Diabetes Awareness Campaign: Trekking Along the Erie Canal.
North Tonawanda
Little Falls
St. Johnsville
Monday, October 22
When I used to visit my college buddies from New York, we often enjoyed an occasional beer. One of the better regional beers was Utica Club, given the nickname Uncle Charley. The history of the brewery which makes this icon is a great American success story. F.X. Matt, a young German immigrant, arrived in America bringing knowledge he acquired as a young man and obtained work in a local brewery. In 1888 he took over a failing enterprise and soon became the most successful brewer among the dozen in the city. Today the brewery is still run by the Matt family.
During Prohibition the brewery stayed open by switching production to root beer and other soft drinks which required carbonation (a byproduct of yeast fermentation). The root beer and its diet version are two very popular soft drinks in upstate New York. But more importantly because the facility had never shut down, Utica Club was the first beer to be sold after the dreaded Volstead Act was nullified.
Today F.X. Matt still brews its root beer, Utica Club, and a whole series of specialty beers or what I refer to as yuppie beers—beers designed for Joe Sixpack’s upscale cousin.
Obviously, there is more to the history of Utica then beer. The first section of the canal was opened here in 1819. The success of the canal brought success to Utica. In 1836 the 97 mile Chenango Canal opened connecting Utica and Binghamton which was situated near the Pennsylvania border at the confluence of the Chenango and Susquehanna rivers. Industry thrived in the 19th century and the major among them was textiles. I have read that the Union Suit, the bright red single piece long underwear with the classic back door flap, was invented in Utica. I remember this piece of Americana because in my family summer hadn’t officially arrived until my Great Uncle Roy shifted from his Union Suits to boxers.
The plan was that Jerie would drive me back to Oriskany where I had left off the day before. I should hit Utica about lunch time and we would have lunch and grab a brew. (Of course I would have the diet root beer--I would just taste Jerie’s beer to make sure it was okay!)
So we headed back west on Erie Boulevard to an access road where a bike path began which ran 7 miles along the barge canal to the middle of Utica. But the road was fenced off before we got to the canal so we pulled into a parking area. While we were there, a pickup pulled into the lot. Out came a hunter and his dog.
I asked him what he was hunting for and he answered duck. Then I asked if he was hunting along the canal. He assured me that he was going into the hunting reserve south of the canal. (That’s the same reserve that I was so blithely walking along yesterday.) I wished him luck and prayed to myself that he was a careful man.
Jerie was nervous and tried to talk me out of taking the trail. I didn’t think that I would be harmed and pointed out that other people were coming off the trail. Among them was a couple walking his and hers dogs. Jerie went up and asked them if the trail was safe. They assured her that it was and that they had just finished a walk along it and that they come here quite often. I introduced myself and gave them my card. They introduced themselves as John and Wanda and wished me luck. I kissed Jerie goodbye and started along the trail.
The couple was right. All along the way I passed walkers, runners, and bicyclists—all gave me a friendly wave. Such little signs of congeniality reinforced my impression of just open and convivial are the people of upstate New York. What a difference from down state, or my own region of New England.
From Rome to the Hudson, today’s canal and the Mohawk River are one and the same. When the Barge Canal was built in 1909, the original Erie Canal was abandoned and the river was “canalized.” That means that with steam driven equipment of the early 20th century it was possible to remove rocks and debris from the river and keep it navigable.
But there were a series of cascades which had to be overcome. Wherever the falls were too great to be removed, a modern lift lock was put in to permit the barges to circumvent the barrier. Unlike the Erie, the locks of the Barge Canal are mechanically driven by electric motors. At many locks there is a small building which houses diesel fuel. This insures that the locks are always functional in spite of power failures.
WUnlike the Erie, the locks of the Barge Canal are mechanically driven by electric motors. At many locks there is a small building which houses diesel fuel. This insures that the locks are always functional in spite of power failures.
But a century ago, the Erie Canal was a totally separate artificial waterway which ran parallel to the Mohawk River its entire course to the Hudson. As someone who grew up at a port with a deepwater river, I find it hard for me to realize that it would be easier to build a separate canal than use the river. But indeed it was. Without modern equipment and the ability to shut down the flow, it would have been extremely difficult to clear the bottom of rocks which would rip the bottoms of the vessels. Also during floods the raging waters would destroy the locks and their wooden gates. It is much easier to keep clear a 70 foot wide canal that is 7 foot deep than a 200 foot wide river.
Thus the Erie Canal looked like the Mohawk’s little brother, trailing along its side. In many places the canal was in spitting distance from the river. In fact many facilities like canalside stores and taverns served both river and canal traffic.
The importance of keeping the Barge Canal free of debris is evident by the frequent presence of maintenance barges. I came along side of one which carried a crane with an apparatus at its end which obviously screws wooden pilings into the river bed.
Further up the embankment I came to a tug boat painted with the official blue and yellow colors of the Barge Canal system. On its bow was the name plate “Governor Roosevelt.” It is a fitting name since Teddy was the person chiefly responsible for the implementation of the modernization of the canal in an attempt to stay competitive with trains. However with the advent of the interstate highway system of the Eisenhower administration and the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, the canal became irrelevant.
