Diabetes Awareness Campaign: Trekking Along the Erie Canal.
North Tonawanda
Little Falls
St. Johnsville
Saturday, October 13
Sims's Store today.
Sims' Store today
It was a bright, beautiful, crisp day with a clear blue sky and I was anxious to get going because I wanted to spend some time at the Camillus Erie Canal Park. I had read that the park actually had a section of canal with water and boats that gave rides. I was tired of seeing dry ditches in the woods and very much wanted to get a feel of what the 19th century canal was like.
There was no restaurant associated with the motel and none within the vicinity. I didn’t want to retreat back to the gas station to get a lousy cup of coffee and a breakfast of nutritious empty processed carbohydrates. I asked the lady at the front desk where I could get a bite to eat. She said that there were a couple of places about a mile away. So, it was with great anticipation that approached the “fine dining” restaurant but it wouldn’t open until lunch. I couldn’t wait that long so I kept on hoofing. Unfortunately the next place was a banquet facility of a country club—members only.
To make matters worse, a sign for the park pointed up a spur road that headed into a wooded area. I hoped that the park had a concession stand. As I headed up the road, a pickup truck stopped and asked me if I wanted a ride. I gladly accepted because it would enable me to get to the park sooner. In fact the driver was going right by the park. He was a duck hunter who was heading for a hunting preserve beyond the park. He assured me that there was no danger for me on the trail. The hunting area was well away from the trail and in the opposite direction. He let me off at the edge of the park.
Sims' Store.
Sims' Store
Camillus was important during the heyday of the canal because it is located at the midpoint of the original Clinton’s Big Ditch. Also, it was the place where the 1845 enlargement of the canal began. Thus, Camillus became a logical place for a stopping point. Sims’ Store provided tools, food stuffs, and other supplies for the canalers. Also there was a mule barn and a feeder canal.
Unfortunately in 1917, after the new Barge Canal was finished, this portion of the canal was abandoned and the area went into decline. At some point in the early 20th century, Sims’ Store burned down. In the 1970’s a group of volunteers built a replica of the original store based on plans drawn up after a thorough examination of old photographs and input from local “old timers” who remember the store from their youth. Today the Sims’ Store is a museum and the centerpiece of Camillus Erie Canal Park. As I entered I realized that I was early and the store wasn’t open. I wandered around and viewed a couple of the exhibits. I read that the park is 350 acres and encompasses seven miles of restored canal, a feeder canal, and a lock tender shanty.
Lock gate perspective.
I went back to the store to peek through the windows to see any signs of activity inside when a man came up to me and asked if he could help me. Explaining that I was a diabetic, I asked him if there was a vending machine from which I could get a snack. He introduced himself as Alden and he took me around back where we entered what appeared to be a dining hall. Alden introduced me to Ann who very kindly made me a cup of coffee and gave me a couple of granola bars. Boy, did the coffee taste great and the snack bars relieved me of the shaky feeling I had from being hypo.
Dining area in Sims' Store.
Dining area in Sims'
Sims' store area.
Sims' store area
Sims' museum area.
Sims' museum area
After I recovered, Alden introduced me to Gail who was the museum’s secretary. She explained that the Sims’ store was a replica of the original and functioned as both an actual store in the front and a museum in the back. Upstairs was an exhibit of a bedroom room furnished as it would have been a hundred years ago. Standing in that room I had a flashback to my childhood. When I stayed with my grandparents I would be in room just like this—spool bed, quilt, rocking chair and all.
Sims' bedroom.
Sims' bedroom exhibit
Gail explained how the museum and park were run by a dedicated group of volunteers. She pointed out an old photo of the original store (see above) which shows a toddler sitting on a man’s knee. Apparently that baby is one of her volunteers. Despite his advanced years, he is young in heart and, with an acute memory, functions as a primary source for the archivists. He was instrumental in the restoration thirty years ago.
Gail invited me to spend some time looking around the museum and to join the volunteers for lunch. I decided to take her up on her invitation and promised to return.
I walked westward along the canal to the sign which indicated the halfway point between Albany and Buffalo. The distance quoted was 350 miles. That was the distance of the Enlarged Erie Canal which shortened the trip by twelve miles over Clinton’s Ditch.
Across from the entrance to the park I found a pleasant surprise. Three men were working on steam engine in front of what looked like a sheet metal garage. I stopped and chatted with them, expressing interest in steam engines.
Steam engine.
They invited me to take a peek in the “garage.” I was blown away! There in the room was a 1913 Rich & Sargent Corliss steam engine which had been rescued in 1998 from the basement of a Syracuse building that had a date with the wrecking ball. A man introduced himself as Jim.
Jim and his friends were able to get the town of Camillus to donate some land to build a shed where they could renovate and display the machine. The building and the heavy concrete slab necessary to support the 31 ton stationary power steam engine were built gratis, thanks to some contractors from the area. Engineering students from the nearby university donated their efforts to research the engine and locate replacement parts to successfully reassemble the machine and make it work. In some cases, the replacement parts had to be made from scratch by machinists and tool makers.
Jim fired up the boiler and gave me a brief history of his pride and joy. The 450 horsepower stationary engine was built in 1913 in Providence, Rhode Island and was brought to Syracuse to generate electricity in the basement of the L.C. Smith & Brothers building. I watched in awe as Jim started the engine and slipped the clutch which set the 11 foot high flywheel into motion.
Steam engine.
Jim was teaching me so much about engines I could have spent a couple of hours there. But I had to get back to Sims’ store and have lunch with the volunteers.
