Due to a lot of unforeseen circumstances, we have a year delay in posting about our experiences on the Erie Canal. It remains one of the highlights of our on-going Great Loop adventure, something we reminisce about even now .
To get you into the mood of this post, please listen to the song:
We both grew up in Western New York State, in a small town called Wellsville, NY. It’s located just about due south of Rochester, NY, about 5 miles from the Pennsylvania border. New York State history classes drilled into us the importance of the Erie Canal to our area of the world, as it runs from Albany to Buffalo (as the song goes.) In our American history studies, we were able to see the effect the Erie Canal had on the westward migration of people and the eastern transportation of goods in the 1800’s. We eagerly anticipated this portion of our Great Loop journey, not only for economic and social importance, but because we would revisit sights we had only seen by land, and, even better, reconnect with many family members along the way.
On August 12, 2019, we celebrated Louise’s birthday by heading north on the Hudson River, passing by downtown Albany, NY, the capital of New York State. (New York City is not the capital of New York State, by the way.) Albany is located approximately 10 miles south of the conjunction of the Hudson River with the Mohawk River, and is one of the oldest surviving settlements in the original 13 colonies. It began as a fur trading post with the Mohawk, one of the Five Tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy. We also learned a lot about the Iroquois Confederacy in school and their dominance of central and western New York State is reflected in many place names.
After passing downtown Albany and Troy, NY, we entered the Federal Lock, which denotes the upper end of the Hudson River estuary. It is not a part of the Erie Canal system and is maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers. After the lock, we made yet another left turn, and officially entered the Erie Canal. We think this event was almost as exciting as launching Then Again in St Paul, MN about 15 months ago.
We made great time and pulled into Waterford, NY the afternoon of the 12th. We met the volunteers at the visitor center as well as the grounds keepers. Walking around the town, we began to feel right at home: this was the architecture, shopping districts and type of people we grew up with. Lenny walked up to Lock E-2, the first of the Waterford flight, and had a fascinating conversation with the Lock Master about the history and operation of that group of locks.
At 7:05 am on Wednesday August 14, 2019, we left the Waterford docks and headed into lock E-2. Our Erie Canal segment had officially begun! The “Waterford flight” consists of locks E-2 through E-6. Once you enter the flight, there is no stopping. There is also a flight of locks at the end of the Erie Canal, locks E-34 and E-35. That is a true flight, where the upper gate of one lock is the lower gate of the next lock.
The official colors of the New York State Canal System are royal blue and gold. This means EVERYTHING is royal blue and gold. The bollards, the boats, the railings… you name it. The Erie Canal locks are not the same as the Locks on the Mississippi, Ohio, or other inland Rivers. For the Erie Canal locks, you need to grab a slimy line and hold on tight. No using our own lines, which is what we were used to. Fortunately, we had read up on this method and knew to have gloves. Louise also frequently used the boat hook to snag the line and to hold onto it. There’s often a lot of turbulence in these locks, so tons of fenders are a must. Normally, we would pull the fenders up after exiting a lock, but, since we had so many to go through in one day, we just left them.
We tied up at the Schenectady NY Yacht Club that afternoon, after locking through E-7, Vischer’s Ferry at Niskyuna, NY. We left early in the morning on August 15, 2019, since we had six locks to transit today, enroute to Canajoharie, NY. Unlike the Inland Rivers (Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland, etc.), there is very little commercial traffic to cause any delays in lock openings. Mostly, any waiting that we had was for someone coming through the lock eastbound. (We were headed westbound). The speed limit on the Erie Canal is normally around 10 miles per hour, and the leisurely pace suited us just fine.
We transited Locks E-8 (Scotia, NY), E-9 (Rotterdam, NY), E10 (Cranesville, NY), E-11 (Amsterdam, NY), E-12 (Tribes Hill, NY), and E-13 (Yosts, NY). We were real pros with our locking procedures and could get in and out quickly. It was also good that we had been warned to have gloves, since the lines were usually slimy from being in the water.
Canajorharie was not originally on our list to stop at, but we took advantage of having a flexible schedule after Louise read about the Arkell Museum. We pulled into the free dock at the Riverfront Park and checked in with the Village Clerk. It was about 3:30 pm, and the weather was starting to look a little gloomy. (We try not to spend more than about 7 hours traveling and tend to get underway about 7:30 am or so, after dog walking and breakfast.)