Fortunately the State of New York realized the recreational value of the canal and keeps it well maintained. Together with the historical groups who maintain the towpaths and trails, it is has become a strong economic factor for upstate New York.
While sitting canalside at a picnic table waxing philosophical, my phone rang. It was Jerie and she told me that John and Wanda had invited us for lunch. Who? John and Wanda, the couple with the dogs! It seems that Jerie and they had become fast friends fast. As I learned later, they were very knowledgeable about the local geology and were offering Jerie some pointers as to where she might find some fossils. We were to meet them at a canalside restaurant in Utica at 1:30.
Anyone who knows me knows that I will never turn down a free meal. However, I didn’t necessarily like the tyranny of having to be at a certain place at a certain time. It meant that I would have to pick up my pace and really hoof it.
So I put my pack on and headed east. Fortunately for me the towpath was paved all the way to Utica! I didn’t stop along the way except once to take a picture of a small snake. I couldn’t help myself since I like snakes and was a herpetology major in graduate school. (Herpetology is the study of crawly things.)
Being cold blooded animals, snakes, lizards, and turtles like to lie in the sun. They especially like pavement and macadam surfaces which absorb heat. This explains why there are so many flattened critters on the roads. I thought that since there were no cars on the towpath, they would be safe. However a little while later I came across squashed evidence that snakes are no match for a Schwinn.
Another brief respite occurred when I stopped to take a picture of the labor of a graffiti “artist.” Such reckless disregard of property angers me and I wish there would be stronger enforcement against vandalism. Where is Rudi?
About 3 miles from Lock 20 I came to another structure which obviously was a lock, but wasn’t on the canal. The sign said that it was the access to the “Utica Harbor.” I’m not sure but I think that this harbor was originally the meeting point of the Erie and Chenango canals along with the piers where the freight was on and off loaded.
I pulled out my cell phone to call Jerie that I wasn’t far away. She had already joined John and Wanda and they were enjoying drinks. It was a nice restaurant with a great location—right on the edge of the river/canal.
By the time I got there, their meals had been served and they were through their first drinks. I was tempted to have glass of wine, but thought better of it and ordered ice tea with artificial sweetener. I get too sleepy from wine and can’t walk too far after drinking it.
Jerie was right. John and Wanda are a nice couple. Both are retired teachers. She was a physicist, while he was an expert in Earth.
Sciences. They were just the sort of people Jerie had been hoping to meet. She had many questions about the geology of the region and they were a gold mine of information. They brought with them a couple of reference books to peruse. One, Roadside Geology of New York, was given as a gift. Also, they had put together a list of other books she might like. They told her about some glacial kettle holes on Moss Island near Little Falls. Excited she vowed to visit there some day.
The waiter brought me a menu and waited patiently while a looked over a wonderful list of what looked like some delicious lunches. Not wanting too heavy a meal, I ordered a Caesar salad with grilled shrimp. My order changed the discussion to food. I explained how eating away from home can be a problem for the diabetic. The problem is two fold, type and quantity.
The American diet consists of a lot of starch. Starch is cheap and most restaurants pile it high and deep in whatever form is used. In such cases, it makes it difficult to calculate carbo intake. That is the reason I don’t like fast food joints and even most family restaurants—too much starch!
Then I asked John and Wanda about local foods. What are chicken riggies? We’ve seen that on several menus. I know about chicken nuggets. I know about chicken wings. I even know about chicken giblets. But what are chicken riggies? They laughed and explained that it is a popular local dish inherited from the Italian immigrants who came to the Mohawk valley. Chicken riggies is shorthand for chicken rigatoni. Another popular dish is greens prepared in an Italian style. The type of greens depends on what ever is available. We have something like that along the New England coast—schrod. Most outsiders think that schrod is a type of fish. Actually it is one of two types of fish. There is schrod cod or schrod haddock, depending on the catch of the day. Schrod is a size. It is a smaller fish than the full sized adult, making a better fish to broil or bake. The larger size is either salted or used for chowda (that’s chowder to you non-Yankees).
We sat there enjoying our meals and discussing the finer points of regional cuisine, a bright blue tug boat with yellow trim passed by. It almost seemed like they were on cue, sort of a Kodak moment. Although enjoying the food, the ambiance and the company, I reluctantly got up to leave. The biggest problem for me in my treks is inertia. When I find a nice place, I’d like to remain. I’ve this feeling many times, here and in Spain. This means I have many places on my list to revisit.
The towpath park ceased just prior to the bridge by the restaurant. I had to make a decision should I take Route 5 on north side of the canal or Route 5S on the south side. The southern route was more direct, but the traffic on it is quite heavy. I know because we drove along it on the way west to Buffalo. I chose the longer path less used.
And I’m glad I did. It was a pleasant walk. For most of the way, there was a sidewalk. I walked through tree lined neighborhoods with single family houses and well groomed lawns. The architecture of some of these houses was quite interesting, dating back to the latter part of the 19th century. While standing in front of one very attractive example, I heard the horn beep of a motor cycle. The couple in black leather jackets and black helmets pumped their black gloves, in a gesture of encouragement. It was John and Wanda.
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