Category Archives: Camping/Hiking/Outdoors

4 Days in Morocco: Desert Adventure from Marrakesh to the Sahara

Sandboarding from the mountain-like dune in the Sahara © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Dave E. Leiberman & Laini Miranda

Travel Features Syndicate,  goingplacesfarandnear.com

Everything about a trip from Marrakesh to the Sahara is epic. We didn’t know if we would drive ourselves or hire a tour, so from finding the right desert guide, then traveling the 8+ hours through roads filled with switchbacks and harrowing drivers, to the climactic landscape of red-hot sand dunes reaching literally as far as your eyes could follow, this was an adventure we could never have anticipated.

There are several ways to do this trip. You can book a trip online through Tripadvisor, Getyourguide, Viator, or any of the other aggregator sites with real reviews. The average price we found was around $250/person. Or, you can wait until you arrive in the country and try to haggle a better deal through your riad/guesthouse, or any of the endless storefronts advertising excursions to the desert.

With four days or more, you will be able to experience more of the desert landscape and not feel quite as rushed. Since we knew we wanted to spend a night in Aït Benhaddou, we made our own way there by bus and had our riad host arrange our desert excursion from that point.

Our main advice is to budget at least 4 days. Anything less and you won’t really experience the heart of the Moroccan Sahara. All standard 3-day desert tours offer the same basic itinerary:

Day 1: Leave Marrakech early AM, arrive in Aït Benhaddou in time for lunch, quick tour of the Kasbah then back on the bus, pass through Ourzazate for a brief visit, then overnight at a hotel or riad in Dades Valley. Day 2: Full day drive to Merzouga, stopping in the old town of Tinghir (a guided tour will probably take you to a berber carpet showroom). Arrive in Merzouga just before sunset, Berber guides will escort you on camels into the desert sand dunes, have dinner in the camp, sleep overnight in a tent or on a wool blanket on the sand. Day 3: Leave just before dawn to return to Merzouga where you’ll meet your driver for the 9 hour ride back to Marrakech. Some trips will give you a little more time in the morning to experience the dunes in the daylight for an extra fee. Absolutely do this if you have the offer.

Tzikinitza: On the harrowing drive through the switchbacks of the Tizi n’Tichka Mountain pass in the High Atlas Mountains, en route from Marrakech to Ait Ben Haddou © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Here is what we did, what we learned, and tips that we wished we’d had before we went…

Day 1 – Aït Benhaddou

This fortified ancient village, currently home to only five families, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and also the set of Game of Thrones, Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia, and other epic dramas. We took the CTM bus from Marrakesh to the village of Wade Melah, where the host of our riad met us to drive us to the old town of Aït Benhaddou. No one knows exactly how old the town is, but they estimate that it dates back at least 500 years, and looks much older. It was once a hub of Jewish and Berber people who lived harmoniously in the town. In fact, if you stay in the Riad Dar El Haja, you will be staying in the former home of the old village’s Rabbi and his family, which we were told is one of only two guesthouses in the Kasbah. Today this riad features several well-appointed rooms with comfortable beds, ensuite bathrooms with hot water, 2 terraces to enjoy dinner or breakfast al fresco, and an original natural cave that makes a magical setting for a tagine dinner cooked on premise (breakfast is included in the stay, 3-course dinner was about 13 Euros/person).

Ait Ben Haddou at dawn, looking just as it did over a dozen centuries ago. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ait Ben Haddou has been the set of Game of Thrones, Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Getting There:

Luxury: In Marrakesh you can find several private taxis or tour companies that will take you directly to Aït Benhaddou. We were quoted prices between 1500-4000 MAD (1000 MAD equals $104), haggling mandatory.

Breakfast served on the rooftop of Riad Dar El Haia, once a rabbi’s home, in the Kasbah of Aït Benhaddou © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Budget: Take the CMT bus from Marrakesh to Ouarzazate (100 MAD), then a taxi to Aït Benhaddou (~90 MAD). Or you can try to convince your bus driver to drop you off in Wade Melah as we did, to meet someone from your riad willing to pick you up.

Adventure: Rent a car in Marrakesh. You can drop the car off in Ouarzazate if you decide to join a tour to the desert, or go rogue and try it all on your own. The road from Marrakesh to ABH is insane with about 2 hours of tight switchbacks as you pass the Tizi n’Tichka, but if you’re a (very) comfortable stick driver it seemed like it would be a lot of fun to drive, IN THE DAYLIGHT. The roads between Tinghir and Merzouga are more harrowing and we were happy we opted for the tour.

Our tips:

  • Stay the night: Most tour buses arrive at the Kasbah around noon and leave around 3 or 4, so spending the night before means you have the old town virtually to yourselves in the morning, and you can see the Kasbah before the stalls open for the day.
  • Break up the drive to the desert: Make Aït Benhaddou a one-night stop on a longer desert tour to break up your first or last day of the 8+ hour drive (more on this below).      
  • Catch the sunrise: Most tourists seemed to hike to the top of the Kasbah for the sunrise. For an even wilder 360-degree view, walk out of the Kasbah toward the big hill at the base of the east part of the town (right next to the famous filming spot of Gladiator and Game of Thrones), and watch the sunrise to the east with a movie-perfect view of the Kasbah to your west.
  • Lunch away from the main bus pick-up area: Most people meeting their tour groups seemed to be directed to the main large hotel/restaurant complex, which all had long waits and apparently mediocre food. We had an excellent lunch of lamb and prune tagine and Merguez sausage at Riad Maktoub, just down the road. This is also a highly-rated riad, if you decide to stay across the river from the Kasbah.

Day 2

Rashid, our riad host, referred us to a 3-day small group tour with Nature Dream, that we were able to join in Aït Benhaddou (they had started in Marrakesh at 7am that same morning, arrived at noon for lunch and had 2 hours to tour the Kasbah before getting back on the bus). We joined 4 other young travelers in an old van and drove to Boumalne Dades, an area of dramatic mountains and breathtaking views at every turn.

Our Tips:

  • If you do go with a tour, ask ahead of time about your accommodations. Once we entered Boumalne Dades we saw many cool-looking riads with incredible views. The one arranged by our tour company was not one of these, although it ended up being all we needed for a quick night’s sleep with the typical chicken and vegetable tagine dinner.
  • If you drive here on your own, make sure you arrive before sunset because the views are really worth seeing in sunlight.

Day 3

Our private dinner cave in Riad Dar El Haia, once a rabbi’s home, in the Kasbah of Aït Benhaddou © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We left our riad at 8 am and drove to Tinghir, where we met a lovely guide named Rachid. He showed us around the Kasbah and informed us about its history as a Jewish and Berber community until 1948 when the Jewish people left for Israel or larger Moroccan cities. Now the Kasbah is mostly abandoned, inhabited by nomads helped by those in the village who give them jobs in the farms and share their food. There are now only about 15 families living in the Kasbah, with close to 1 million people occupying the greater city of Tinghir.

Pouring “Berber whiskey” (honey mint tea), a Moroccan ritual for welcoming guests© Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

While in the Kasbah we were taken to a home of several families that specialized in Berber rugs. We were given the classic “Berber Whiskey” (mint tea), and learned about traditional rug-making, from the way the wool is cleaned and spun, to the pigments used to tint it, and the meanings beyond different typical Berber rug designs.

