Diabetes Awareness Campaign: Trekking Along the Erie Canal.
North Tonawanda
Little Falls
St. Johnsville
Tuesday, October 16
John picked me up at the motel at nine in the morning and drove me out to a motel just outside of Canastota about twelve miles east Chittenango. As we zipped along the interstate at the speed of 60 mph I was again reminded that a car could travel the same distance in 15 minutes that would take me at least 5-7 hours on foot.
My reservation was for a room at the Days Inn Motel near I-90. I chose the place because it was convenient, cheap, and had free WiFi access. I planned to drop off my backpack and then we would head back the fifteen miles to my starting point. I went into lobby and asked the concierge if I could leave my backpack in a safe place. He was hesitant and then decided to let me into the room I would be staying in.
Before John left me in downtown Chittenango, he gave me a geological tour of the area. We went up the hill to the Chittenango Falls State Park. The park is situated at edge of the escarpment where the Chittenango creek plunges downward 167 feet.
The creek flows down from its source, Lake Cazenovia over glacial drumlins and kames left from the last glacial period 12,000 years ago. After dropping over the falls the creek meanders northward to Lake Oneida.
Chittenanga Creek.
Chittenanga Creek
For eons water has flowed over the ancient escarpment and scoured the limestone rock. Limestone is metamorphosed from the calcium of the sea shells of dead organisms which had settled into the sandy bottom of the primordial sea. As a result, the gorge is an excellent place to observe fossil invertebrates. I made a mental note to tell Jerie so that she might visit this spot some day.
The stone revealed by these falls is the same Chittenango limestone which was used by the canal builder to make their mortar.
Chittenanga Falls.
Chittenanga Falls.
From the park, John took me higher up to an overlook on the ridge where we could see the entire width of Lake Oneida and the muck lands. He explained that the muck lands were rich organic material similar to peat. From either side of the lake the land stretched as far as I could see. It was so very flat. I now understand why the area is called the Great Long Level and was chosen as the starting point of the canal. John took me back to the center of Chittenango where I could find a good breakfast before trekking on. Before he left me he wanted a picture to remember me by. He told me not to wait another 20 years. By then he would have to use a motorized wheel chair to give me a ride. I told him that I wouldn’t need a ride because I would have my own.
Yellow brick road.
Yellow brick road
As I got out of the car he told me to “follow the yellow brick road!” What a strange way to say good bye, I thought to myself. Was I a tin man or a cowardly lion? Then I looked down and realized that the brick sidewalks were painted yellow. Soon I found a sign which informed me that Chittenango was the birthplace of L. Frank Baum, the author of the Wizard of Oz. “Well, Toto, I guess we’re not in Kansas anymore!
At the edge of town on the old Erie Canal is the Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum. This was the location of one of the most important places on the Erie Canal. The landing was a boat yard with a set of dry docks and a saw mill. This was a place barges could pull off the canal and undergo repairs. Not only were barges repaired here but many were built here.
The mill has been restored in order to preserve the construction techniques of the 19th century ship wrights. The dry docks which had been over run with vegetation have been cleared and the canal side store has been renovated into a gift shop.
Unfortunately for me the museum was closed for the day. But I walked around and found an open door of the administration building. When I poked my head in I caught the attention of the museum’s librarian who invited me in. When she heard about the purpose of my walk, she gave me some literature about the museum. When open, she explained, volunteers give tours and talks about canal boats and their construction. She hoped that I could return someday but suggested that I stroll around the grounds.
I eagerly accepted her invitation. As a descendant of Yankee sea captains, I am fascinated by the history of ships and sailing. Newburyport, the city where I live, was the premier ship building center of the nineteenth century. And I live 20 miles from the Essex Ship Building museum which, until a decade ago, was the Story Boat Yard which had been run by one family for over 300 years. The clipper ships from Newburyport and the costal schooners from Essex were beautiful crafts. If I had known that such boat yard museums were around when I was a young man, I certainly would have studied the skills of shipwrights.
