal Society of New York is planning
an interpretive center connecting to this old lock, which will be accessible
to Thruway travelers. If you get off the Thruway at Exit 40, you will
arrive at Weedsport. There is no "port" today, but the look of
this village still screams out Canal Town! Rte. 31 sits on the
old canal bed. What structure does Weedsport have that is a relic of its
A recommended side trip is nearby Auburn, south
on Rte. 34. This historic city was the home to Secretary of State William
Seward (Lincoln Administration) and the most celebrate conductor on the
Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman. Both museums are fascinating
places to learn about Central New York's proud
If you want to follow the old canal route, take Rte.
31 east into Jordan. In the center of town you'll find a park
with the remains of a lock from the Enlarged Erie. There is no water,
but if you look carefully, you can trace the path of the abandoned canal
in both directions. Turn right on to Rte. 317 and follow it to Elbridge.
Then turn left on to NY Route 5. When you enter the village of Camillus,
turn left on to North Street. This takes you out of the village to the
Camillus Erie Canal Park. Here is one of two long
stretches where the old canal is watered in this part of the state. A feeder
canal brings in water from nearby Nine Mile Creek. A short distance
down the towpath (excellent for hiking and biking!) is the aqueduct over
this same creek. While in the park make sure you see the country store and
the restored Gere Lock Gate, moved here from nearby Lakeland. Since
the gates were made of wood, most of them do not survive today. This, happily,
is an exception.
When you return to Rte. 5, it leads you eventually into
the Salt City of Syracuse. The highway is now called Erie
Blvd., for obvious reasons. It used to be the canal itself. Note how flat
it is into downtown. In the city center you will find Clinton Square,
which was a canal port in the 1800s. Look for the monument for the Jerry
Rescue, where the citizens of Syracuse forcibly freed a fugitive slave
named William "Jerry" McHenry. Abolitionism was another one of the causes
that was spread along the Erie Canal, the nation's highway. (To learn
more about the anti-slavery movement in Central New York, visit the Onondaga Historical Association on
nearby Montgomery Street.)
If you continue on Erie Blvd., you pass through downtown
and arrive at one of the gems of the old canal, the Erie Canal Museum. The building
sits at the former confluence of the Erie and the Oswego Canals, where
the "canawlers" paid their tolls. (For this reason, it is sometimes called
the Weighlock Building). There is a packet
boat in the chamber, that you can explore to find out what life was like
for passengers during the golden years. There are exhibits about the canal
and Syracuse, especially about the salt industry of the 1800s. If you
take the stairs to the second floor, you will see a profile of the Erie
Canal from Albany to Buffalo. Count the locks!
Continue eastward on Erie Blvd. (NY Rte. 5). You are
still following the pathway of Clinton's Ditch. Notice that you are in
an east-west trending valley, with fairly steep hills on both sides. This
is another vestige of the Ice Age, formed by the flooding glacier around
10,000 years ago. (A more spectacular example of a spillover channel
is in nearby Jamestown at Clark Reservation State Park.
You can learn more about this scenic spot in the Central New York section of this website.) You
will arrive in the suburb of DeWitt. Turn left on Kinne Road and go underneath
the I-481 expressway. Look for the sign for Old Erie
Canal State Park. Park your car and walk down the towpath to see the
Butternut Creek Aqueduct (see photo at the top of
this page). This marks the western end of this
narrow park, which continues snake-like all the way to Rome. This long level
section of the Enlarged Erie is still watered, so it can be explored in a
canoe or in a kayak. Landlubbers can hike or bike on the towpath trail. Many
canal structures are found along the parkway, including culverts and aqueducts.
Pick up a free brochure, especially if you are traveling by car. It shows
roadways that parallel the old canal and places of interest.
There are several places along this historic pathway
that should be visited by even the casual canal explorer. The first is
Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum, around twelve
miles east of the Butternut Aqueduct. Return to Route 5, and continue through
Fayetteville into Madison County. When you get
into the Village of Chittenango, turn left on Lakeport Road. The
museum complex is on the edge of town, right on the Old Erie. Take your
time here. There is an orientation film worth seeing, and then you want
to wander through the grounds. You will see dry docks, where canal boats
were stored, repaired, and built. Currently, the staff is constructing a
packet boat with traditional tools and building materials. If a carpenter
is working, ask him/her some questions! Also visit the Visitor Interpretive
Center, formerly a old general store, frequented by canal travelers.
Look for the sunken boat in the canal itself. If you take a short walk down
the towpath, you can see the Chittenango Creek Aqueduct, one of the
best preserved along the canal.
Return to the village and turn left onto Rte. 5 East.
Notice that the sidewalks are painted yellow in the downtown district.
This is the hometown of L. Frank Baum, author of the Wizard of Oz. A
few miles later, and you enter the canal town of Canastota. Take
Rte. 13 into the central business district. Turn left on to Canal Street
and park. The Canastota Canal Town Museum is on the right. It might
be small, but it is packed with lots of information about the canal in Madison
County. Nathan Roberts, who designed many features of the original canal,
especially the five double locks in Lockport, is a hometown hero. There
is a good display in this museum on his active career. There is also a
section of onion farming around Canastota, and its relationship to the canal.
Take Canal Street eastbound out of Canastota. As the
name suggests you are following the path of the Old Erie Canal. You pass
through the little hamet of Lenox Basin (how did it get that name?),
under the Thruway, and into the village of Durhamville. Here the
canal passes over Oneida Creek, and there is a nice culvert for Brandy Brook.
The state park continues along NY Route 46 into Oneida County. It ends near
New London, where you find the Barge Canal. Modern
Locks 21 and 22 are found nearby. They are unique, since they lower boats
going west, because Oneida Lake is at a lower elevation than the
Mohawk Valley to the east.
If you want to see more of the modern canal, take Rte.
316 (Lake Road) out of Durhamville and then Rte. 31 west and Rte. 13 north
to the twin villages of Verona Beach and Sylvan Beach, both
on Oneida Lake. They are separated by the canal as it exits the lake.
The former town has a nice state park with a good swimming beach, and
the latter has an old-fashioned amusement park, the only one on the Erie
Canal. Also, look for the old lighthouse near the waterfront, which, unfortunately,
is no longer lit.
This concludes our discussion of the Central Section
of the Erie Canal. To head toward the Mohawk Valley, take Routes 31 and
46 toward Rome.
Click on the arrow to continue the journey eastward
into Eastern New York!
to back to the Main Erie Canal Page!