Rachid then took us to Todra Gorge, and then to a nice lunch spot nearby. We would recommend contacting Rachid even if you do not do a tour, as he was one of the sweeter, more gentle people we encountered in our 3 days, and his English is excellent (Spanish is even better). He lives in the greater village of Tinghir and often takes groups hiking and climbing in Todra Gorge, and if you have a few days he’ll take you to visit the nomadic families living deeper in the caves.  (Rachid Haddi: +212629460239 whatsapp).

Our tip:

  • The range for rugs in each of the small villages we visited fluctuated from 6000MAD (1000 MAD equals $104) down to 2000MAD for a 4 x 6 ft rug. The general rule of thumb seemed to be to suggest at most 1/3 of the first asking price, and walk away until they meet you close to your price.

Day 3 Continued:

After lunch we left Rachid and continued to Merzouga. We had learned from Rachid that wet season is August to October, and we definitely experienced this first hand during this part of the drive. There are 3 roads to Tinghir. We took the most direct route in the middle, which passes through many small towns on little maintained roads. Because of recent storms, many roads were completely flooded and may have been unpassable in standard cars. Even with a driver from the Sahara with 20+ years experience driving tour groups, we were still worried we wouldn’t make it several times and on one occasion our driver was harassed by a swarm of 20+ teenage boys trying to get 50 MAD for them to push his car across the road with the motor off. We saw a rental car with foreigners turn around at this point and I guess attempt a different way. We don’t have experience with the north and south routes, but by the look of the map they seemed like bigger roads if slightly less direct.

The sun was setting as we set out on our 7 km  camel trek through the Sahara to our desert camp, much of it in the dark © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Finally around sunset we arrived at a riad in Merzouga, where we waited for our camels with about 30 other travelers who had been dropped off from similar tours. About half hour later, all of us were escorted on camels through the dunes of Merzouga to our camp in the middle of it all. We were surprised to be on the camels for an hour and a half (7 km)! Once at the camp we were assigned beds in 4 or 5 person tents, and had the expected chicken tagine dinner. The camp itself was very bare-bones, with no sheets or pillowcases, just one wool blanket on top of a mattress and another for warmth in the night. We found the tents to be quite stuffy at night, and sleeping under the stars was in all ways the better alternative. The stars at night were spectacular. The air was crisp and cool, but not freezing, and if not for the scratchy wool blankets, it would have been a pretty magical night’s sleep.

Trekking by camel through the Sahara to our desert camp © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Desert camps:

            Luxury: We were quoted prices for a private driver for just the 2 of us, “stopping anywhere we wanted to”, with 3 days and 2 nights (1 in the desert), with luxury accommodations for 4000MAD/person (1000 MAD equals $104). We got this driver down to 3000 MAD for more budget accommodations and private driver. Luxury accommodations seemed to have beautiful glamping-style beds with sheets in large private tents.

            Standard: Just about every 3 day/2 night tour seems to spend one night at a hotel or riad in the Dades Valley (Boumalne Dades), stop on day 2 at Todra Gorge followed by a sunset camel ride out to the desert, camp overnight, and drive 8hr 30min back to Marrakech on day 3, leaving the camp just after sunrise. These tours all include 2 night accommodations and breakfast and dinner, with lunch spots determined by the driver and paid individually by the travelers. Standard tours ranged from 1250 – 2500 MAD/person.

            Budget: Since we joined a tour in Aït Benhaddou, we paid 900 MAD/person in a 6-person van and budget accommodations. Right as we arrived at the camp, our camp hosts told us we had the option to ride the camels back to Merzouga at 4:30am (before sunrise!), or be driven in their SUV over the dunes after sunset for 10 Euro/person. Of course opt for the latter or else you’ll miss the most spectacular time in the dunes. Or better yet, opt for a tour that has the van-ride back their default and doesn’t try to charge you for it.

Our desert camp in the Erg Chebbi Dunes of the Sahara Desert © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our tips:

  • BYO Sheets: If you do go on a standard tour, this is a MUST: bring a cocoon travel sheet or sleep-sack. We were really jealous of our tour friends who had heard this tip before-hand and enjoyed a full night’s sleep.
  • Don’t bring food unless it’s sealed in an air-tight container. We saw a mouse in our tent earlier in the evening and woke up to see the plastic bag of our trail mix nibbled into, and one of our thin linen sweaters destroyed (still can’t imagine what was appetizing about that!).
  • Head-wrap: Bring a thin scarf for the night and morning as it can get quite chilly and is nice to wrap around your head if sleeping out under the stars (you can pick this up for 30-40 MAD at every single stop along the way, or at any stall in any medina. Beware that the really cheap ones will bleed and stain your other clothes in the laundry). It also looks cool wrapped as a turban as you’re riding your camel.
  • Sandboarding: If you’re comfortable on a snowboard and want the exercise (and amazing photos), rent a snowboard from Merzouga town before heading into the desert. Our camp hosts rented one to Dave for 200 MAD and brought it out in their truck while we rode the camels. Of course there are no ski lifts so you’ll have to trek up the highest dune with it yourself in order to get the best ride down.

Day 4

Watching the sun rise over Algeria from a sand dune ridge in the Sahara © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After catching the sunrise over Algeria and sandboarding a bit, we took the SUVs back to the riad where we were given the classic breakfast of Moroccan pancakes and bread with jams and honey, and had a chance to wash up in their WCs before the long haul back to Marrakesh. They don’t supply towels, but if you bring your own you can even have a shower. The last day is a full driving day, stopping every 2-3 hours for our driver to have a coffee and take a quick break. As with most of the stops we had lunch at a random place on the route where other drivers brought their tours. Expect about 100 MAD/person for an app, entree, and dessert at each of the lunch spots (a la carte is not offered, but can be an option if you ask nicely).

View of our desert camp from atop a dune ridge © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We arrived back in Marrakesh around 8:30pm, just enough time to settle at the riad where we had a relaxing dinner, and a much needed shower.

Our lodging tips:

  • Riad Al Nour: In the Marrakesh medina, Youssef and Younes will take great care of you while staying at their riad. They know the best street food spots and will even run out to pick something up for you if you want a relaxing dinner in their courtyard after your long trip back from the desert. The riad is gorgeous, beds are big and comfortable, showers are hot, and AC works! Book directly with the riad to avoid booking fees.
  • Riad Dar El Haja: One of the few riads in Aït Benhaddou, enjoy a hot shower, big comfortable bed, great food, and epic location, on the actual set of Game of Thrones!
Our host at Riad Ait Ali in Dades Valley © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com


On the harrowing drive through the switchbacks of the Tizi n’Tichka Mountain pass in the High Atlas Mountains, en route from Marrakech to Ait Ben Haddou © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 
Breakfast served on the rooftop of Riad Dar El Haia, once a rabbi’s home, in the Kasbah of Aït Benhaddou © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
A village on the way from Ait Benhaddou to Ourzazate © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 
Trekking by camel through the Sahara to our desert camp © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Nighttime in the Sahara © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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Rails-to-Trails Conservancy To Focus on TrailNation Advocacy for New Biking/Walking Trails

 

Rails-to-Trails Sojourners bike under a covered bridge along the Delaware-Lehigh Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

On the fifth and last day of our 160-mile Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Sojourn on the Delaware-Lehigh Trail, the 37-mile bike ride back to the Hugh Moore Park in Easton along the Pennsylvania side of the river, is absolutely beautiful.

