Diabetes Awareness Campaign: Trekking Along the Erie Canal.
North Tonawanda
Little Falls
St. Johnsville
Sunday, October 21
Erie Canal Village sign.
What more appropriate place to have a museum about the Erie Canal than at Rome, New York where the first shovelful was dug.
The Erie Canal Village is a museum about the canal and also about life associated with the canal. Actually it consists of three sub units: The Canal Museum, the Harden Museum (the Village), and the NY State Museum of Cheese (the former Merry Works Cheese factory transported from Verona, NY). It is a wonderful combination.
The jewel of the Museum is the Chief Engineer of Rome, a full scale replica of an Erie Canal packet (see previous page). [Because of the packet and the fact that the village has the look of the 19th century, several films have had scenes shot here.] Built according to original design plans provided by archivists the packet is available for rides for visitors. Packets were fancy barges designed to carry passengers. Unlike the plebian barges, packets were class vessels pulled by horses rather than mules. During the day passengers could sit on benches below deck or, weather permitting, on top of the cabin roof. Like the crews of the bullhead barges, the travelers would have to be ready to “ducker down!” when a low bridge appeared. Fortunately the bridge here is a genuine Whipple bridge. The riders need not worry.
Whipple bridge
A genuine Whipple bridge
Across the bridge is a stable where the horses are liveried. Also there is a blacksmith shop where the smithy would replace a thrown horseshoe or repair plows and other tools of local farmers. The packet crew would obtain ice from the ice house where large blocks cut from local ponds would have been stored in sawdust. Perhaps the passengers would take a meal at the tavern or head for the train depot to get a connection.
Bennett's Tavern
Rail Road Station.
Rail Road Station
The staff at Erie Canal Village Museum is a family affair. Melanie is the director. Her husband is the blacksmith and teamster. Her daughter is a “go for” and a clerk in the tavern, while Melanie’s mom is the chief cook and bottle washer. Assorted cousins, in-laws, and friends work as wranglers, guides, and train engineers. Having been partners in our own small business for twenty-five years, Jerie and I are constantly estimating income and overhead of various ventures. It is my educated guess that the extended family of the Erie Canal Village is not in it for the money, but a passion for preserving history.
Hay ride.
Hay ride
Melanie really had a passion for the subject and I learned a lot from her in the short time I was able to chat with her. Even though it was a busy day with a fall festival she generously took a breather and talked with me for a few minutes. One important fact I learned was that despite the nearby sign, the first shovelful of the construction was not turned at this spot. Apparently, the illustrations of the ceremonies celebrating the start of the project depict certain buildings in the background which convince historians that the actual spot was closer to the center of Rome.
Melanie disabused me of romantic notions that I had in my mind about the carefree life of the canaler. Working the canal in the 19th century was a hard life, a mean life. I should have known better. Because I knew that whether before the mast, in the mines, at the mills, or for that matter on the farm, life in general was tough.
Though many communities sprang up due to construction and later benefited from commerce of the canal, there were the negative aspects to being a canal port. Teams of drunken workers splurging their weeks pay on drink and those infamous Buffalo Gals. And then there were the poor hoggee, the boys who led the mule or horse teams. When the canal froze up in the winter, they were “let go.” They had to fend for themselves until the spring melting opened up the canal again. Without a place to stay and a steady job, many would end up in trouble with the law or worse.
With the canal are many analogies to a modern toll road. There were passenger vessels and freight haulers, independent barge owners and company fleets. The competition could be tough and sometimes nasty. Since time was money, many arguments broke out about who had the right of way. Private security companies often patrolled the towpaths asserting their own sense of law and order.
The museum’s store had a fine collection of books and A/V resources about life on the canal. I made a promise to myself to go “on-line” to check out the museum’s book store when I got home.
Melanie then told me about a real special treat. About 300 yard west of the village was a functioning waste weir. I wasn’t aware of the existence of waste weirs, but this new knowledge answered a lot of questions for me. These were relief valves designed to control the amount of water in the canal to prevent overflows and washouts. The weir was an iron gate housed in a stone sluice built into the side of the canal. A long worm screw vertically rises to a turnwheel above ground. By opening the waste weirs the canals can be drained between a set of locks so crews can repair the canal and remove obstructions.
Waste weir.
