Diabetes Awareness Campaign: Trekking Along the Erie Canal.
North Tonawanda
Little Falls
St. Johnsville
Thursday, October 25
Little Falls
The sun was bright as I walked back across the bridge and the temperature was pleasant. The fog coming off the river looked like smoke.
Back at the south side of the canal, the path followed an old rail bed which followed a cut through wall of the mountain. As soon I was in the lee of the cliff, the temperature was quite chilly. My jacket was inside my back pack and had to stop and remove the pack to retrieve the windbreaker. How ever, as soon as I came out into the sun I was so warm that started to perspire. Off came the jacket!
A quarter of a mile from the city is the most impressive lock on the entire Barge Canal. Lock 17 replaced all 5 locks of the Erie Canal and with its lift of 40 ½ feet is greater than any lock on the Panama Canal (Yes I know, those locks are twice as wide!) This impressive mechanism was built in 1912. And the lock gate alone weighs 100 tons!
A little further down stream is the remnants of half of one of the five pairs of locks which were made obsolete by Lock 17. Walking through the old lock bay gives you a good sense of the differences between the canals. This stone bay was 18 feet wide and 110 long which is 3 feet wider and 20 longer than was Clinton’s Ditch, the barge canal locks are 45 feet wide and 328 long! While the Ditch had a water depth of 4 feet, the enlarged 7, the Barge Canal (where it is not in the river) maintains 12 feet of water. And as mentioned above, where as the average lift on the Erie Canal was 10 feet, Lock 17 was four times that! Think about the engineering involved. The original locks were built with wooden doors with a iron hinging mechanism which would fit into a large groove cut into the stone (see detail in adjacent photo). This fact alone is a testament to the stone masons and builders of the canal. The doors on the low side would be pivoted shut using long beams as levers. Closed the doors form a V with the point towards the upstream flow the force of which helped to maintain the seal. This is basically the same design as created by Leonardo da Vinci some 400 years earlier when he was involved in canal building in Tuscany.
But water pressure presented problems which limited the size of the locks. On the Enlarged Erie Canal, a lock which had a lift of 10 feet would contain 19,800 cubic feet of water when full. That amount of water weighs approximately 1.2 million pounds! That’s a lot of weight by any standard. The wooden lock doors had to withstand such pressure.
Not only were the doors wood, so were the long timber levers which the lock tender and his assistants used manually to sweep the doors open or closed. Larger, heavier doors would require some type of mechanical systems such as capstans and winches.
But by the turn of the century a wondrous new technology appeared which revolutionized engineering—electricity powered engines! Thus each of the new giant locks of the Barge Canal had its own electric mechanism which could provide the power necessary for winches and gears to shut solid steel doors.
Lock 17 holds 590,000 cubic feet of water which weighs some 3.6 million pounds! Even if the discharge is controlled, a lot of water erupts on the downside of the lock while the chamber is evacuating. Boats heading up stream are advised to heave to and tie up until the lock doors fully open.
After Lock 17, the path continued on the remains of the Enlarged Erie. Two miles later the path passed through a series of beautiful pastures and fields. A sign informed me that I had entered the grounds of the Herkimer estate which is now a New York State historic site. Eventually I came to the manor house itself. This is where General Nicholas Herkimer, the hero of the Battle of Oriskany, died 10 days after the battle due to a botched surgery to remove his damaged leg.
It was at this point that my camera quit. I couldn’t believe it. It was a new camera that I just bought last year. The lens just locked halfway extended and wouldn’t retract even when I inserted new batteries. There were still five more days before I got to Albany. I called Jerie to buy another camera!
The one good thing about not having a camera, I wasn’t tempted to dawdle. There was about seven miles to St. Johnsville. According to my guide boor there was only one place of lodging between Little Falls and Canajoharie/Palatine Hill—the Central Hotel.
I had called last night and a woman named Betty told me that there were no vacancies because of renovations. She said that one might become available. I asked her if there was a cab company in St. Johnsville just incase I couldn’t get a room. She said only in Canajoharie, but she could give me ride to there after her work. So, it was with some nervous trepidation when I crossed the bridge to the north side of the river and St. Johnsville. The fact that there was a couple of expensive crafts tied dockside at a marina led me to be optimistic. I couldn’t have been more wrong!
The town was quite run down with many storefronts closed. It took me a while to find the Central Hotel because its entrance was run down and the sign hard to read. It was right next to the Central Bar which wasn’t in much better shape. When I asked at the bar if there was a room available the bar tender, who looked an extra from a western movie, just laughed at me. “When does Betty come in?” “Six!” “When’s her shift over?” “Midnight!”
Not wanting to sit a bar for a half hour, let alone six, I asked where a could get a bite to eat, I was directed a small joint a few blocks back up the street. It was an upgrade from the Central Bar, but the second place was still principally a bar. But at least it had a kitchen and they served a damn good burger.
While sitting there, enjoying my meal I got to talking to the cook and the bar tender. They responded positively as is common wherever I go. Everyone knows someone who suffers from diabetes. The cook, a nice twenty-something named Josh, offered to give me a ride to Palatine Bridge, the small town across the canal from Canajoharie where there were a couple of motels.
As we sped along Route 5, Josh pointed out various historical places such as the restoration of Ft. Klock, a stone fort built by the Palatines in 1750. What a difference between Little Falls and St. Johnsville. Separated by 10 miles, both communities share a similar history and similar geography. Each has suffered economically since the decline of the canal. Little Falls has adapted by developing a tourist trade with restaurants, boutiques, artist galleries, and, most importantly, lodging. Little Falls has become un uncovered gem, while St. Johnsville remains a dusty relic.
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