During our wanderings around the Finger Lakes, we stopped at the Erie Canal Lock 29 near Palmyra where Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints [The Mormons], was born.
It was a fortuitous choice. We were able to see a lock in operation. Nearby was an abandoned aqueduct that took the canal over Mud Creek before the canal was improved. And in a park next to the canal was the Aldrich Change Bridge which was originally near Rochester. A “change bridge” allowed mules towing a barge to cross the canal to reverse their direction.
The Appalachians aren’t a particularly high mountain range, but they presented a significant challenge to commerce and migration from the United States East Coast to the Northwest Territory (what is now Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois ) in the 18th century. Canals were proposed through New York as early as 1768, but no action was taken.
Proposed in 1808 and completed in 1825, the Erie Canal made it possible to travel by water from New York City to Lake Erie, Buffalo and beyond. Eighteen aqueducts carried the canal over streams and rivers. Eighty-three locks raised and lowered boats from sea level to five hundred and sixty-eight feet.
Most canals in this country were barely complete when the first railroads began to be built, and many (like the Chesapeake and Ohio near Washington, D.C.) were abandoned. But the Erie Canal was expanded and deepened to carry more and heavier traffic in 1836 and again in 1862. In 1903, it was expanded even further, and the number of locks was reduced to seventy-two. The new “Erie Barge Canal,” completed in 1918, was 338 miles long. But other canals linked Lake Champlain, Seneca Lake, Cayuga Lake and Lake Ontario (via Oswego) to the system expanding commerce even further. The entire system today includes 524 miles of canal.
As we saw on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in 2014, even today barges are the most efficient method to transport heavy loads — as long as there is a water route. Today, the Erie Canal system is operated by The New York State Canal System, a subsidiary of the New York State Thruway Authority, but it is too small for modern barges and is primarily used for recreation not commercial transportation.
Modern Lock 29 moves boats sixteen feet between elevations of 446 feet upstream and 430 feet downstream. Lock 30 is three miles further west. Lock 29B is 9.7 miles to the east.
We chatted with the lock master. It is open from May to November. He uses CB channel 13 to talk to the people on the boats locking through. But then he calls on a landline to give the lock master at the next lock on their route a heads-up that they are on their way.
Stopping in Seneca Falls, we chatted with a couple who had rented a boat, were exploring some of the canals, and had stopped to do their laundry. It sounded like fun — who knows, maybe we’ll try that someday.
Click on photos to enlarge.