Our Historic Waterway

(This column was first published in the November 19, 2001 Buffalo News.)


This past summer I reached another long-time goal. I finished my trek across the state along the Erie Canal. Like many of my projects, this one took many years to complete.


I began hiking from the Buffalo waterfront in November 1992, continued on occasional day trips by foot and in the winter on cross-country skis to Palmyra, completing that leg in June 1993. The canal towpath ends there, so I carried on by boat. A long-time friend, Earl Colborn, joined me to canoe from Palmyra to Oswego Lake that July. There the project hibernated, however, until last summer when I followed the canal as closely as possible across the rest of the state, reaching Troy in late August. That last section I traversed by moped.


As if to celebrate my accomplishment, two interesting books about the Erie Canal have been published this year. The first, "Cruising America's Waterways: The Erie Canal," by Debbie Daino Stack and Ronald S. Marquisee (Media Artists) is a beautifully illustrated book about the canal today. It belongs on board every boat that follows any part of our state canal system and in the homes of all others who are interested in our state's historic waterway.


I wish this book had been available when I was following the canal as it is packed with information not just about the canal itself but about people and activities along the way.


But what impresses me most about it is the authors' ability to convey a great deal of information in brief passages of interesting prose. In a half-dozen paragraphs they explain the locking system. Here are some excerpts from the first two: "When thinking of the canal system, the first image that comes to mind is that of a lock. It's almost as if the canals are a group of locks connected by water, not vast stretches of water connected by locks. Coupled with dams and other structures, locks provide those relatively current-less, navigable channels of water, or pools, that are the canals — offering a safe and usually dependable route for boaters. The engineering challenge is to manage what nature supplies to provide pools of water with a fixed depth, so that craft with a particular 'draft' can pass safely. And the water level (surface elevation) has to be held constant, so that craft with a particular height can pass safely under bridges.... Managing this system is a complex process.... While highway travel usually offers alternate routes if, for example, a bridge is out, the failure of a single canal lock may render the entire system useless for a particular voyage."


This beautifully illustrated book serves as a rich resource not only for the main canal but for the Oswego, Champlain and Cayuga-Seneca branches and for the Hudson River down to New York City as well.


The second book, Dan Murphy's "The Erie Canal: The Ditch that Opened the Nation," (Western New York Wares) focuses on the canal's history in this region. The author is a 1996 Canisius graduate and the publisher, Brian Meyer, is an honored regional journalist.


That it speaks to local history is, of course, not a criticism. Having read at least a dozen books about this canal, I still learned much of interest from this small volume. I was particularly drawn to Murphy's chapter about what he calls "The Porter/Clinton War." Black Rock businessman and state congressman Peter Porter argued for selfish reasons to have the proposed canal follow the Oswego River to Lake Ontario with a shorter section running from Ontario parallel to the Niagara River to Black Rock.


Needless to say, he lost.-- Gerry Rising