We were thinking about where to walk for dinner when her phone rang about 4:45 pm. It was the Village Clerk, calling us with a warning that there would be some storms coming through during the early evening and possibly later. She would make sure the police patrol knew we were there, so they could come check on us later on. We also got a great recommendation for a pizza place that would deliver to the boat.
Sure enough, the rains began about 5 pm, with quite a bit of wind. Now we were glad we had gotten the pizza delivery name and confirmed that he would deliver to the dock. We just hunkered down and streamed some episodes of “Hinterland”. By the way, by using a combination of our phones’ hot spot capabilities and a Verizon MiFi, we had high speed streaming and did not go over our data limit throughout our Loop journey.
Lenny saw the patrol officer the next morning as he was making sure that all was well at the dock and that there were no downed trees or other damage at the park. We ate a late breakfast, then headed to the Arkell Museum. We saw an extensive collection of American paintings, primarily from 1860–1940, as well as historical exhibits about the history of the Mohawk River Valley and of the Beech-Nut Baby food company. You used to be able to see the Beechnut Baby Food sign from the New York State Thruway, but that plant has been shut down. We had lunch at a diner, then cast off, headed to Little Falls, NY.
Lock E-14 (Canajoharie, NY) is just beyond the Palatine Bridge, and we could see it from our berth. The route we traveled today was settled by the German Palatines, nearly 3,000 religious refugees who were transported by the English in ten ships to New York in 1710. Many of them were first assigned to work camps along the Hudson River to work off the cost of their passage. Close to 850 families settled in the Hudson River Valley, primarily in what are now Germantown and Saugerties, New York.
They produced stores for the British Navy in work camps on each side of the Hudson. In 1723, 100 heads of families from the work camps were the first Europeans to acquire land west of Little Falls, New York, in present-day Herkimer County on both the north and south sides along the Mohawk River. This settlement was halfway through the valley, on the frontier far beyond Schenectady and Albany. Later additional Palatine Germans settled along the Mohawk River for several miles, founding towns such as Palatine and Palatine Bridge, and in the Schoharie Valley.
We also transited lock E-15 (Fort Plain, NY), E-16 (St Johnsville, NY) and E-17 (Little Falls,NY). Little Falls Canal Harbor and Rotary Park was our destination for Friday August 16th and Saturday August 17th, since we needed groceries and laundry done. This marina was one of the best stops on our Erie Canal trip, with floating docks, a boater’s lounge, and laundry right in the building. We had planned to call Uber to take us to the grocery store, but one of the marina employees dropped us off and picked us up.
Only one event marred our visit here: Chip got lost! Apparently, one of us had not fully latched the door to the swim step and Chip decided to take himself for a walk. We frantically looked for him all over, even enlisting the help of the marina personnel and people in the neighborhood. Louise happened to walk back to the boat and looked down. Chip was clinging to the trim tabs underneath the swim platform! She couldn’t reach him and yelled for someone to come quickly. The marina employee grabbed him, and scooped him out into the cockpit, where Louise wrapped him up in a towel and checked him all over for injuries. Other than being very cold and shaking, he was unharmed. The only thing that had prevented Chip from floating away and drowning was that Lenny had moored us with the current because that made it possible for us to easily get on and off at the swim platform. (Usual practice is to moor against the current). The current held Chip against the boat, which is what saved him. Chip now has profound respect for the swim platform, and we made sure that we double checked the latch from then on.
We were due for a fuel stop, so left Sunday morning, August 18, 2019, for Ilion, NY, which advertised diesel. This was just a one lock day, Lock E-18 (Jacksonburg, NY), but we also knew that there were limited hours at the fuel pier. There was also a dredging operation in the vicinity of the Ilion wall, and we were able to get a close look at a couple of the workboats operated by the NYS Canal Cooperation. Louise’s favorite was the Teddy Roosevelt, which featured a “beard” that was evocative of TR’s facial hair. Before there were rubber tires to act as fenders, sailors would fashion elaborate rope “cushions”, called “beards”, after the loose ropes that hung down.
Our goal for Monday, August 19, 2019, was Holmes Marina, just before Lake Oneida, NY. We were keeping an eye on the weather, since we wanted to have an easy passage across Lake Oneida to rejoin the canal in Brewerton, NY. Along the way, we transited E-19 (Frankfort, NY), E-20 (Whitesboro,NY ), E-21 and E-22 (Both are New London, NY). This took us past Utica, NY and Rome, NY, cities also mentioned in other Erie Canal songs.