After spending our layover day exploring Washington Crossing State Park, our last night together was a true banquet (grilled steaks! beer!) served under a gorgeous pavilion at Bowman Hill, followed by a talent show by some of the more intrepid Sojourners which is surprisingly great in addition to being pure fun.

Biking back along the Delaware Canal State Park section of the D&L Trail, with its historic locks and bridges, I savor these views of bucolic villages and landscape.

On Day 3 of our Sojourn, we also got to experience part of another of my favorite greenways, the Delaware-Raritan Canal trail on the New Jersey side. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s TrailNation website offers an itinerary, but you can do a fabulous daytrip, starting on the trail just across from Princeton University, and biking north. You can ride 20 miles to the end, at Edison, NJ (or turn back when you feel you want to). I find this portion of the trail, which follows the canal, to be the most picturesque, particularly in fall. There are also places to rent a kayak or a canoe and you may even see the university crew team.

The Sojourners show off their talent at the last night’s fun-filled banquet © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This Sojourn on the Delaware-Lehigh is a sentimental favorite for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy – returning to the trail that was the focus of the very first Sojourn, in 2002.

For the past 12 years, the annual Sojourn has been RTC’s way of celebrating accomplishments in repurposing disused rail lines and canal towpaths for biking, walking and recreation, as well as to showcase gaps in trails that its advocacy works to fill. This year’s Sojourn was a major celebration of the opening of a new bridge across the river at the village of Jim Thorpe in Pennsylvania, helping to complete the 160-mile long along the Delaware-Lehigh Trail.

Rails-to-Trails Sojourners were among the first to cross over the new Mansion House Bridge, closing the gap on the Delaware-Lehigh Trail at Jim Thorpe © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“Way back in 2002, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy helped draw attention to our burgeoning efforts to build the D&L Trail from Wilkes Barre to Bristol, Pennsylvania.  Today, as we welcome Sojourners back, the D&L Trail is about 92 percent complete and we hope to be fully connected by 2022,” Elissa Garofalo, the executive director of the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, wrote the Sojourners.

“While we are still a work in progress, the route of the D&L is one that celebrates the legacy of innovation, risk, resilience and beauty of America’s 19th century Industrial Revolution.  As you travel our mine-to-market path, I hope you will revel in the wonders that my co-workers and I are fortunate to help celebrate, preserve and inspire connections every day.” (http://delawareandlehigh.org/).

But the 300 Sojourners – so many who have done multiple trips (I’ve done three, including two on the Great Allegheny Gap) – were disheartened to learn this year’s fully supported five-day bike/camping tour was Rail-to-Trails Conservancy’s last, at least for now.  (It is hoped local trail groups or biketour companies would host similar annual supported tours). The reason? So the nonprofit organization can concentrate/focus on advocacy of preserving and repurposing trails – TrailNation –some 10,000 miles of multi-use trails, already. (You can find these trails on Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s site, traillink.com.)

The urgency has come because the Trump Administration has pulled funding that had been available for more than a decade to help communities take back these resources for their own benefit – including local economic revitalization as well as improving the quality of life and healthful outdoor recreation – and changed regulations to make it harder for communities to take back these trails.

For example, an important tool for advocates seeking to acquire and repurpose abandoned rail corridors has been Railbanking, a federal statute which provided the mechanism for communities across the country to convert former railways into thriving rail-trails that boost local economies and create healthier, more vibrant communities while protecting rail corridors for generations to come. The process requires complicated agreements between the railroad owners of the corridor and local trail managers and necessitates multiple extensions beyond the six-month period provided in the law. Now the Trump Administration’s Surface Transportation Board (STB) is proposing to significantly restrict the timeframe for these negotiations.

Rails to Trails Conservancy has its work cut out for it – no wonder the non-profit organization, advocates for  its 160,000 members and supporters, 31,000 miles of rail-trails and multi-use trails, and more than 8,000 miles of potential trails waiting to be built,  is focusing on advocacy and activism. The Trump Administration has done everything possible to reverse course on repurposing obsolete railways and canalways to multi-purposed trails that provide alternatives to climate-choking cars and already strapped public transportation (largely in response to donors with a stake in fossil fuels like the Kochs who are spending their lobbying dollars to kill transit projects, see New York Times).

Bucolic scenes along the Delaware-Lehigh Trail © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is ironic because, as we see as we bike, these communities were originally built in the service of a fossil-fueled economy and have collapsed largely because of changing technology. The Trump Administration is desperately trying to rekindle that economy and quite literally, force society back a century instead of propel us forward into the 21st century.

But as Rails-to-Trails Conservancy points out, promoting biking and walking infrastructure can be an answer to so many of the ills facing communities today. According to the Rails-to-Trails’ website:

Traffic Congestion: Biking and walking infrastructure can be a solution to local traffic congestion. Pilot studies have proven that people will choose biking and walking over driving for daily trips if the infrastructure is in place. In Minneapolis, Minn., for example, 28% of all trips don’t rely on a car (Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program: 2014 Report).

Building more highways and roads has failed to stem the rise in congestion. Between 1982 and 2011, the number of hours of vehicle delay in urban areas rose 360%, even as the number of highway and road miles increased by 61%  (Texas A & M’s Annual Urban Mobility Report).

Economic Development: Trails boost the desirability and value of the homes and neighborhoods they connect to. Prospective homebuyers in Ohio, for example, were willing to pay an additional $9,000 to be located 1,000 feet closer to a trail, according to 2012 study by University of Cincinnati School of Planning.

Trails and pathways have been proven to increase activity in downtown business areas by making it easier for people to get to stores without having to worry about parking and traffic. A study found the business occupancy rate in downtown Dunedin, Fla. increased from 30% to 95% with the opening of the nearby Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail. (Investing in Trails).

Transportation Patterns: Americans are already beginning to shift away from cars for daily transportation in favor of biking, walking and transit systems. This generation of young Americans is the first since the invention of the automobile to be less likely to get a driver’s license than their parents. (See: Transportation and the New Generation, 2012).

More than one-quarter of all trips we make are less than a mile—an easy walking distance—and nearly one-half are within three miles—an easy biking distance. Trail networks create the infrastructure that encourage and enable people to walk and bike as part of their daily lives.

Biking and walking is not just “an urban trend.” RTC’s 2012 report, Beyond Urban Centers showed that the share of work trips made by bicycle in small towns is nearly double that of urban centers.

Social Equity: Comprehensive trail systems can bridge gaps within and between communities, creating new access to jobs, physical activity and outdoor recreation-offering connected active transportation options to the more than 90 million Americans without a car.

Buttermilk Falls, along the Delaware-Lehigh Trail. Converting disused rail lines and towpaths into biking and walking trails helps preserve the environment © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Health: Obesity is the most pressing public health crisis of our age, particularly among children. Obesity costs America more than $190 billion in reactive healthcare spending each year. Making walking and biking a regular part of daily activities by providing convenient pathways is one of the most cost-effective ways to combat physical inactivity – something we cyclists on the Sojourns saw constantly.

When people have safe places to walk within 10 minutes of their home, they are one and a half times more likely to meet recommended activity levels than those who don’t. Comprehensive trail systems can give people new access to outdoor recreation opportunities.