The volunteer workers in this museum actually work. There are 9 miles of trails which run through the 164 acres on both sides of the canal. They must be kept cleared from undergrowth. The roofs of the store, pavilion and other buildings had be kept water tight. Walkways, benches and bridges had to be maintained. And the boats had to be caulked and painted. Volunteers also do research, give educational presentations or workshops, while others conduct boat rides and special events.
The volunteers at Camillus are a friendly lot. As they entered the lunch room they called to others trading banter and jibes. Many came up and introduced themselves to me. They thought I was a new member. When they heard that I had been trekking the canal, they were very interested and peppered me with all sorts of questions. Some offered me tidbits of history while others gave me some suggestions of what to see and visit farther on my journey.
Buoy tender boat.
Buoy tender boat
After a hearty meal of spaghetti and tossed salad, I said goodbye to my new-found friends and headed back on the trail.
Lock tender's shanty.
Lock tender's shanty
Toward the eastern end of the park is another interesting structure, the foundation of the Nine Mile Creek aqueduct. As I had learned early in my trip, where the canal crossed a creek or brook, a culvert had to be built to prevent the construction from altering and destroying the hydrological environment. Essentially the culvert was a stone-arch tunnel which enabled the brook to flow through the earthen foundation base supporting the canal.
But when the brook was too wide a culvert was not enough. In such a place, a lift lock needed to be built. Like other locks, a lift lock was a stone structure but built atop multiple arches through which the barge would pass over the brook. Two chambers on either side of the brook were needed to lift the barge up from and drop it down to the canal. Amazingly, there were 83 lift locks along Clinton’s Ditch.
But a lift lock was not sufficient to cross a river such as the Genesee in Rochester or the Mohawk near Schenectady. In such places an aqueduct was necessary. An aqueduct carries water and in the case of the Erie Canal, deep enough and wide enough to allow two barges heading in different direction to pass. When the canal was widened, aqueducts generally replaced the smaller lift locks improving the speed of transport. The Enlarged Erie Canal had a grand total of 32 aqueducts.
The design of the Nine Mile Creek aqueduct is typical. The towpath was atop a 144 foot long stone bridge which consisted of four stone arches supported by columns which straddle the creek. Attached to each column is a low narrow pier which spanned the width of the canal, about 70 feet. At the end of each pier is a vertical stone column which rises to the height of the tow path. These piers held the wooden trough which carried the water of the canal above the creek. The trough was a big wooden box whose inside measurements were approximately 144 ft long, 70 ft wide and 7 feet deep. And it had to be water tight! Thus it was double planked and caulked just like a big boat, a tight boat which kept water in rather than out. The big box was supported by huge 12 in. x 12 in. timbers which spanned 29 feet between the piers.
The stonework here is in very good shape. The tow path is solid and the piers which cradled the wooden tough are still sturdy. Next year construction will begin on a re-creation of the Nine Mile Creek aqueduct. A couple of the volunteers told me that for a few years the park had been trying to get funding and permits to rebuild the aqueduct and reconnect it with the portion of the canal in the park. The permit process had been held up because the plans had called for using cement girders in lieu of the wooden timbers. Apparently some of the folks in charge of the permitting process balked because cement beams were not authentic to the 19th century. Beams large enough to replicate the originals are very expensive if available at all. The impasse was finally broken with a compromise. Composite wooden beams would be used. “Gee,” I said to the volunteer who was telling me the story, “I didn’t know composite beams had been invented in the 19th century!” He just grinned back at me and shrugged his shoulders.
On the other side of Nine Mile Creek, the canal resumed. According to the volunteers, after the aqueduct is restored, the two segments will be connected and boat rides will start at Sims Store. I made a vow that I will return someday to take such a ride.
It was a pleasant walk for the next couple of miles. Thanks to Camillus Erie Canal Park, I had an appreciation for what it must have been like to travel the canal in its heyday. Unfortunately the canal abruptly came to an end. I had to scramble up the berm to a road which transected the canal. It appeared that I had entered a suburb of Syracuse. The small ranch houses made it seem that I had been transported from the late 19th century into the 1960’s of my youth. Only the cars in the driveway told me that I was in the 21st century.
Ranch house.
About a mile later I came to a corner where Routes 5, 69, and 270 come together and I was obviously in the modern world. I had planned to use a bicycle trail to bypass Syracuse, but it did not look inviting. It wasn’t a separate trail at the side of a paved road. Not only did the road head up a steep hill, it lacked a pedestrian sidewalk! Boy, was the traffic heavy! And when I looked toward the eastern sky line, I saw some black clouds gathering. I was convinced—time for a cab.
I walked into the mini-mart next to the gas pumps and asked to borrow a phone book. In just a few minutes a cab came and I asked the driver to take me to DeWitt, a small suburb on the other side of Syracuse about eight miles away. As we whizzed along the highway the driver gave me a mini-tour. He pointed out the stadium where the “Orange” plays—not interested. Various steak houses and restaurants—not interested. I asked about the lake, Onondaga, and he gave me a quick history of how they used to make salt from evaporation of the lake water but for the past fifty years industry has been dumping mercury and other chemicals. He railed on and on about those “bastards” of Allied-Signal Corp, the Carrier Corporation, Rockwell International, and Chrysler. Oh Yeah—don’t forget GE!
I take it that he didn’t appreciate automobiles, air conditioners and – and don’t forget – televisions.
To change the conversation, I asked him where the Erie Canal used to be. He said “We’re driving on it!”
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