Tom Blanchard guides the Stasia Louise across mirrorlike Erie Canal waters on
the way to Buffalo, New York.
they had to get the ropes around the other
boat and attached to the mules again so each
He looks to the water and is silent for a
moment. “There were so many Erie Canal
doubters back in the 1800s when Clinton
was trying to get this built,” he says qui-
etly, watching an eastbound canal boat, the
54-foot Sam Patch tie up on the other side.
These boats are rented for a weekend, or lon-
ger, and stop in waterfront towns for the eve-
ning so passengers can sample the local fare.
“The success is outdated now, but you know
what? The Empire State is the result of this.
It connected New York City on the Hudson
River with cities on the Great Lakes, and this
is what brought people inland, and what
made New York City a major trading port.”
Wearing his dockmaster hat, Wendl walks
to our 44-foot trawler with a welcome package
and collects the overnight docking fee of $11,
and that includes access to showers, a pump-
out station, and electric service. Yeah, I was
thinking the same thing. I even offered to pay.
RIGHT NOW AND BACK THEN
You can still see evidence of the “towpaths”
or mule trails that Sal’s ancestors used a century ago. Most have become bike paths and,
to add one example of Wendl’s reference to
“outdated,” it’s common to see a trail once
used by a mule to pull a boat, now a haven
for cyclists, while just beyond it a freight train
that replaced boats carrying goods on the
canal clatters by. Farther ahead, in Tonawanda,
New York, the Erie Canal veers from south
to west along what is called the “Tonawanda
Cut.” From here, it’s a straight shot to the
ERIE CANAL FESTIVALS
■ Canal Days, Fairport, New York, first weekend in June
■ Tonawanda Canal Fest, New York, held mid-July, www.canalfest.org
■ Spencerport Canal Days, late July, www.spencerportcanaldays.com
■ Erie Canal Bike Tour, mid-July, 8 days from Buffalo to Albany
Niagara River and less than 20 miles to Buffalo.
Though there are three parks on either side of
the canal today, years ago a “park” meant stopping to wait for the wind to die.
“As soon as a boat with a pair of mules
made that turn,” Patton recounts, “everyone
checked the winds. Remember, winds travel
from west to east, and if there was a lot of
wind, they had to double up the mules to
There are 34 locks that lower and raise the
water level on the canal today. Back when the
canal first opened, there were 83 locks and
that 564-foot difference between Buffalo and
the Hudson River required some big thinkers.
Patton sees it this way: “The Erie Canal was
America’s first engineering school,” he says.
“Now, there were locks in place in Europe,
and our military engineers already had a
pretty good sense of how things worked in
a lock, but this was happening just a few
years after the end of the War of 1812, so the
French and British were reluctant to help this
former colony learn how to transport not only
commercial, but military, goods.” American
engineers started to work on building a lock
system on their own. At Brewerton Lock 24,
the machinery they built to raise and lower
the water in 1910 is still at work.
In the aptly named town of Lockport, the
early Erie Canal had the famous “flight of
five,” five locks that raised or lowered boats
a total of 50 feet. Today, the five have been
replaced by two, Locks 34 and 35, which
together handle the 50-foot difference.
Watching the locks is another Erie Canal
moment. I can listen to Congress argue about
something on C-SPAN for two days and
sincerely believe society is doomed, but after
locking through the Erie Canal and watching
how something man-made is so efficiently
well-thought-out and works so beautifully, I
can say mankind has a future.
GARDENS AND GREETINGS
When you dock for the night in Lyons,
New York (Lock 27 is here), chances are
good you’ll be visited by Dave Stoop, a local
soybean farmer who makes it a point to
check the flower garden growing a few feet
from the water. Included among the roses
and lilies, all donated by local wholesalers, is peppermint. Lyons was, and still is,
a producer of peppermint oil throughout
the world, and the canal was a major way
for the Hotchkiss International Prize Medal
Essential Oil Company to move its goods.