Protecting the Environment: The environmental benefits of green infrastructure are strongest when open spaces are connected. Trail networks contribute to a healthy environment by protecting precious open space while encouraging active modes of transportation that reduce air pollution, traffic congestion and climate change.

The Beauty of Bike Tours

Bike tours are my favorite way to travel these days.

Biking gives you a sense of place – you travel at a speed to see a lot, but also slow enough, with no barriers to really focus on small and big details. You can stop and literally smell roses (or photograph wild flowers), or chat with the fellows in period dress at the historic lockmasters house in Freemansburg, take time to review a poster showing migration patterns of birds. Camping makes a big difference in the experience.

Rails-to-Trails Sojourn bikers come upon an interpreter in period dress beside the restored lock and lockmaster’s house along the Delaware-Lehigh Trail at Freemansburg © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are private bike tour companies that service many of these trails apart from these organized rides, notably Wilderness Voyageurs (which operated Rails to Trails Conservancy’s Sojourns in the past, and is offering five-day trips on the Erie Canal and offers trips on the Katy Trail in Missouri, www.wilderness-voyageurs.com) that offer these itineraries as supported rides, most typically with inn-to-inn accommodations. Road Scholar offers all-inclusive bike trips geared to seniors (www.roadscholar.org)

There are also outfitters, like Pocono Bike, that provide shuttle service to take you back to a starting point for hub-and-spoke kind of itineraries (which works well at Washington’s Crossing and the Jim Thorpe, where there are lovely inns in a most charming town). Pocono Bike offers full day, half-day, as well an overnight stay in historic downtown Jim Thorpe. Convenient access points allow for one way rides up to 36 miles, while two and four day overnight getaways feature up to 138 miles of trail through the D&L National Heritage Corridor (stunning in the fall foliage). (A four-day inn-to-inn bike trip goes from Jim Thorpe to Washington’s Crossing; the company also offers whitewater rafting trips and “pedal & paddle”  trips. https://poconobiking.com/the-trail/ 800-whitewater.)

But these large-scale programs, organized around groups like Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and Parks & Trails NY, which bring together hundreds of people from all over the country, even the world, add a new and marvelous dimension to the experience – a sense of community, especially because of  the opportunity to do supported camping. And these group programs are also organized with so many other features – special activities like entertainment and tours, museums and attractions stay open for us, put on special guides, and whole communities who come out onto the trail to welcome us.  Not to mention putting the trip in reach of many more people because they tend to have a modest per diem cost (about $125 per day including most meals).

Organized bike tours which afford supported camping add an extra dimension to the experience: the sense of community. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Sojourners camp out at Hugh Moore Park, Easton; more than half used the “glamping” service of Comfy Campers © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Rails to Trails Conservancy is holding out the possibility that the local trail alliances will host their own trips, either as day trips, hub-and-spoke or multi-day. Indeed, there are organizations that do annual cross-state itineraries (not necessarily on trails but on roads):  in Maine (Bike Maine is taking reservations for its Sept . 7-14, 2019 ride, 207-623-4511, ride@bikemaine.org, ride.bikemaine.org), or agencies such as Missouri State Parks which offers an annual supported ride along the Katy Trail. New York State’s Parks & Trails NY (518-434-1583, www.ptny.org) does the sensational eight-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie biketour from Buffalo to Albany, which to my mind, offers the best panorama to tell the story of how America came to be (“400 miles and 400 years of history”).

TrailNation

Giving up operating the annual Sojourn, however, will allow Rails-to-Trails to concentrate on its TrailNation work so that many more communities have access to trails. These TrailNation projects take an innovative approach to how trails and active transportation systems are built—from concept to implementation— by demonstrating the power of trails to create healthy, thriving communities. Rails-to-Trails works with local advocacy groups, offering political, financial and technical expertise. For example (from RTC’s website):

Baltimore Greenway Trails Coalition: A game-changing urban trail network that will link three existing Baltimore City trails to form a 35-mile loop connecting the city’s diverse neighborhoods and natural features with the downtown core. When complete, this project—a partnership between RTC and Bikemore—will transform the public realm by opening up bike and pedestrian access to major civic institutions and destinations around the city, and provide equitable, low-stress access to open space, transportation and recreation. Only 10 additional miles are needed to close critical gaps (https://www.railstotrails.org/our-work/trailnation/baltimore-greenway-trails-coalition/).

Bay Area Trails Collaborative, consisting of some 36 organizations, agencies and businesses, is working to develop an ambitious 2,700-mile regional trail network that will connect the San Francisco Bay Area—its trails, people and places—in innovative new ways. The regional trail network the Collaborative is working to create will provide safe biking and walking routes for millions of people across nine counties to get to jobs, parks, shopping areas, educational institutions and cultural and civic sites (https://www.railstotrails.org/our-work/trailnation/bay-area-trails-collaborative/).

Capital Trails Coalition is working to create a 676-mile network of multiuse trails  throughout the Washington, D.C. metropolitan region. RTC is a founding partner in this coalition which was initiated by the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (https://www.railstotrails.org/our-work/trailnation/capital-trails-coalition/)

The Circuit Trails: An innovative, regional urban trail network that is connecting people of all ages to jobs, communities and parks in the nine-county Greater Philadelphia-Camden, NJ, region will encompass 800 miles of trails on both sides of the Delaware River by the time of the project’s completion in 2040, and more than 50 percent of the region’s population—over 3.1 million people—will live within a mile of the trail network.

Industrial Heartland Trails Coalition, comprising more than 100 organizations, and led by the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, the National Park Service and RTC, is working to establish the Industrial Heartland as a premier destination with a 1,500-miles-plus multiuse trail network stretching across 48 counties in four states—Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and New York. A key undertaking is the 238-mile Parkersburg to Pittsburgh (P2P) trail corridor, a game-changing project that will stimulate economic development and small-business investment for the dozens of small Appalachian towns it connects, creating benefits that will help transform the entire project footprint (https://www.railstotrails.org/our-work/trailnation/industrial-heartland-trails-coalition/)

The Lower Rio Grande Valley Active Plan is a blueprint for a 428-mile trail network that will link the rich natural, cultural and historical resources the area is known for. Sponsored by the Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation, University of Texas School of Public Health, RTC and 10 communities in Cameron County, the Active Plan will support job creation, tourism spending and economic development and serve as a “catalyst” for healthier lifestyles in one of the most underserved areas of the country (https://www.railstotrails.org/our-work/trailnation/lower-rio-grande-valley-active-plan/)

The Miami Loop is a 225-mile trail vision to expand transportation options, make biking and walking safer and more equitable, strengthen the regional economy, reduce the area’s carbon footprint, and improve health and wellness across Miami-Dade County. (https://www.railstotrails.org/our-work/trailnation/miami-loop/)

Route of the Badger, a partnership of RTC and the Wisconsin Bike Fed, is envisioned to be a world-class, 500-plus-mile regional trail system that connects people towns and counties, providing opportunities for physical activity, tourism, connections to nature, recreation and stronger businesses along the route (https://www.railstotrails.org/our-work/trailnation/route-of-the-badger/)

New York State’s Empire State Trail will eventually connect 750 miles of biking/walking trails and make it possible to ride from the tip of Manhattan, on the Hudson River Conservancy greenway, up to the Canadian border © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Empire State Trail: Notably, Parks & Trails NY, another organization which is committed to developing multi-purpose trails, has been active over the years in completing the 353-mile Erie Canalway. Now New York State is taking that initiative even further, spending $200 million to develop and connect 750 miles of multi-purpose trails (including 350 miles of new trails) of the east-west Erie Canalway Trail and the north-south Hudson River Valley Greenway. The Empire State Trail will enable someone to bike from the tip of lower Manhattan up to the Canadian border, and across the state, from Buffalo to Albany; it is targeted for completion in 2020 (https://www.ny.gov/programs/empire-state-trail)

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines and connecting corridors; with a goal of creating more walkable, bikeable communities in America. RTC offers TrailLink, a free service that lets you access RTC’s 30,000 miles of trail maps and itineraries and downloadable mobile app. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, 2121 Ward Court, NW, Washington, DC 20037, 866-202-9788, railstotrails.org, TrailLink.com.

