Just north of New York’s capital, Albany, the Mohawk River joins the Hudson from the west. At the junction of these two rivers, on the north and western corner, is the village of Waterford. The Erie Canal begins at Waterford, and the village welcomes boaters traveling the canal. Waterford has constructed a large welcome center and a long dock wall for cruising boaters, offering dockage with electricity and water, free for up to a 48 hour stay. A wide variety of boats, from tugs to canal boats, lined the dock wall. There was only one spot available when Last Dance arrived in the late afternoon, right in front of R Hope. Interesting how, with very different agendas and travel plans, cruisers continue to cross paths.
The Erie Canal was begun in 1817 and completed in 1825. Governor Dewitt Clinton saw the possibility of the Erie canal “ . . . as a bond of union between the Atlantic and Western states, it may prevent the dismemberment of the American Emprire.” It was a controversial project, called by doubters “Clinton’s Folly” or "Clinton's Ditch", as they believed the New York Governor was supporting a boondoggle. The canal proved to be a commercial success and is credited with making New York City the hub of commerce. Raw materials, such as lumber and ore, could be transported from the Midwest to the east coast, and manufactured products from the east coast to the Midwest. The Erie Canal provided the fastest and lowest cost transportation method. The canal was built to support barges pulled by horses walking along a trail next to the canal.
In 1925, the new, much larger Erie Canal was constructed along the old canal route. With train transportation and the St. Lawrence Seaway as competition, the new canal was never a great success for commercial transportation, but the new, higher dams provided opportunities for hydroelectric power, still generating renewable source power today.
A stay at Waterford allows one to learn about the locking system and purchase a pass for the locks since the first lock, Lock 2, is less than 100 yards from the end of the Waterford dock wall. It also provides a contrast between the original canals and the new canal. Next to Lock 2, just to the right, is a spillway to allow excess water to bypass the lock. This spillway was the first set of locks of the original Champlain Canal, which at the time, also had its beginning at Waterford. The original Erie and Champlain canals were quite narrow, and canal barges were built to fill the entire width. The vast difference in size of the canal and locks is obvious.
The old Champlain Canal has been converted to a linear park. The lower section still has canal walls and is filled with water. Since the locks and dams have not been maintained, the upper sections have no water and are filled. The horse trail still remains and provides a walking, hiking, and biking trail.
The Erie Canal locks are quite large (300’ x 44’), capable of handling large barges. Today, most of the traffic is recreational boats. Even the largest of pleasure boats seem like a toy when in a lock.
Big boat, big boat in lock
A lock is an elevator for boats. To lift a boat to a higher level, water is added to the lock until the boat has risen to the next higher water level. To move a boat down, it is moved into the lock when it is filled and water is released until it is at the lower water level. Adding and releasing water from the lock creates turbulence which tries to move the boat around inside the lock.
The Erie Canal has two different systems for mooring a boat to the lock wall, to keep it anchored in one place. Some walls have a pipe or rubber-covered cables installed vertically in a groove in the lock wall. A line is looped around the pipe or cable, connected to the boat at midship, and crew are stationed at the bow and stern. The line is used to keep the boat close to the wall, the crew attempts to keep the boat away from the wall. It is often and interesting dance.
At each lock, the altitude in posted. Last Dance has spent her life at sea level; moving to such great heights is a different experience.
Locks are built in conjunction with dams. The dams create the higher water level to give sufficient water depth for boats. The Erie allows boats to cross the Catskill Mountain Range, traveling through the Mohawk River Valley. The dams also provide water power to generate electricity, with generating plants located next to the dams.
Lock 17 is a bit different. Due to its great height, a guillotine-like wall drops down from a fixed wall that must be passed under. With a lift of 40 ½ feet, its lift is greater than any singe lock on the Panama Canal. Interestingly, on the tallest of all the Erie locks, the engineers have provided hanging ropes for boat mooring, which provide almost no leverage – quite a challenge.