Holmes Marina was very rustic but did the job as an overnight stop. When Lenny was doing the engine checks early Tuesday morning the 20th, he noticed a lot of fluid leaking into the bilge. It was a hydraulic leak in the mechanism that controls our trim tabs, which made them inoperable. The trim tabs help our fuel mileage, as well as serving as a “Chip Refuge”. We needed to have them working. We decided that we could take advantage of an excellent weather window and make it across Oneida Lake, but would need to stop mid-day at Brewerton Boat Yard, to get it looked into.
If something is going to go mechanically wrong, being able to get to Brewerton, NY is just about ideal, since there are three exceptionally good marinas/boat yards that are used to catering to Loopers. Brewerton Boat Yard was the first one we would come to. Wayne, the mechanic, was able to fix us up, and dispose of all the grease filled absorbent pads that we had to use to soak up the contents of the bilge. We couldn’t chance any of that pollutant being discharged into the canal, and also needed to make sure the pads were disposed of properly. Our original intention was to stay only one evening, but, weather events of Wednesday August 21st, caused us to stay one more day. No reason for us to be traveling in stormy/foggy weather if we don’t have to. We try very hard not to “Have To”.
Finally, on Thursday, August 22, 2019, we continued west, transited Lock E-23 (Brewerton,NY ), and then passed the cutoff for the Oswego Canal. If you cannot get your mast height below 15’9”, then your boat cannot continue along the Erie Canal. We had carefully chosen our boat to make sure we could do the entire length to Buffalo, with 15’ with our radar mast still up, and 9’ with our mast folded down. Instead of heading north on the Oswego Canal, we headed west, then made a left turn to cruise Onondaga Lake, tying up at the Onondaga Lake Park Marina for 4 nights. We used this stop as a jumping off place to visit several sites by car. (By the way, there was a low bridge at the entrance to the lake that had cables hanging down. Having talked to the regional canal administration, we knew about that hazard, but were still glad when we didn’t snag anything as we passed underneath.)
This was the closest we could get to Syracuse, NY, and we wanted to see the Erie Canal Museum, which was located downtown along the original path of the Erie Canal. Yes, the current canal is not the path of the original canal. In 1918, the Canal was replaced by the larger New York State Barge Canal. This new canal replaced much of the original route, leaving many abandoned sections (most notably between Syracuse and Rome). New digging and flood control technologies allowed engineers to canalize rivers that the original canal had sought to avoid, such as the Mohawk, Seneca, and Clyde rivers, and Oneida Lake. In sections that did not consist of canalized rivers (particularly between Rochester and Buffalo), the original Erie Canal channel was enlarged to 120 feet wide and 12 feet deep. The expansion allowed barges up to 2,000 short tons to use the Canal. This expensive project was politically unpopular in parts of the state not served by the canal and also failed to save the Canal from becoming obsolete for commercial shipping.
The museum is located inside the last weigh lock building in the country. According to Wikipedia, a weigh lock is a specialized canal lock designed to determine the weight of barges in order to assess toll payments based upon the weight and value of the cargo carried. This requires that the unladen weight of the barge be known.
A barge to be weighed was brought into a supporting cradle connected by levers to a weighing mechanism. The water was then drained and the scale balance adjusted to determine the barge gross weight. Subtracting the tare weight (the weight of the barge when empty) would give the cargo weight. This method requires that the unladen weight of the barge be known. A method to cheat on the toll was to store heavy weights in unseen areas of the empty barge, then replace those weights with actual cargo. Therefore, the increment to be tolled was relatively minor.
Although it is a small museum, we spent about 3 hours there, since there were so many one-of-a-kind exhibits. Another museum we visited was the Salt Museum, located on the grounds of the marina. The city of Syracuse actually supplied the bulk of salt used in the United States up until the 1920’s. The museum had several well-curated exhibits and hands on stations where you could learn how salt was made.
Heading to Seneca Falls,NY and the Women’s Rights National Historic Park was high on our list of places to see along our route. Although we both grew up in western New York, neither one of us had been to see the “birthplace of women’s rights.” The artwork and statuary are stunning, and Louise enjoyed seeing an exhibit featuring Mary Lyon, founder of Louise’s alma mater, Mount Holyoke College. It’s possible to take a side trip on the Seneca Canal to reach Seneca Falls by boat, but we were beginning to pay attention to a schedule. We had a mini- family reunion to attend over Labor Day Weekend. We also used this extended stay to provision and do laundry.