See also:

Biking the Delaware & Lehigh Trail, Showcased on Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Last Sojourn BikeTour

Rails-to-Trails Sojourn on Delaware-Lehigh Trail Showcases Repurposed Canal Towpath & History of Industrial Revolution

Rails-to-Trails Sojourn on the Delaware-Lehigh Trail: America’s Revolution Comes to Life at Washington Crossing

_____________________________

© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

Rails-to-Trails Sojourn on the Delaware-Lehigh Trail: America’s Revolution Comes to Life at Washington Crossing

The Thompson-Neely house is interpreted as it would have been in 1776, when it was used to hospitalize soldiers © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.

by Karen Rubin

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

Being here at Washington Crossing State Park on the Pennsylvania shore of the Delaware River, hearing the story of General George Washington crossing icy water on that fateful Christmas night, I realize that all I knew of that scene was the image from the painting so indelibly impressed on every school child’s brain. The actual events are much, much more dramatic, as the 300 Sojourners, cyclists who have come down the Delaware-Lehigh Trail, learn on our guided tour.

This opportunity to tour Washington Crossing Historical Park is built into the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Sojourn, one of several options for our layover day on the fourth day of the five-day biking-and-camping trip.

The Sojourn rides- usually five or six days of supported camping and biking – are typically constructed with a layover day where you get to choose from activities and excursions that exemplify the area or just hang out on your own. Other options include a kayak tour on the Delaware Canal; a visit to the Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, a tour of the Old Barracks Museum in Trenton, NJ, or just exploring New Hope, PA on our own to take in attractionsdining and art galleries.

I have opted to join the historical tour of both the Upper Park and Lower Park of Washington Crossing Historical ParkBowman’s Hill TowerThompson-Neely HouseSoldiers’ Gravesthe Village and the Visitor’s Center.

I realize I had no clue of just how heroic, indeed, how much of a Mission Impossible this feat was, and how many were involved, nor how significant this relatively small battle of was for the ultimate success of the revolution that founded our nation.

A copy of the famous painting depicting Washington crossing the Delaware is on the boathouse wall, likely to give inspiration to the reenactors © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The visit to the Washington Crossing Historical Park starts with an excellent 14-minute video introduction that lays out why Washington said of this desperate mission ““Dire necessity will, nay must, justify the attack.”

It was winter of 1776. The Continental Army had suffered terrible defeats on Long Island and New York. Washington was forced to retreat across New Jersey to Pennsylvania on December 7 and 8.

The British were on the march to Philadelphia, plundering and ravishing homesteads as they went. They were waiting for the Delaware River to freeze so they could march across. That gave Washington some time to regroup.

Morale of the American troops was low. The soldiers lacked food and warm clothing, even boots. Washington watched his army shrink due to desertions and expiring enlistments. Now, more than ever, a victory was desperately needed.

Washington hatched a daring plan to cross the Delaware River under the cover of darkness, march to Trenton and unleash a surprise attack on the Hessian outposts in and around Trenton.

He ordered every boat that could be found to be at the ready. Among the various types of boats gathered, most notable were the large, heavy Durham boats that were used to carry pig iron down the Delaware.

His plan was for a Pincer-style attack, with two divisions attacking from the south of Trenton.

Sojourners tour McConkey’s Ferry Inn at Washington Crossing Historic Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.

We walk into a historic village – and come to McConkey’s Ferry Inn, which was the only building here at the time of Washington’s Crossing – the other buildings were constructed 40 years or more after.

Walking through it, it is an amazing feeling to sense Washington sitting here, plotting what could have been a suicide mission, making such decisions.

The inn was built on the major thoroughfare between Philadelphia and New York City to accommodate the ferry, one of many along the river.

You can imagine George Washington sitting at the table in McConkey’s Ferry Inn to compose his letter to Colonel Cadwalade, “I am determined.” © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com.

We go into the boathouse – which was built in 1977 to house re-creations of the Durham boats that Washington would have used.

These are all re-creations, and smaller (40 feet long) and lighter and more nimble than the ones Washington would have used.  By the 1830s, these boats, built to carry cargo, were obsolete – indeed, even in their day, they were often used for one-way trips and discarded.

Washington’s boats were 65 feet long, weighing 7,000 pounds, 50 percent heavier that these re-creation. As it is, it takes a day to put four boats in the water for the annual Christmas re-enactment.

In Washington’s time, the boats would have been kept in the water, not a boat barn, which was built in the 1950s when they started doing the reenactments.

There were no seats in the boats – everyone stood up, but no one was as high up as Washington is depicted in the famous painting.

The painting shows 13 people – 12 in the boat and one standing up; for the reenactments, they use 11 crew, four oars each 15 feet long and 50 lbs, with two people per oar at shoulder level. One of the oars is 22 ft, weighing 100 lb,that is used like a rudder to steer the boat.

One of the replica Durham boats that are used for the annual reenactments of Washington’s crossing of the Delaware © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com.

“We do it in one hour. It took 11 hours to transport Washington’s troops during the night, going back and forth.” Once, he recalled, it was snowing heavily during reenactment which was most like the actual conditions.

Each boat made five trips both ways, carrying 45 soldiers plus the boat crew (imagine what that would have been like for the boat crews). It took a half-hour or longer for each trip. One man fell off the boat, but was saved.

The river was fast, but 45 feet wider than normal, and with ice blocks as big as six feet wide, would come suddenly with speed, joggle the boat and knock it off course. It was difficult to see.

Over the course of the 11 hours, Washington’s 2,400 soldiers were shuttled across. But then, these soldiers, some of whom were dressed in rags and barely had shoes, had to wait for hours as they were pounded by a Nor’easter that set in at 11 pm, for the rest to arrive, and then march 9 miles over mud paths to fight the same Hessian troops who had beaten them five times before.

“The odds were not in their favor. It shows the fortitude of the men.”

Because surprise was his key weapon, Washington kept the mission a secret until the last minute.

“Washington didn’t tell the men the attack was underway until 1 pm. That was not enough time for the men to prepare supplies and march. So a lot of the men were late,” he tells us, standing in front of a map that illustrates the battle plan.

