Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Canal Boats Along the Mohawk

On Monday, Erie Locks 2 through 16 re-opened, and SlowBoat was cruising once again.  Under gray skies we churned along, traveling 36 miles and transiting 6 different locks over the course of the day.

We picked up a nifty little brochure about canal history when we entered the canal system at Waterford, and in between shifts at the tiller I read it cover to cover.  The author, state engineer Roy Finch, wrote the pamphlet in 1925 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Erie Canal.

The canal we're traveling today is quite different from "Clinton's Ditch," the 1825 original, which was a mere 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide.  That canal was designed for boats carrying loads of 30 tons.  (To put it in perspective, Dragonfly weighs about 14 tons.)

The Erie was an immediate success, and in 1834 the State started working to enlarge it, so it could handle more and bigger boats. By 1862, the canal was 7 feet deep and could handle boats carrying 240 tons.

What did the canal look like back then? Toward the end of the day, we cleared lock 12 and docked in the town of Fort Hunter for a quick bike ride to Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site, where you can see the structure that, after the first canal enlargement, was called Lock 28, or the "Yankee Hill" lock.  Check our Facebook photoessay HERE.

Views along the Mohawk
In 1903 New York started work on a second enlargement of the canal, creating what was called the New York State Barge Canal. It was completed in 1918.  The faintly military-style buildings we see at the locks today--the square, white locktender's offices and the "powerhouses" (literally, houses for the generators that once powered the locks)--date to this period.

In many places the barge canal followed a new route, along existing rivers. As Mr. Finch explains: "The system differs from the canals previously built in that the underlying idea has been to use the lowest watercourses in valleys wherever possible rather than to build an artificial channel on higher ground."

So we SAY we are on the Erie Canal,  but in fact, we're cruising the New York State Canal System.  Much of the original Erie is no longer navigable.

Now how about that song, "Got a mule, her name is Sal?"  You probably figured that song ALSO dates to the original Erie, that hogees (mule drivers) wearing overalls and straw hats sang the tune as they walked along sandy towpaths?

Sing it with me:  "I've got solar panels, and some wattage, pal! 15 miles on the Erie Canal . . ."
Wrong! "Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal" was written in 1905, shortly after construction started on the Barge Canal. Mules were being replaced by engines, and the song was nostalgic.

When modern, solar-fueled electric motors replace old-fashioned diesel engines, will anyone write a sentimental song? I do know the perfect guy to do it:  Bruce Springsteen.  He does a great cover of the original Erie Canal song, AND he wrote all those odes to fast cars: "Born to Run," "Thunder Road."  Bruce!  Hit it!

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