In addition to having to squeeze under the door to Lock 17, there were numerous times when low structures made the crew want to duck for fear of hitting their heads. Bridges are listed as being at least 15 ½ feet above water level, however none of New York bridges have sign board s to show height above water. Last Dance is 21’ 6” tall at the top of the mast and 15’ 6” at the top of the bimini.
The Erie Canal follows the Mohawk River for much of its eastern half. The Mohawk River valley is a beautiful section of New York State. The canal is much more than a series of locks; it is an amazing path through beautifully wooded country side and mountains. The Erie Canal itself is a cruising destination, with companies renting canal boats solely for traveling the canal.
One of cities along the Erie is Amsterdam. Last Dance moored along a lock wall at Guy Park. Guy Johnson was a British Loyalist who fought with the British Army during the revolutionary war. Being on the losing side, Guy had to leave the country and his property became a park and his house a museum. One disadvantage of spending a night along the canal is that train tracks run parallel to the canal, and freight trains are numerous. With a couple road crossings in Amsterdam, the trains are required to blow their horns as they enter town. There is an amazing amount of freight being moved at 4:30 am.
One of the odd claims to fame for Amsterdam is a Volkswagen Beatle sitting atop a smoke stack. It is an advertisement for an auto repair shop located nearby.
The sad part of this oddity – the reason the Beatle can sit atop the stack— is that the factory below is shuttered. It is testimony to the decline of smoke-stack industries and the loss of employment opportunities in cities once thriving. Amsterdam was once home to Mohawk Carpet and Cabbage Patch Dolls.
Through the city, many eloquent, architecturally interesting homes, built in the early 20th century are losing their luster since the people remaining in Amsterdam lack the resources to maintain large, financially demanding houses. There was one exception to share and to end on a positive note. A brick home, with stained glass windows, was wonderfully maintained. An interesting feature, behind the house, facing the next street, is a brick barn. The barn has been converted into a three-car garage with an enormous amount of space. Glen longs for such a garage.
Another welcoming town for cruisers. Conajoharie has a riverfront park with a free dock for visitors arriving by boat. (Seems towns along the Erie want boating tourists as much as many towns in Florida work to discourage them.)
At first glance, Canajoharie seems to be another of the towns losing its major employer. In this case, however, Beechnut has built a new, modernized plant 20 miles outside of town. Beechnut is a different type of employer than many U.S. industries which only look at the bottom line. Beechnut provided live music for its employees working the production line. The women were treated to manicures and pedicures. And, most importantly for the rest of us, Beechnut purchased art to display in the factory for the education of its employees. In 1927, Bartlett Arkell, Beechnut’s owner, funded an art museum, co-located with the town library, to share some of the art with the public. It is a beautiful museum with an extensive collection of Winslow Homer’s paintings. There are some commissioned originals, such as a train steaming through the Mohawk Valley, and the art commissioned for Beechnut advertisements. Norman Rockwell created some of the illustrations, now held as great period art.
Canajoharie has an odd claim to fame, one they celebrate. Their stop light is located in the middle of the street, on an island. One can actually buy a hat or shirt with illustrations of this oddity.
During the visit to Washington, DC, it was learned that only one city in the United States accepted Holocaust refugees – Oswego, New York. It was good to have a chance to see the city whose heart was bigger than the pressure to conform.
The Oswego Canal connects the Erie Canal with Lake Ontario. The city of Oswego lies along the southern shore of the big lake and at the end of the canal. A longer visit to learn more about the city architecture could have been beneficial. The city hall is a grand, marble building. The YMCA is located in a large, brick building, with quite different architecture. It would not seem these buildings were built with the intent to house these functions. What were they in their original lives?
A weather report of high winds and seas beginning at noon and lasting for a number of days dictated an early morning departure. The lighthouse at the end of a long jetty/breakwater proved invaluable for navigation at 4:30 am.