Washington assembled his own troops near McConkey’s Ferry in preparation for the crossing. By 6 pm, 2,400 troops had begun crossing the ice-choked river. The operation was slow and difficult due to the condition of the river. There was an abrupt change in the weather forcing the men to fight their way through sleet and a blinding snowstorm. These obstacles proved to be too much for the supporting divisions led by colonels Cadwalader and Ewing, ultimately preventing their crossing at southern points along the Delaware.

Washington had planned for a Pincer-style attack. He had them synchronize their watches. He had already started sending the men across when he learned that the other two generals were not able to send their men. He decided to continue anyway.

In this ferry building, Washington writes to Colonel Cadwalader, “’Dear Sir. Notwithstanding the discouraging accounts I have received from Colonel Reed of what might be expected from the operations below, I am determined, as the night is favorable, to cross the river and make the attack upon Trenton in the morning. If you can do nothing real, at least create as great a diversion as possible. I am, Sir, your most obedient servant.’”.

The guide at Washington Crossing Historic Park describes Washington’s “pincer-like” battle plan which depended upon the element of surprise © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com.

“Now the weather works to the Americans’ advantage,” our guide relates, standing in front of a battlefield map. “Hessian guards (pickets) are in houses. Washington sneaks through perimeter undetected. But one rogue group launches a raid, which undermines the crucial element of surprise. The Hessian guards run into city to warn the commander, Colonel Johann Gottlieb Riall, but Riall thinks it is just a raid. He musters half to guard two main roads, but doesn’t meet Washington head on. Washington tries to retain initiative.”

The First Battle of Trenton takes only an hour. Of the 1,500 Hessians, 100 killed or wounded. Rall is fatally wounded.

Washington informed Congress of victory but neglected to mention how many men were lost (the Hessians lost about 100).

It was a relatively small battle but the victory elevated the American cause in eye of world. Then, within 10 days, Washington chalked up victories at Trenton and Princeton.

There were still 5 more years of war, until 1781, to come, but this was the turning point in revolution.

“The 3 victories are huge for Continental Army. France and Spain began to pay attention. If Washington had lost, Continental army would have disbanded.”

The Hessian prisoners were paraded through Philadelphia to Lancaster where they worked on farms, were paid and given free room and board. A quarter of the Hessian prisoners wound up staying or returning to the area after the war (the Pennsylvania Dutch were already here.) But American prisoners were badly treated.

The single biggest fact we don’t know about Washington’s crossing of the Delaware? Who crossed.

Each December, thousands of people gather on the banks of the Delaware River to watch the reenactment of George Washington’s daring 1776 Christmas night river crossing. During the event, several hundred reenactors in Continental military dress row across the river in replica Durham boats.

This year, there are two opportunities to view the reenactment at Washington Crossing Historic Park, on December 9 (10 am to 4 pm, the crossing is at 1 pm, $8/adult, $4/child 5-11; in addition to the crossing reenactment, special colonial-era activities and demonstrations in the Historic Village will offer a full day of family fun and learning) and Christmas Day, December 25 (noon to 3 pm, crossing is at 1 pm; free. The event draws thousands of people; arrive well before 1 pm for a good place to view (see www.WashingtonCrossingPark.org).

The Historic Village

The McConkey Ferry Inn which we get to visit was the only building here at the time of Washington’s Crossing of the Delaware; the other structures came later.

The first ferry building was built in 1752, but only the basement kitchen remains. The current inn was built in several stages; the west side, the one farthest from the river, was built around 1790 and includes the original basement.  The building represents a typical country inn or tavern of the Revolutionary era and suggests the variety of amenities that would have been available to the traveler at that time.

Mahlon K. Taylor House: Born in 1791, Mahlon K. Taylor became the wealthiest and most influential member of the Taylor family, a fixture of Taylorsville’s commercial success until his death in 1870.The stately home, built 1816-17,  illustrates Taylor’s successful career as a merchant and entrepreneur. The house is an example of the degree to which the fashions and refinement of upper-class Philadelphians were beginning to influence rural Pennsylvania.

Taylorsville Houses: These 19th century buildings were built by different members of the Taylor family as their own residences or to rent to trades and craftsmen. Many 19th-century country villages and towns also had general stores that sold a wide array of merchandise. Mahlon Taylor opened the Taylorsville store around 1828 shortly before the Delaware Canal was constructed, and served as postmaster there for 40 years.

Hibbs House: Built in 1828, this building was one of several tenant houses the Taylor family constructed to attract artisans to Taylorsville. It served as the home and workshop of a shoemaker, then a cooper, a wheelwright, and finally a carpenter, Abdon Hibbs. A typical two-room over two-room stone structure, it housed a worker, his family, and his apprentice, as well as his shop.

Frye House and Blacksmith Shop: Bernard Taylor built the Frye House in 1828 as a tenant property. It housed Taylorsville’s blacksmith and his family, as well as an apprentice. The blacksmith was indispensable, fashioned iron tools and implements essential to work and to family life in the preindustrial era. The current shop was built in 1990. Living-history demonstrations are conducted during special events.

Revolutionary War Memorial Cemetery

Our afternoon tour begins with a visit to a memorial cemetery where an unknown number of Continental soldiers who died during the December 1776 encampment in Bucks County are buried.

Memorial to fallen Continental soldiers at Washington Crossing Historic Park. The only one who is identified is James Moore, a 24-year-old artillery captain from Alexander Hamilton’s New York company © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Although no Americans were killed during the Crossing and the First Battle of Trenton, these soldiers would have died due to exposure, disease or previous injuries. James Moore, a 24-year-old artillery captain from Alexander Hamilton’s New York company, is the only veteran buried in this plot whose identity is known.

Washington Crossing Historic Park, 1112 River Road, Washington Crossing, PA 18977, 215-493-4076, www.WashingtonCrossingPark.org.

Thompson-Neely House & Farmstead

I love visiting the Thompson-Neely House, on Bowman’s Hill, just across a road from where we camp at the Washington Crossing State Park, and on the other side of the canal.

The house is presently interpreted as it would have been when it served as a temporary regimental army hospital during Washington’s winter campaign of 1776/1777. Ill and injured soldiers were brought to this home of the Thompson and Neely families for medical treatment and recovery. A young officer from Virginia named James Monroe, who was seriously injured during the First Battle of Trenton, convalesced here. In 1817, he became the fifth president of the United States. William Washington, a distant cousin of the commander-in-chief, was also wounded and he too recovered. This is where Captain James Moore of the New York Artillery died of camp fever on Christmas day and is buried on the property (in what is now the Soldiers’ Graves area).

© Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Thompson-Neely House, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is an example of vernacular 18th-century architecture. Originally a low, one-room dwelling, it was expanded over time to a two-story, multi-roomed farmhouse reflecting the growth of colonial Pennsylvania’s agricultural economy and the prosperity of the Thompson family, who milled grain into flour for export.

Several hundred years ago, the area occupied by the Thompson-Neely House and Farmstead and the nearby mill were inhabited by natives of the Lenni Lenape village of Winnehawcnunick. Around 1684, a runaway indentured servant, John Pidcock, fled his master and took possession of the property, establishing a fur trading station there around 1701.

The next owner of the property, Quaker miller John Simpson, constructed the original central section of this house about 1740, as well as a gristmill along Pidcock Creek. At the time of his death in 1747, Simpson was a prosperous farmer with an interest in a sawmill besides his other holdings. His widow, Hannah, married Scots-Irish miller Robert Thompson in 1748, whose farming and milling businesses on the property made him one of the wealthiest men in Solebury Township by 1761.

