BY WARREN D. JORGENSEN
“This is not your great-great-grandfather’s Erie Canal,” Dan Wiles’ cheerful voice boomed out. I was in a cabin on board the Emita II, Wiles’ 65-foot, 65-ton, steel-hulled tour boat. It was passing between the twin 50-ton doors of Waterford Lock #2, the second of eight locks that would raise us 165 feet from the Hudson River to the Mohawk Valley plateau.
The construction of the Erie Canal was the moon landing of its day, a dream that became a reality when the first shovelful of dirt was turned to dig it in Rome, New York, on July 4, 1817. Detractors called it “Clinton’s Ditch” after then-Governor Dewitt Clinton, but, after its completion in 1825, the Erie Canal became a major east-west transportation artery that helped change the face of North America forever.
In the 1960s, the canal was threatened with closure. Plans were considered for filling it and consigning 150 years of history to the dust bin of great accomplishments that had outlived their usefulness. Peter Wiles, Dan’s father, led the fight to save the canal, creating the only system of its kind in the world. Since then, New York’s canal system has been named as the 23rd National Heritage Corridor. Administered by the National Park Service, its preservation is ensured. “It came within a whisker of being shut down completely,” says Dan.
In 1971 the Wiles family expanded its Skaneateles Lake cruises to the canal and bought the Emita II. Today, the cruise company offers three-day, overnight trips between Albany and Syracuse and between Syracuse and Buffalo. Emita II is a companion to the cruise company’s dinner boat cruises out of Syracuse and its 11 hire boats. These are floating cottages for vacationers, complete with bunks, galley, and toilets.
“In England, they abandoned their canals, then went back, dug ’em all out, and filled them back in,” Dan says. “They have a thousand miles of canals and a thousand boats. We have 20 boats on our 525 miles. We’ve got a long way to go.”
Mike and Sharon Murphy agree. In 1987, they began operating two pontoon boats through the Lockport locks, the western terminus of the canal. Today, they operate two cruise boats, and they have converted a former steel-fabricating plant into a restaurant and banquet hall and a block-and-tackle factory into a museum with an interactive collection of canal artifacts and displays.
I joined one of Mike’s day cruises to be “locked through” the double Lockport locks recently. Transiting the twin locks, I could see the original blasting holes and chisel markings on the 50-foot granite wall of the Niagara escarpment. It was here that the original builders faced their greatest challenge: a wall of solid granite that stood between the western end of the canal and Lake Erie. They blasted, cut, and hammered through that wall to create a double set of five locks, one set for going up, and the second for going down. It was an incredible feat for a country that did not have a single engineer or engineering school at the time.
Today, communities along the canal celebrate it. In Rome, the Erie Canal Village comprises 22 buildings, including a one-room schoolhouse, church, and three homes illustrating the various stages of wealth that the canal created. It also features a horse-drawn towboat ride along a one-mile stretch of the original 1817 canal.
In Camillus, volunteers have created their own Erie Canal Park on the shores of what was the long-closed 1937 canal. It is complete with a general store stocked with 19th-century artifacts. At the east end of their little piece of the canal stand the exquisitely fitted blocks of hand-cut stone piers that supported the Nine Mile Creek Aqueduct. They stand today like Roman ruins. Built in 1842, the aqueducts were put out of service in 1917. The piers stand as gray, silent witnesses of the voyagers who floated through here so long ago.
Along the length of the canal, New York state embraces tourism, which has replaced the manufacturing that the canal served so successfully in the past. Former towpaths have become bicycle and hiking trails, and parks have bloomed along the shores in town after town.
Fairport has been a favorite with canalers since the beginning. Now as then, it is a town of quiet beauty with a canal-side restaurant and park. Kayakers and paddlers share the canal with tour boats and cabin cruisers.
Waterford has poured two million dollars into developing its waterfront. The town celebrates the opening of the canal each May with its Waterford Canal Days. Canastota, home to the Boxing Hall of Fame, has inaugurated its own Canal Day celebration. Many of the towns along the canal have some sort of festival, concert, or antique fair between May and October, when the canal is open.
Today, Baldwinsville – at roughly the halfway point on the canal – is reinventing itself with shops and the only public amphitheater on the canal. Built on Paper Mill Island, the amphitheater replaced a long-closed paper mill that found its prosperity with the coming of the original canal. There are concerts here every Saturday night during the season. Baldwinsville has a quintessential American small-town flavor that permeates the summer air during its concerts. Husbands and wives, boys and girls, and children of all ages cover the grass as boats line the canal wall for an evening’s entertainment.
At speeds of less than 10 miles per hour, a visitor can travel across New York from the eastern edge of the Adirondack Mountains to the Finger Lakes vineyards, to Lake Ontario and Erie, to within spraying distance of Niagara Falls. For boat owners, the Erie Canal is the transit route from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean via the Hudson River. The Erie Canal rolls on, rising and lowering. Still the essence of men’s hopes and dreams, the Canal’s full potential is yet to be realized. Like the land it bisects, the Erie Canal seems timeless.