On Monday, August 26, 2019, we headed out of Onondaga Lake, missing the low hanging cables again, and turned westward. We transited Locks E-24 (Baldwinsville, NY), E-25 (Mays Point, NY), and E-26 (Clyde, NY). We overnighted at the free dock in the Village of Clyde and spent an uneventful evening. We left early on Tuesday August 27th, heading to the Village of Fairport. As we transited Lock E-27(Lyons, NY), E-28a (also Lyons, NY), E-28 (Newark, NY), E-29 (Palmyra, NY) and E-30 (Macedon, NY), the place names became more and more familiar to us. Palmyra, for example, was well known to us as the birthplace of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (also known as Mormonism). It claims to be the only community in the U.S. that has a four-corner intersection with a church at each one.
We arrived at Fairport, NY in the early afternoon and secured a prime spot on the north side of the canal, right next to several restaurants and the location of a farmer’s market and car show. One of Louise’s relatives had lived in Fairport for many years, and it was a location where her family took a Sunday brunch Erie Canal cruise on the Colonial Belle. One activity that we had planned for Fairport was to do a pump out of our black water tank (aka the holding tank for the toilets.) Supposedly, there was one, somewhere…. We looked and looked where it allegedly was located, which was on the south side of the Canal. Lenny finally had to take a walk over to that side and determined that there was no way we were going to be able to tie up there. The hoses etc., simply would not match up. So, managing our flushes moved up on the priority list.
There were a lot of Ubers in this area, so we didn’t need to rent a car to provision, do laundry or go to restaurants. There was a lot of foot traffic where we were tied up, so we became a minor tourist attraction. One thing we really liked about Fairport was that the marina master and staff were always walking the up and down both sides of the canal, keeping track of who was coming and going. They gifted us with an excellent “swag bag”, full of coupons from local merchants and a restaurant map. These people really understand how to make transient boaters welcome.
Our original plan had been to move to a berth in downtown Rochester, NY for Labor Day weekend, which was coming up. Lenny had graduated from the Navy ROTC program at the University of Rochester in 1971, and currently there were many sets of aunts, uncles, and cousins in the area. Louise’s Aunt Hilda had planned a mini-family reunion at her home in Chili, NY, just west of Rochester. We also thought it would be fun to actually cruise part of the Genesee River, which crosses the canal on its way to Lake Ontario. As mentioned earlier, we grew up in Wellsville, NY, which is about 2 hours or so south of Rochester and is located on the banks of the Genesee River. Our home town would never be a cruising destination in our boat, but cruising to downtown Rochester could be the next best thing.
One of the most important pieces of information to know when selecting a marina is how deep the water is at the docks and if there are any sand bars or other shallow water near the entrance to the marina. Louise had been in contact with the marina master at a downtown marina to see if we could get in. When she said that the deepest part was only 4 feet, we decided that even though our draft is only about 3 feet, we were not going to chance it.
So, some re-routing was in store for us. We decided to relocate closer to the reunion site and began investigating various locations along the Canal. Also, bear in mind that we needed to do a pump out some time in the near future, or we would have a real mess on our hands. On Friday, August 30, 2019 we decided to head to Brockport, NY, which was said to have a pump out, and would also be very convenient for our Labor Day festivities. We transited Lock E-32 (Pittsford, NY) and E-33 (Rochester,NY) and crossed the Genesee River. (Note: there’s no Lock 31. Lock 31 was at Sprakers, NY. It was part of the original canal plan, but was never built, and the locks were never re-numbered.) We tried to find the pump out, which we finally determined was located just west of the Main Street Bridge, on the north side. The tie up was difficult because the pier was so small, and we had to have the bridge tender come to take lines for us. After all this, the pump didn’t take any suction, so we motored back across the canal and tied up for 4 nights at the Brockport Welcome Center, still keeping our fingers crossed on the tank level.
The Welcome Center staff really take hospitality for boaters to an elevated level. Besides a welcome swag bag, they have 2 full-service bathrooms, one of which is available 24/7 with the swiper key. The laundry is also located in the same building as the 24/7 bathroom and was exceptionally clean and reasonable. (Those easily accessible bathrooms were extremely critical to our tank management.)