Waste weir
The Old Erie State Park which began 36 miles to the west terminated with the Village. My guide book showed a bike trail which went along Route 69 (Erie Boulevard) through downtown Rome and across the barge canal and connect with another section of the old towpath situated on the southeast side of Rome. The caution notice in the guide book about the heavy traffic through the city was enough to make me hitch a ride with Jerie.
Fort Stanwix.
Fort Stanwix
Since we were in the center of Rome, we decided to visit historic Fort Stanwix. This national monument is a reconstruction of a wooden fort built upon the site of the original fort. Archeological digging has unearthed several hearths of the various barracks as well as a treasure trove of 18th century artifacts.
Fort Stanwix barracks.
Fort Stanwix barracks
The original fort was built after Fort Bull had been razed during the French and Indian war. Fort Bull was situated on Wood Creek which flows into Lake Oneida. In fact a monument to the fort was behind the Erie Canal Village we had just visited. Fort Stanwix was located on the Mohawk Creek, the source of the Mohawk River which flows east into the Hudson River. The fact that these forts were built to protect access to the creeks is testament as to the importance of water transportation in the 18th century.
The closeness of the two creeks in the flat lands or Rome caused many to dream of cutting a trench to connect the two streams. In 1724 a man named Cadwallader Colden was sent west from Albany to survey the Mohawk Valley and the lands to the west towards Lake Ontario. His report discussed the economic potential of the fur trade and the importance of access to the west via the valley. As early as 1730, people were digging out bends of Wood Creek to widen and straighten it. A half century later Colden’s grandson (Cadeallader D.) was infected by the same dream which in turn influenced DeWitt Clinton.
Oriskany Battlefield State Historic Site.
Just across the barge canal near the intersection of Route 365 and 69 was a small park which was the entrance to the Canalway Trail to Oriskany. The day was half over, but I had enough time to walk the six or seven miles of the trail. So Jerie and I parted with a plan to meet on Route 69 between Oriskany and Utica. We would keep in touch via our cell phone.
It was a lovely day for walking—warm temperature, blue sky, and colorful foliage. I was feeling pretty carefree until I saw a sign on a tree. The area immediately to my left was a public hunting ground. Okay, so it’s not deer season but it WAS bird season. Water fowl are birds and I was walking along areas with a lot of water. Ergo, I became nervous.
But then I came across a family of mute swans. They were treading water and casually snacking on duck weed. Even though I was just ten feet away from the cob, he just sniffed at me and went on dipping. I figured that if he wasn’t nervous, then perhaps I shouldn’t be either.
It was a classic swan family, mom, dad, and junior. Junior was outgrowing his ugly duckling phase with his grey plumage almost gone. It shouldn’t be a month or so until dad chases junior away. “Time to leave the nest, son!”
The trail ran along the back of a park known as Oriskany Battlefield State Historic Site. This was the place where 800 local patriotic militia and Oneida neighbors were ambushed by a British army made up 450 loyalists and Indian allies from the Iroquois federation.
The patriot force was on the way to aid their compatriots in Fort Stanwix which was under siege by the British. It was a bloody battle which killed about 400 of the American side verses 150 of the British. The American leader, General Nicholas Herkimer, had his horse shot out from underneath him. Even though his leg was severely wounded, he refused to be taken from the field but instead ordered his men to prop him up against a tree where he directed his forces. Due to his calm demeanor and smart defensive tactics, they were able to hold out for four hours.
During the battle, those within the fort realized that the majority of the siege forces were away fighting in Oriskany. They took the opportunity to sally forth and raze the British and Indian camp. Upon hearing of this Indians left the battlefield. The British by necessity also withdrew and retreated to Lake Ontario. Although it was a tragic loss for the patriots, it was a pivotal battle of the Revolution.
Now I thought I was somewhat educated about the American Revolution. As a Massachusetts Yankee, I know a lot about Lexington, Bunker Hill, and Dorchester Heights. I’ve studied how Washington evacuated Long Island, crossed the Delaware at Trenton, and eventually prevailed at Yorktown. And I know about Fort Ticonderoga and Ethan Allen his Green Mountain Men. And, of course, I also am aware of the Battle of Saratoga where the defeat of Burgoyne foiled the British plan to severe New England from the other colonies.
But I didn’t realize that Burgoyne expected to be reinforced by those forces which Herkimer held at bay. If those British and Indian forces entered the fray at Saratoga, perhaps the battle could have resulted in a loss for the patriots. If that had happened.
Previous. Next.