Diabetes Awareness Campaign: Trekking Along the Erie Canal.
North Tonawanda
Little Falls
St. Johnsville
Wednesday, October 10
Newark diner.
The next morning I found a small diner where I decided to get breakfast. I like diners because the food is generally good and they are a good place to get a taste of the local life.
I overheard the foursome in the next booth discuss the intellectual faculties of the local “dog catcher, excuse me, animal control officer.” It seems that he couldn’t or wouldn’t control a family of skunks behind the guy’s house. He wanted to take a shotgun to them, but his friends cautioned him from doing so. Then I overheard something which made me sit up. Bow and arrow season was going to start this weekend and black powder season next week. For the past week I have been noticing deer tracks on the towpath. I wondered how many hunters would obey the No Hunting rules of the towpath trail. Even if there wasn’t hunting on the trail, the woods on either side would be fair game—pun intended. I don’t know what the range of a bow and or a black powder rifle actually is. But I hoped never to find out.
The canal path had ceased at Newark so I had to head east on Route 5. Fortunately the berm was quite wide, so I wasn’t too worried about the oncoming traffic. However, each time a semi tractor trailer flew by, I had to grab my hat.
One of the nice things about trekking along is the serendipity. This day I had entered a strange land. It was a mix of residential and light commercial real estate. It seemed like every quarter mile or so was some object strategically placed along the edge of the road with a for sale sign attached to it. At one point I came to a group of classic cars. A group of men were haggling over a 1928 Studebaker pickup truck. I use the word classic tongue in cheek because the color of his vehicles certainly were not classic. I remember the pink Cadillac, symbol of Mary Kay cosmetics, but a pink Studebaker?
Pink Studebaker.
Pink Studebaker
If you think that pastel cars are funny, what about a powder blue portable powder room? Where would you find the resale value of a portable potty—the Kelly Blue Book?/div>
Portable powder room.
Even more amusing to me was that the fact that it was on a trailer, making it truly portable. When you have to go, it is ready to go!
Today was my day for colorful scenes. Route 5 came very close to the canal just prior to the town of Lyons. Across the canal was a public marina as well as work yard of the Barge Canal. On the edge of the yard’s dock was an erect line of buoys in red and green neat columns waiting to be deployed by a dark blue tug.
Buoys tender.
Buoys tender
The green buoys are odd numbered while the red are even. The color enables the helmsmen of the boats to steer within the channel of the waterway. I learned the rules of navigation before I learned the rules of the road. “Red, right, returning.” That means keep the red markers to your starboard side when going upstream from the mouth of the river. As every good sailor the ste’rboard is on the starboard or right side. To protect the steer board, he ties up his craft so the opposite left side is towards the portside. Hence the use of port and starboard as directions.
Less than a mile from the marina I came to Lock 27 and the town of Lyons. I crossed the canal and entered the center where I found a McDonalds for lunch. While I sat there eating my burger, I poured over my map and guide book. I had to make a decision.
The Barge Canal was about to veer off sharply and head south before curving back to Clyde. There was no towpath along that way. I could stay on Route 5 to Lock Berlin. This route followed along the old Enlarged Erie pathway. Or I could go along roads which followed Clinton’s Ditch route but also ended in the community of Lock Berlin. There the two routes joined and headed to Clyde where I was to meet John. The latter alternative would take me into the countrysided, but I would be able to see a fairly good segment of the original canal. I chose the path less taken.
Clinton's Ditch.
Clinton's Ditch
As I left Lyons, I traveled along a road named Canal Street North. It was obvious that I was walking along where the canal actually was because the row houses on either side were brick. Now residences, they were at one time warehouses.
About two miles north of town, the road arched and turned into Pilgrimport. I thought how appropriate since I began my trekking career as a pilgrim in Spain. (Visit my web site Road to Santiago.org.) Just as the road changed into Lock Berlin Road I saw what I was looking for. The segment ran about the length of a football field. This part of the ditch ran through a thick forest. This image made me realize just how much work it had to have been to fell the trees and pull up the stumps in order clear the land.
Later I would see smaller segments. They indeed were just ditches on the side of the road. I was surprised to realize just how small Clinton’s Big Ditch really was. While the top was 40 feet wide it was only 12 at the bottom which was only 4 feet deep. That meant it was really a tight squeeze when two barges had to pass each other.
Lock Berlin.
Lock Berlin
By the time I reached Lock Berlin it was much later that I had calculated. The northern arc I had taken was actually much longer than the southern route. And there was at least four or five more miles to Clyde. I was going to be late for my appointment with John.
