Bicycling the Erie Canal corridor: it was a cyclist's dream come true.
According to NYPCA, the goals of this annual bike tour are "to promote the Canalway Trail and bicycle tourism" and "to draw attention to the many scenic and historic areas surrounding the Erie Canal." NYPCA claims that, "when complete, the 524-mile Canalway Trail will be the longest intra-state multi-use trail system in the nation." For me, the trip offered eight enjoyable days on my bike surrounded by fascinating history and unmatched scenery.
The first day of the bicycle tour required navigation from Nichols School in Buffalo to the middle school in Medina. About half of this 47-mile route was on the Canalway Trail bike path; the rest was mostly on rural roads. The highlight of the day was a lunchtime boat ride on part of the old Erie Canal route near Lockport, during which we passed through a series of historic locks.
We had to carry only what we needed for the day, since our camping and ancillary gear was ferried by truck to Medina. On Sunday night, I assembled with my 400 compatriots at the middle school for dinner, evening programs, camping, and in the morning, breakfast. This was the general framework for each day of the bicycle tour.
On the second day, we traveled 52 miles from Medina to Nazareth College in Pittsford, almost all of which was on the Canalway Trail bike path. On the way, two of the bicyclists decided to get married at the Spencerport gazebo--our lunch stop for the day. Veils and long white trains weren't required; the bride and groom wore yellow bicycling clothing for the wedding.
In the afternoon, I took a guided bicycling detour with a small group of riders on the Genesee Riverway Trail to the upper falls in Rochester. We lingered in wonder at this little-known falls in an urban setting, before returning to the Canalway Trail.
As I bicycled along the canal route each day, and as I listened intently to evening lectures, I learned about the canal's exciting history. For example, the original Erie Canal was built amid wilderness, swamps, mountains, waterfalls, lakes, and Native American tribes. The canal, deemed "little short of madness" by Thomas Jefferson before construction began in 1817, was soon named "Clinton's Ditch" for New York Governor DeWitt Clinton. However, when the canal officially opened on October 26, 1825, it was acclaimed as the greatest engineering marvel in the world. (See the Conservationist, February 2003.)
This section of the tour required pedaling 60 miles to Lafayette School in Waterloo. Most of the day's early riding was on the Canalway Trail, while the rest was on rural roads. Getting lost was not a problem; we were aided by strategically placed, spray-painted arrows on the pavement along the way. After erecting my tent at the school, I rode a shuttle bus about a mile south to the Cayuga and Seneca Canal. After a short picnic at the water's edge, I took a three-mile, one lock, boat ride to Seneca Falls, the center of the women's rights movement in the nineteenth century.
The Cayuga and Seneca Canal connects the two lakes of the same names. Legend has it that the drum-like beating that can be beard at night across Seneca's waters is the sound of Native American drums. However, scientists today say that the sound emanates from gases escaping from the bottom of the lake.
On the fourth day, we traveled 50 miles to Le Moyne College in Syracuse. Only about three of the miles were on the Canalway Trail, while nearly 13 miles were on Route 31. However, I had time to explore the Sims Store Museum at the afternoon rest stop near the Nine Mile Creek Aqueduct. This museum is near the canal's midpoint between Buffalo and Albany.
When I got to Syracuse, there was a reception for Erie Canal bicyclists at the Erie Canal Museum, housed in the Weighlock Building. Built in 1850, this structure was originally designed to weigh canal boats and collect tolls. It is the only building of its kind left in the world, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings.
After the reception, a small group of cyclists were escorted by city police on motorcycles to Syracuse's Onondaga Lake, which we toured by tram. During the tram ride, Don Thompson, a retired high school social studies teacher, gave us a narrated tour of the "golden age" of Onondaga Lake resorts. We also learned about the history of salt production using solar salt sheds.
