Diabetes Awareness Campaign: Trekking Along the Erie Canal.
North Tonawanda
Little Falls
St. Johnsville
Sunday, October 14
The bus to Syracuse stops in front of the Friendly’s Restaurant on Erie Boulevard. Although I was hungry, I only ordered a coffee to go. I didn’t dare miss my connection. The Sunday schedule meant that I would have to wait an hour for the next pickup.
While I stood there sipping my coffee I watched four geese having their breakfast by nibbling the grass. When they got to the curb, I expected them to turn around and go back. But no, they raised their heads and looked longingly at the grass which must have been greener on the other side. Why else would they waddle across two busy lanes of traffic? Without looking they casually crossed the boulevard.
I expected to hear squealing brakes and the thump of goose meeting bumper, but that didn’t happen. Several drivers successfully dodged the fowl. Well, you can guess what happened next. After a few minutes on the other side they started back. For a second time Fortune smiled on them—no accident. It brought to mind that famous philosophical query: Why did the goose, uh chicken, cross the road?
Weighlock c. 1875.
Weighlock circa 1875
In Syracuse is the Erie Canal Museum. My guide book stated that the museum was housed in the Weighlock Building. I assumed that Weighlock was a family name like Wheellock or Wheelright, which are well known names in my hometown. No this is the only survivor of seven weighlocks which were built at import entry points along the canal. In each was housed a weighing mechanism which could weigh a freight laden barge. Since each barge had to be registered as to its empty weight, the load weight could be calculated and a toll would be assessed according to a list of tariff rates.
The barge would enter the chamber and lock gates would be closed fore and aft. Then the water pumped from the chamber allowing the barge to settle on a scale. This is a similar concept to a dry dock. So, I wonder why it wouldn’t be called a weigh dock instead. (You say tomato, I say tomahto.)
Built in 1850 after the enlargement of the Erie Canal, the weighlock was located on the juncture of the Erie and the newer Oswego Canal which connected to Lake Ontario. Today the names of the streets (Erie and Oswego Boulevards) give testament to the history of the area.
Museums are very important and I love going to them. The Erie Canal Museum is excellent and very informative. The displays are very creative and in some cases quite novel.
Lock tender's garden.
Lock tender's garden
Instead of the common shrubs and bushes that surround the average modern building, there are various containers such as barrels and tubs associated with canal warehouses. Also, there is a herb garden demonstrating the type of plants which would have been maintained by the typical lock tender’s wife.
Another interesting display is on the wall of the brick building adjacent to the museum which was once a warehouse. On the wall opposite the entrance is an interesting full size mural. It is sort of a tromp l’oeil effect (trick of the eye), depicting a peek into the inside. It is as if some one were looking back in time. On the first floor is the office and chutes for loading barrels and bags. On the second floor is the loft with all the chutes and storage bins of a busy canal side warehouse.
Trick of the eye.
Trick of the eye
In the museum are various exhibits which are related to the working of the canal or life in 19th century Syracuse. On the first floor is the Weigh-master’s Office with its original desk and other furniture. The elevator to the second floor exhibits had a whimsical set of doors. On them was a photo of a set of lock gates. Preferring to take stairs, I found on the walls of the stairwell a graphic representation of the 83 lift locks along the Erie Canal.
On the second floor are various rooms with displays of local industries related to the canal. Two are replicas of a canal-side tavern and general store. Beer was a every important part of life along the canal. This is evidenced by the fact that at one time 32 different brands were brewed in Syracuse.
General Store.
General Store
The immigrants who dug the canal had few outlets of entertainment other than the taverns. The upper classes had their drama and music concerts. Thus, there is a display representing some of the many theaters in Syracuse.
Another product produced in the city and shipped via the canal was Onondaga Pottery. Examples of these famous ceramics are on display in a replicated factory nook.
One exhibit that I found extremely interesting is the Stonecutters Shed which displays hand tools and drill bits used by the masons to cut and shape the stones which were used in the Erie Canal’s locks and aqueducts. This display includes a slide presentation of various important canal sites. Also here is a large piece of Chittenango Limestone. This piece is very symbolic because Chittenango Limestone was a pivotal factor in the success of the canal.
The builders were very frustrated because in many places water was leaking out of the canal. Evidently the quicklime used as mortar and sealant in those places was slacking (disintegrating).
Other displays include a section dedicated to the Barge Canal with lots of blueprints of various locks and photos of the actual construction. The use of gasoline and diesel powered equipment in sharp contrast to the Stonecutters Shed which only made the original construction seem much more incredible.
But the real jewel of the museum is a full scale replica of a passenger packet barge which is located in what was the lock chamber.
Packer berth.
Packet berth
Museum guests are invited to board the boat and go below to see what travel on a packet was like. In the stern cabin was a stove and galley. In the main passenger cabin, benches were lined up on the lower deck next to windows which could slide open to let in fresh air. At night hammocks were suspended from the ceiling. Curtains were hung to separate men from the women.
In the photo you can see the packet within the lock. On each end of the lock are pairs of wooden levers, replicas of the gate levers. The cement floor of the lock represents the level of the water in the full lock.
In the lock.
In the lock
Once inside the lock, the water would have been ejected by a pump allowing the barge to settle on the scales. Depending on the cargo, the barge would have assessed a toll.
Obviously, since a packet’s cargo was human, the barge in the lock would be a bullhead or scow, the cargo carrying type of barge.
I stood on the intersection of the Erie and Oswego Boulevards to get a frontal snapshot of the Weighlock building. I was standing at the point where the two canals met. I was standing at the busiest, most important corner of 19th century commerce.
Across the street is a statue of a mule and her young handler. It represents the many animals that waited there while their barges were weighed and the cargos were assessed a toll. Mules were generally used for the bullheads and scows while horses were used on packets which transported passengers. Mules were preferable to horses because they were more sure footed and intelligent than horses. Besides, they had a better work ethic than their equine cousins and therefore needed less encouragement.
Depending upon the weight of the barge and cargo, the power would be a single mule or a team of two or three animals. Sometimes the mules belonged to specific barge crews and were installed in the front cabin where there were enough animals to work three shifts. Other animals were hired out as freelancers and were led by a boy known as a “hoggee” (pronounced as “hog e’). The term is derived from the Scottish commands shouted to oxen (haw for left and gee for right).
Mule driving was a difficult job for the hoggee who not only had to walk a good distance everyday, but was also responsible for feeding and grooming the animal or team. Most every New York school child is familiar with the famous Mule Song:
I’ve got a mule and her name is Sal.
15 miles on the Erie Canal
She’s a good old worker and a good old pal.
15 miles on the Erie Canal
We’ve hauled some barges in our day
Filled with lumber, coal, and hay
And we know every inch of the way
From Albany to Buffalo.
Low bridge, everybody down
Low bridge for we’re comin’ to a town
And you always know your neighbor
And you always know your pal
If you ever navigated
On the Erie Canal.
My gal Sal.
My gal Sal
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