I punched the speed dial on my cell phone and talked to John explaining my predicament. He suggested that I meet him half way. There was a small park off of Old Route 31 about two miles from where I was. He would meet me there.
It was a good suggestion because I was kind’a beat by the time I got there. I took off my back pack, sat down, and gulped a couple of pints of water. After a brief respite and a dash to the outhouse I walked around and inspected the park. I was particularly interested in the old mule barn which been restored and repainted. Such barns where established all along the canal and were called line barns. Some were owned by the various freight express lines while others were run by local entrepreneurs who would rent out the animals for a day’s haul. The loft held a supply of hay while the side barn had stalls. It was not uncommon for the canawlers to spend their nights in a line barn.
Mule barn.
Mule barn
Next to the picnic pavilion was a large display which included a map indicating the routes of all three versions of the canal from Newark to Clyde. But more importantly, it presented a statistical comparison of the three versions: their dimensions and capacities. Although faded and difficult to read, I took a snap shot for future reference.
It was a pleasant park, but it appeared that its main purpose was from dog walking judging for the number of cars that drove up and out jumped eager dogs tugging on their leashes. Eventually a blue car pulled up instead of a dog jumping out, it was some old dude. At first I thought it might’ve been John’s uncle. But then, I realized it was John!
John arrives.
Did someone call a taxi?
Boy, was I glad to see John. He grabbed my backpack and threw it into the back seat. I asked him if his little tin can could hold me. He assured me that it would but there might be a slight list to the passenger side since a car’s springs are designed to hold a normal sized person!
John gave me a quick tour of his home range. We went past beautiful fields of winter wheat, hay, and apple orchards. Then he took me into Clyde the town where he grew up. John told me how the canal used to go right through the center of the town, in fact the street we were on was the canal.
Winter wheat.
Winter wheat
From Clyde, we drove along the present day Barge Canal. As we went along he pointed out the drumlins and eskers left by the Ice Age glaciers. I wished that Jerie was with us so she could hear my quick geology course. I told John that some day I would bring her with me so we explore the area more thoroughly.
Muck Lands
My purpose in connecting with John, besides catching up on old times, was to get a ride through the Great Cayuga Swamp. I would have loved to walk through the area since it is now a wildlife preserve and a great place for birding. But since it is a wilderness area without roadside services, it would have been quite risky.
But before we entered the swamp John drove me through the Muck Lands, a very fertile area. Muck refers to an organic material (similar to peat) which is a result of deposits of dead organisms at the bottom of a huge ancient glacial lake, the precursor of Lake Ontario. The muck is so rich that it became a great area to raise onions and other crops such as peppermint. In his prime, John’s grandfather had been a mint farmer.
John didn’t just drop me off at my motel in Weedsport. First he took me to Port Byron. Today it is a small town of 1,200 inhabitants, but it was a bustling city during the heyday of the canal. There were three or four hotels as well as several warehouses. Not only was it an important stop on the Erie Canal, but it was the first east bound port after the Cayuga-Seneca canal joined with the Erie in Montezuma.
Port Byron.
Port Byron
Built in 1818, that canal connected Geneva, Waterloo, and Seneca Falls, communities on the shores of Lakes Seneca and Cayuga. In 1825 the two canals were joined. Hence prosperity. There were three famous natives from Port Byron. Brigham Young, considered a prophet of the Mormon Church, took leadership of the sect after death of Joseph Smith. Young lead his flock westward and settled on the Great Salt Lake in Utah. They traveled a difficult dusty road referred to this very day as the Mormon Trail. Isaac Singer revolutionized clothes making for the average household with his pedal driven sewing machine. Motor driven versions of the same machine are still in use today. Finally there was Joseph Wells who started the famous stage coach company Wells-Fargo. This company became a famous express company and eventually changed its name to American Express.
John used to teach in Port Byron and he drove me by the old school house. Then he took me to his favorite food joint. The waitresses all knew him and greeted warmly. While we sat there eating good home cooking, me with my wine and him with his iced tea, we caught up on a lot of lost years!
Frat boys.
He got old on me!
Before we left I had the waitress take a snapshot of two old codgers who look like ’49 gold miners. It’s hard to believe that we were once suave brothers of Kappa Sigma Pi!
Like me, John changed careers. We were in the same fraternity. He was an English major, while I was an aspiring biology major who wanted to be a marine biologist. John ended up working on the railroad, but also doubled as a horse trainer and a farrier. I became a typesetter and erstwhile wordsmith. Strange twists occur on the road of life. One thing we have in common as seniors is an appreciation of history.
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