On day five we bicycled 46 miles to the Rome Art and Community Center, principally on the Canalway Trail. At the first rest stop, I explored the Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum. This museum includes dry docks built in 1855 for the enlarged Erie Canal, during its first major renovation. Dry docks are basins where the water level can be controlled via a sluiceway, which allowed for the construction or repair of boats.
At Chittenango Landing, craftsmen constructed and repaired the 96-foot-long canal boats which carried grain, lumber, coal and other produce to eastern markets for sale or export, along with passengers going west.
Toward the end of the day, I cycled into the Erie Canal Village, a nineteenth century village built on the site where construction of the original canal began on July 4, 1817. It's also near the eastern terminus of the 36-mile Old Erie Canal State Historic Park. The reconstructed village, which opened in 1973, features mule-drawn boat rides along a refurbished section of the enlarged Erie Canal. The village now includes a tavern, ice house, church, blacksmith shop, train station, school, canal store, print shop, and a cheese-making exhibit.
My final stop before making camp was at Fort Stanwix National Monument in Rome. This fort was rebuilt and renamed Fort Schuyler during the Revolutionary War. The failure of a British siege here led to a British withdrawal from the Mohawk Valley and an American victory at Saratoga during the latter part of 1777. The exterior of this wooden fort seemed well protected by a moat and wooden obstacles--even 226 years later.
The sixth day of the tour required covering 67 miles (including about 14 Canalway Trail miles) to Canajoharie High School. The highlight of the day's ride was a tour of the F.X. Matt brewery in Utica, which makes Saranac and other beers. I also took a brief tour of the Remington Arms factory in Ilion, and was surprised to learn that Remington once made a very basic touring bicycle.
Late that day, we passed Fort Klock National Historic Landmark. This fort is an excellent example of a mid-eighteenth century for trading post. It featured a fortified stone structure used by Mohawk Valley settlers as a place of refuge during both the French and Indian and Revolutionary wars. The walls of the stone structure are nearly two feet thick, and rest on a solid rock foundation. These walls also have "loopholes" which allowed muskets to be fired from inside the fort to protect against the French, the Indians, and later, the British.
On the seventh day, we cycled 46 miles to the Golub Family Park in Niskayuna, on the outskirts of Schenectady. The day's highlight was the "Canal Days" festival at the Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site in Fort Hunter. The largest structure at Schoharie Crossing is the 600-foot-long, 14-arch, bridge-like Schoharie Aqueduct, which once carried canal water over Schoharie Creek. Six of the aqueduct's 14 arches are still standing.
The final day required cycling slightly more than 32 miles--including 22 bikeway miles--to Albany's boat launch in the Corning Preserve. I arrived just after noon and was able to join a small group of cyclists on a guided tour of Albany's downtown area, including the capitol building. After that tour, I cycled across the Dunn Memorial Bridge to the Amtrak station in Rensselaer to pick up my camping gear and get my car. As I loaded my bike onto my car, I reflected on eight days and 400 miles of great food, friends, camping, bicycling, and history, and I began to hum, "low bridge, ev'rybody down."
Did you know?
Opened in 1825, the Erie Canal was the engineering marvel of the nineteenth century. When the planning for what many derided as "Clinton's Folly" began, there was not a single engineering school in the United States. Excepting only a few places where black powder was used to blast through rock formations, all 363 miles of the canal were excavated and built by the muscle power of men and horses. To find out more about the New York State Canal System, including ways you can seethe Canalway Trail for yourself, visit www.canals.state.ny.us or call 1-800-4CANAL4.
If you go:
The Sixth Annual Bike Tour along the Erie Canal will take place from July 11-18, 2004. This eight-day, 400 mile bicycle tour takes participants from Buffalo to Albany, along the same historic and scenic routh you've just read about. Visit www.nypca.org/canaltour for more information.
John J. Rashak is a DEC environmental engineer and an avid cyclisl. He has bicycled 4,500 miles across Canada and 2,500 miles from Canada to Mexico along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route.