Harvester Park is also located on the premises, which commemorates the location of the oldest McCormick reaper factory in the world: In 1845 William Seymour and Dayton Morgan began quantity production of Cyrus McCormick’s Harvester Reaper. It was a leisurely walk to several restaurants, and, most importantly, an easy drive for one of Louise’s cousins to pick us up for the mini-family reunion on Saturday, August 31, 2019.
This was held at Aunt Hilda Stout Thompson and Uncle Loyd Thompson’s house, which is Louise’s Dad’s side of the family. Having grown up in Wellsville, Lenny knew most of Louise’s cousins as well. From the family of Wayne and Mildred Stout, there was one child, one niece, 2 great nieces, 5 grandchildren, 1 great granddaughter, and 3 great great grandchildren, plus 1 cousin (and good friend to all) from Louise’s mom’s side of the family. Plus, spouses! A special bonus was being able to have some one on one time with Aunt Jody Norton (who is really a cousin but who was also Louise’s mom’s best friend ever since their childhood.) It was the first time they had seen each other since Louise’s mom’s funeral in 2017.
We spent the rest of Labor Day weekend visiting with family and just hanging out. The Welcome Center was somewhat busy, not only with boaters, but with people who were camping as they bicycled or walked the Erie Canal. Throughout our journey along the Canal we often saw people walking, with or without dogs, but this was the only area where we actually encountered people doing multi-day land trips.
On Tuesday, September 3, 2019, we headed out early with a final destination of Medina, NY. However, our first stop needed to be a pump out, any pump out. And they were few and far between along this leg of the Canal. However, the boating gods smiled upon us as we arrived at Village of Holley, NY Canal Park. Skipper Bob’s guidebook said that it was located at the west end of the town, and we searched and searched, with no luck. We had to have two bridges opened for us, so we hailed the bridge tender, told him we would need to go through both bridges, but could he possibly direct us to where the pump out was? It turns out that we had passed the pump out: a small white building at the very eastern most part of the pier. The bridge tender wasn’t sure if it was unlocked or not, so we waited while he came down off the bridge tower and rode a cart over to help us. Many of the small towns along the canal have multiple bridges, with one bridge tender operating both bridges. So, instead of waiting for locks, sometimes we were waiting for bridge tenders. We didn’t care. That’s just part of the journey. We were just relieved to be able to flush whenever we wanted. We knew it would also be the last pump out before our final destination.
No locks at all today, just bridges, as we continued west towards Medina, NY. The Medina wall was a little bit in disrepair when we pulled up, but we had the place to ourselves for most of the time we were there. There is an excellent railroad museum in Medina, but we had already visited it with Louise’s family by car, so we took a pass. Instead, we enjoyed just hanging out on the boat, watching the world go by. We did a lot of that during our Great Loop journey and never got tired of it.
On Thursday, September 5, 2019, we headed towards Lockport, NY, with the goal of arriving in time to really clean up the boat before Louise’s brother Larry Stout, and his wife Terry showed up on Saturday, September 7th. That was the day we planned to go through the final 2 locks on the Erie Canal: Lock 34 and 35. We pulled into the Nelson C. Goehle Public Marina, and had a difficult time finding a dock that had working electric. However, the marina staff was genuinely nice, and the available showers, restrooms and laundry area were exceptionally clean. Last load of laundry before the end of the Canal! An advantage of its location was the Wide Waters Drive In, right across the street. We had two lunches of authentic drive in food. We could also watch the Lockport-based Erie Canal tour boats use the area in front of the marina as their turning basin. We got to know the tour guide’s spiel extremely well by the end of the second day.
Larry and Terry arrived early on Saturday morning and we were pleased to show them around the boat and give them the safety briefing and locking briefing. All of us were giddy with anticipation as we pulled out. Completing the entire length of the Erie Canal by boat was one of the main motivators for our entire trip. The Erie Canal begins with a flight of locks in Waterford, NY and ends with a flight of locks in Lockport, NY. After an uneventful locking through of Lock E-34 and E 35, we continued along the canal, passing by many sites that Larry and Terry were familiar with from the land side.
That included the shore about 2 blocks from their house in North Tonawanda, NY. We arrived at Tonawandas Gateway Harbor Park at the mid-afternoon and tied up close to the restaurant area. A huge sense of accomplishment pervaded our spirits – We Actually Made It!
Our Trip June 17, 2018 to September 7, 2019
St Paul, Minnesota to North Tonawanda, NY
Locks Passed Through: 96
Miles Sailed: 5720
Engine Hours: 745
Gallons of Diesel: 2409