In 1757, owner Robert Thompson built a two-story addition on the west end (away from the river) of the house.

Nine years later, Thompson’s daughter, Elizabeth, married her father’s apprentice William Neely, an Irish immigrant, and Thompson added a second story above the old first section.

The Thompson-Neely house is interpreted as it would have been in 1776, when it was used to hospitalize soldiers © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.

Neely, who was in the militia in 1775 with Washington’s troops. Neely brought the army here to camp out. There would have been some 500 Continental army troops camped here (7400 in the area), among them James Monroe (the future president), and William Washington, a cousin to General Washington.

Robert Thompson enlarged the house once again by constructing the two-story east wing in 1788 to accommodate the Neely’s growing family. Taller ceilings gave this newest portion a higher roofline than the existing structure.

When he died in 1804, Robert Thompson left his large estate to his grandson, Robert Thompson Neely, including the main farmhouse with outbuildings, two mills, a cooper’s shop, and a distillery. Although Robert Thompson Neely continued to expand his family business and real estate holdings, he died in debt in 1848. Succeeding generations of the Neely family continued to own the farmhouse. When the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania acquired it in 1926, the building had been little changed since the early 19th -century.

Once the centerpiece of a working farm and milling complex, the Thompson-Neely House is surrounded by the numerous outbuildings needed for farmlife in the 18th-century, such as the restored smokehouse, chicken coop and privy. Washington Crossing Historic Park’s flock of sheep may be visited at the restored barn.

Thompson-Neely Grist Mill

The Thompson-Neely grist mill, built in 1875, is actually the third grist mill to be built on the property.

The grist mill figured into the prosperity of the families who lived here, first Englishman John Simpson who acquired the property around 1740 and built the first grist and saw mill. After he died, in 1747, the mill passed to his journeyman, Robert Thompson, who married Simpson’s widow, Hannah. The couple farmed and ran the mill at a time when Philadelphia was the largest city in British North America and had a thriving flour market, exporting five million pounds in 1771. By 1782, Thompson had become one of the wealthier men in Solebury Township.

William Neely, Thompson’s apprentice, married Thompson’s daughter in 1766, and ran the mill for more than 40 years before his death in 1804. Thompson’s daughter and grandson, Robert T. Neely, inherited the mill.

The Thompsons and the Neelys built up an estate that included the grist mill, a saw mill, cooper’s shop, distillery, store, sawyer’s house, miller’s house, and assorted barns and outbuildings on 500 acres of land.

The Thompson-Neely grist mill has been restored and only recently reopened to the public © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Second Mill, 1829-1873: The Pennsylvania Canal Commission built the Delaware Canal through Neely’s property, along the original creek bed that powered the mill’s water wheel which put  Neely’s mill out of business. He received $8,000 from the state for damages and built a new mill further upstream on the site of the present grist mill.

The Third Mill, 1875-1910: Robert’s Neely’s son John owned the mill when it caught fire in August 1873. The mill was rebuilt in the same place and reopened in 1875 and operated until 1910, after being purchased by the State of Pennsylvania.

The mill was closed for 50 years, until the state renewed interest in it as a historical site.

Restoration: During the 1970s, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission carried out archaeological research and restoration of the site. A new water wheel was installed in its original location, and the mill was restored to a state resembling that of a grist mill of the late 1820s. But the mill was again shuttered 20 years later.

Restoration work began in late 2016. And after two decades shuttered to the public, the Thompson-Neely Grist Mill’s doors reopened on March 17, 2018, just a couple of months before we Sojourners arrive. In-depth programming including live demonstrations of the milling process, field trips for area students and a special program for children during the park’s annual Sheep-to-Shawl Day are planned.

Bowman’s Hill Tower

Bowman’s Hill Tower, we discover on the tour the Sojourn has arranged for us, is just about the only place in Bucks County to get an above-the-trees, bird’s-eye view of the surrounding countryside and Delaware River. The Tower, which was built between 1929-31 as a Depression-era project, rises 125 feet high atop Bowman’s Hill; on a clear day, you can see 14 miles away.

We hike up the 124 steps (an elevator installed during the 1980s restoration can take you up three-quarters of the way, to the last 23 narrow steps).

Bowman’s Hill Tower © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Soon after the tower’s construction, workers planted 28,300 seedlings in the area to reforest the hill like people thought it would have been in Washington’s time. Some of those seedlings have become today’s towering trees on Bowman’s Hill.

Walking up from the Thompson-Neely House, passed the Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve (so many wonderful, themed trails to explore! Next time!), proves to be quite a hike, because it is about 1.5 miles up on a winding road before you even get to the staircase.

During the regular season, a 60-minute walking tour of the Thompson-Neely House and Farmstead and the grist mill is offered daily from 10 am to 4 pm; tickets are $7 or $15 for all park sites (the Historic VillageBowman’s Hill Tower and the Thompson-Neely House and Mill).

Sojourner’s pose at the base of Bowman’s Hill Tower © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com.

Washington Crossing Historic Park, 1112 River Road, Washington Crossing, PA 18977, 215-493-4076, www.WashingtonCrossingPark.org.

The Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, 2750 Hugh Moore Park Road, Easton, PA 18042, http://delawareandlehigh.org/ (It also has a description of the bike trail.) 

Sojourners enjoy kayaking on the Delaware © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines and connecting corridors; it advocates for  its 160,000 members and supporters, 31,000 miles of rail-trails and multi-use trails, and more than 8,000 miles of potential trails waiting to be built, with a goal of creating more walkable, bikeable communities in America. RTC offers TrailLink, a free service that lets you access RTC’s 30,000 miles of trail maps and itineraries and downloadable mobile app.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, 2121 Ward Court, NW, Washington, DC 20037, 866-202-9788, railstotrails.org, TrailLink.com.

See also:

Biking the Delaware & Lehigh Trail, Showcased on Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Last Sojourn BikeTour

Rails-to-Trails Sojourn on Delaware-Lehigh Trail Showcases Repurposed Canal Towpath & History of Industrial Revolution

_____________________________

© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Biking the Delaware & Lehigh Trail, Showcased on Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Last Sojourn BikeTour

Buttermilk Falls, along the Delaware-Lehigh Trail, is a highlight of Day One’s ride on the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Sojourn © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

Fall is a superb time to bike some of the phenomenal multi-purpose trails repurposed from rail lines and canal tow paths.

This year, I became acquainted with one of the best in our area – the Delaware-Lehigh Trail just across from New Jersey in Pennsylvania, a 165-mile long trail that follows the Delaware Canal State Park and the Delaware Lehigh National Heritage Corridor. The trail was featured in this year’s Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn, an annual multi-day supported biking/camping trip. The itinerary included riding a portion of one of my favorite trails on the planet, the Delaware-Raritan on the New Jersey side of the river.

Rails-to-Trails has offered these supported Sojourn biketours annually since 2002 to showcase repurposed rail trails and highlight the need to advocate for future projects. These trips are incredibly popular and the 300 of us on this year’s trip were saddened to learn that this Sojourn would be the last, because RTC will be focusing on advocacy and leave such organized bike tours to local organizations. Appropriately, the focus of the last Sojourn was also the trail for its first.

Still, it is there for all of us to enjoy, any time.

