Exploring New York’s Erie Canal
New York's Erie Canal region has been designated a national heritage corridor by the US National Park Service. (Richard Cummins/LPI/Getty)
“I don't know if they've said so,” Larry Barnes began, “but this place would still be a dump if it wasn’t for them.”
Barnes is a volunteer at Camillus Erie Canal Park, in the town of Camillus, New York. The “them” he is referring to are David and Liz Beebe, the caretakers of the park, and “this place” is the only remaining navigable aqueduct in New York State, located on an abandoned section of the Erie Canal.
The Beebes are characteristic of many people who live along the 524 miles of the hand-dug Erie Canal that cuts a west-east swath through New York state: knowledgeable and deeply passionate about their relationship to the canal, committed to taking care of their small portion of it -- and a bit mystified that a waterway once so central to US commercial life could be so little-known among modern-day travellers.
Barnes explained that the Beebes led the effort to clean this part of the canal, salvaged the original stones from the aqueduct and then raised the funds to restore it. “Liz was the first person to cross the aqueduct in a kayak,” said David, who even remembers the exact date: “15 August 2009.” Liz just nodded, too busy to talk. Dressed in mid 19th-century garb (she and David also run the park's replica of a mid-1800s general store), she was piloting a slow-moving pontoon toward a dock, where visitors disembarked to see the aqueduct up close.
The thing is, though, there are not many visitors. “Boy Scouts”, said Liz, after she tied up the pontoon.“We have lots of Boy Scouts.”
It seems that few travellers know about New York's Erie Canal region, despite the canal's designation as a national heritage corridor by the US National Park Service and despite the important role that many of the 234 towns along its banks played in US history, especially during the abolition of slavery and the women’s suffrage movement. When it opened in 1825, the canal also made the transportation of goods easier, cheaper and faster and helped precipitate the country’s westward expansion.
“Today kayakers can run the canal from the town of Buffalo in the west of the state all the way to Troy in the east -- a distance of 262 miles -- without portaging once,” said Dan Ward, curator of the Erie Canal Museum, which houses the world's most complete collection of canal-related artefacts and ephemera. It is also located in the only remaining weighlock building in the United States, where boats were weighed when travelling on the canal during the second half of the 19th Century.
However, one of the most interesting and accessible stretches is the 87-mile route between the cities of Rochester and Syracuse, which cuts through the top of New York state's overlooked Finger Lakes wine region. With international airports on each end, you can easily fly into Rochester and out of Syracuse, doing a combination of leisurely driving and paddling for five to seven days between the two cities.
Rochester, New York's third largest city, has a number of attractions to see before you hit the water, including the George Eastman House, a photography and film museum with the largest holding of photographic equipment in the world, as well as major collections of early French photography and work by nature photographer Ansel Adams; the graves of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and suffragist Susan B Anthony (her house is now a museum), both buried in Mount Hope Cemetery; and the National Museum of Play, a museum devoted to toys and games. In the city’s historic High Falls District, pay a visit to High Falls -- the picturesque waterfall that generated the power to grind wheat for Rochester’s main industry, flour production – and try the local beer at the newly-opened Genesee Brew House, where an outdoor terrace and roof patio overlooks the waterfall.