I was taken aback when I saw the demonstration of construction of the stern portion of the Robert E. Hager. What an ugly boat! It was just a big square box. It was so ugly that it looked like a—barge! Then I realized that a barge was nothing more than a big shipping box much like a railroad boxcar. Issues like drag and lift are not important to a scow pulled by beasts of burden.
With a canal depth of only seven feet, a cargo vessel needed to be of a shallow draft with a wide bottom. The bottom was flat and without a keel. The sides were square and the stern was flat with a basic, primitive rudder. The only thing round on the vessel is the bow which was the source of the nickname for this type of barge—bullhead.
Bullheads were decked over to protect the cargo, the animals, and the crew. Barges that didn’t have a deck (except for a small poop deck) were known by the euphonious moniker of scow.
Bullhead barge.
Bullhead barge
More important that the saw mill and boat house were the dry docks where the barges could be repaired. The Chittenango landing had three separate bays side by side and perpendicular to the canal. Each bay was 110 feet long and 26 feet wide, but with different depths. The shallow bay had a depth of six feet which could accommodate light boats or empty barges. The medium bay had a depth of seven feet whereas the deep bay was 8 feet deep and could handle a fully loaded barge. The bays were part of a “wide out” or basin wide enough to allow the barges to be swung about and pulled into the bays. It took about an hour to maneuver a vessel into position.
The dry dock is essentially a single ended lock. Once the gates were closed the sluice gates would cranked open and the water would drained into the Chittenango Creek. The barge would then settle onto wood skids on the bottom. The more common repairs were re-caulking, painting, and repairing holes in the hull. But other jobs could include replacing the deck damaged by mule hooves in the stable quarters or fire damage in the kitchen galley.
While the repairs were being effected, the crew could visit the canal side store, grab a meal or a rest at the bunk house, or use the necessary. The museum had a brand new one painted white and sporting the obligatory half moon slit in the door. I recognized said out building from my youth when I worked my at uncle’s farm. However, I knew that this merely a replica. The nose knows!
The Necessary.
The Necessary
I spent quite a bit time at the museum and it did a lot to enable what canal basins and boat yards were like. I decided that I’ll have to return some day and talk to the ship wrights and crafts men who are keeping alive the connection to the past.
The eight mile trek to Canastota was pleasant and uneventful. The light was such that I could see fish in the water. I’m not sure what kind they were, but I could tell they were not catfish or carp. The stayed in the middle depths and seemed to be feeding on minnows.
I wasn’t the only one looking at the fish. A Belted Kingfisher plunged into the canal and came up with a minnow speared on its beak. She flew up to a tree at the edge of the canal. Perched on the limb, she flicked her neck and caught the fish in midair. After she swallowed her little piece of sushi, I was a few yards away from her and flew away with a loud squawk.
You are probably asking why I say she. Well, what other pronoun would you use for a female of the species? Well, as any good birder (and I consider myself one) will tell you, the female of the Belted Kingfisher has a broad brown horizontal strip across her breast. I’m well acquainted with her kind since we have which calls our dock at home her home. In fact, if we get to close to her she will fly about the cove chattering and scolding. How dare we trespass on her dock?
The Kingfisher is a fascinating bird. It will hover above the water like a harrier jet stocking its prey. All of a sudden it will plunge into the water only to quickly re-emerge with the mark cleanly speared by its sharp bill. It will perch on a low hanging branch close to the water. It is quite territorial and will chase away any of its own kind in order to maintain its own hunting rights. I have witnessed many a “dog fight’’ over the cove in front of my home. And I’m proud to say my Kingfisher always prevailed.
I was in a game of tag with this little beauty. Keeping a sharp eye out for her, I would try to sneak up on her but she always took off with a squawk when I came with thirty yards. She kept flying eastwards. I wondered how far it would be before the pull of her home territory would over come her fear of me and she would reverse her flight. It was about a mile.
Late in the afternoon, I entered the outskirts of Canastota. A young twenty something guy came up behind me on a bicycle. I asked him the directions to where I would find the motel area. He offered to show me. As we walked along we introduced our selves. His name was Craig. When we were in sighting distance of the motel, he turned back to go his own way. But not before he bought me a cold soda.
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