Beautiful scenery along the Delaware-Lehigh Trail on Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.

The Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor (D&L) follows the Delaware and Lehigh Canals and the old Lehigh Valley Railroad as it stretches through five counties, from the city of Wilkes-Barre in the mountainous coal region of northeastern Pennsylvania, to historic Bristol borough, along the Delaware River near Philadelphia.

Congress established the Heritage Corridor in 1988 at a time when the region was economically depressed with the collapse of coal and steel industry that had birthed these communities – the mining towns, factory and milltowns –  to begin with.

With 86 of the D&L Trail’s 165 miles located within two state parks (Lehigh Gorge and Delaware Canal), the advocates to create the trail out of disused towpath had a jumpstart to connect people to the region’s story—one of innovation, conservation and industrialization.

About 92 percent of the D&L Trail is built and the goal is to connect all 165 miles by 2022. Three gaps will have been closed in 2018, including the opening of the $4.1 million Mansion House Bridge across the Lehigh River at Jim Thorpe (we get to participate in the opening ceremony and are among the first to cross), a road/railroad crossing at Middleburg Road in Luzerne County and a connector in Delaware Canal State Park at Tyburn Road in Bucks County.

These trail projects inspire local groups, breathing new life into the small downtowns along the corridor. Three regional revitalization efforts in particular: a 2004 move to greener programming; a 2005 Superfund reclamation project at Lehigh Gap Nature Center (which we visit); and Tales of the Towpath, an educational curriculum that now has 80 schools participating, which we get to sample at the National Canal Museum at Hugh Moore Park in Easton. And all along the way, we get to see participants in the Get Your Tail on the Trail wellness program who so far have logged more than 3 million miles.

As we, the beneficiaries of all this effort, appreciate over the course of our Sojourn, the trail showcases and immerses us into two significant revolutions in American history: the American Revolution (particularly when we get down to our most southerly point, Washington Crossing) and the Industrial Revolution. All along our route, which follows the canals built to transport anthracite coal from the mines to the markets, we see the markers and remnants amidst a beautiful setting.

Indeed, for me, the big surprise was seeing remains of the historic canal, the locks and gates, dams and lockmaster houses all along the ride.

Here we see the underpinnings, the infrastructure of the Industrial Revolution, which enabled the United States to ascend as a world power. Yet, from where we are on the trail alongside the canal with trees on one side, in a more natural state, except when we come upon long-shuttered steel mills that now seem like oversized sculpture.

A Soggy Day One

We meet up at Hugh Moore Park in Easton, Pennsylvania, (which we learn is land donated by the man made rich through the manufacture of Dixie Cups) where we park our cars and register. Interestingly, we will be returning here to camp the next night.

Rain starts just as we board the buses that take us an hour and a half to the start of the D&L trail near the quaint mountainside community of Glen Summit. But instead of stopping as forecast, the drenching rain continues on, and on, and on, throughout the day and into the night – almost 24 hours before it stops. I’ve never been outside in the rain for a full 24 hours before.

We set out on the ride – 160 miles over the course of five days – at the highest, steepest part of the trail, literally in the mountains where anthracite coal was mined. The trail becomes muddy and slick in the steady rain. I make myself feel comfortable with the feeling of slipping, but soon enough, the trail flattens out. The trail is surprisingly still solid enough to keep the tires from sinking or catching.

But we miss the gorgeous views for which this part of the trail is renowned.

I am loving the new poncho that I bought at the Bike Expo before the NYC 5 Boro Bike Tour, but thinking about having to set up my new REI tent in the rain which I have never done before, kicking myself that I didn’t use the Comfy Camper service (closest thing to glamping) so that my tent would be up, with an air mattress, when I arrived.

Instead of just enjoying the scenery and the thrill of biking downhill, this becomes an interesting physical and mental  challenge that tests character, an adventure in overcoming obstacles, that when it is accomplished, changes you because you know you have done it and can do it– a value of a biking/camping trip in itself.

We ride along the river and see people out there in canoes and kayaks having a rollicking good time – clearly a great day for a waterborne activity.

Buttermilk Falls, along the Delaware-Lehigh Trail, is a highlight of Day One’s ride on the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Sojourn © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com.

This first day, we bike 35 miles southeast along the rushing Lehigh River, passing the most rugged and natural landscape of the ride – 800-foot hillsides of the Lehigh Gorge. At Moosehead Lake there are the remnants of highlift locks that were part of the Lehigh Canal’s Upper Grand Navigation.

Even this grey day cannot mar the beauty of the waterfalls we come upon, particularly Buttermilk, which cascades down in tiers.

Jim Thorpe, PA

We bike to the quaint town of Jim Thorpe, which (we discover), because of its steep hillsides, narrow streets, and terraced gardens is known as the “Switzerland of America.” I think of it as the San Francisco of Pennsylvania.

Our campsite is on a baseball field literally a 1.5 mile hike up a steep winding narrow road from the center of this charming town, pushing our bikes up (it’s only about half-mile walk back down along a steeper route). The rain is unfortunate because unlike most campgrounds on these trips, the only cover are a couple of dugouts that we have commandeered to stow our stuff (one woman has set up her tent inside one), but no pavilions.

I overcome one of my anxieties, setting up my brand new tent in the rain, fortunately, which has abated to more of a drizzle.

We stand outside in the rain waiting out turn for the shower truck to clean off the mud before walking back down into the town for dinner (tonight’s dinner is on our own).

The charming town of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The town of Jim Thorpe is absolutely charming even in this weather that has many of us buying up sweatshirts and sweatpants and even taking lodging in one of the many charming inns and guesthouses instead of camping out.

I am invited to join some new friends from the Sojourn I meet on the walk down for dinner at the Molly McGuire pub-style restaurant, which I learn is named for the Molly McGuires, labor agitators who were executed here (you can visit the Old Jail).

I stroll around awhile – struck by the many American flags and other patriotic displays, and in one of the charming historic inns, I find a poster of Jim Thorpe.

Established in 1818 as Mauch Chunk, which means “Mountain of the Sleeping Bear,” the name the Lenni Lenape Indians gave to the nearby mountain, it was later renamed for an Oklahoma-born Native American, Olympic hero, Jim Thorpe, who is buried there. Thorpe was born in Oklahoma in 1888 and raised on the Sac and Fox Reservation and had never set foot in the borough.  But Patsy Thorpe, Jim’s third wife, cut a deal with two struggling towns in Pennsylvania, that if they would merge and rename themselves Jim Thorpe and build a memorial to honor him, she would present them his remains for burial. 

Here, entrepreneurs led by Josiah White formed the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company in the 1820s (we can still see the brick building), which shipped tons and tons of anthracite coal and other goods to market via the Lehigh and Delaware Canals which they constructed. The town grew in importance when it was named Carbon County’s seat in 1843.

I explore this charming town before taking one of the shuttles the organizers have arranged for us to ferry us back up to the campground.

I am comfortable in my tent despite the rain which continues to fall, At 1:45 am, I hear the rain abating, so I race to the bathroom and get back to tent just in time for the rain to start up again. It stops in the early morning, so I rush to take down the tent before it rains again.

This morning’s breakfast as been arranged in a restaurant a short walk from the campsite.

I remember that they have arranged for us to have a guided tour of the Asa Packer Mansion (before the bridge dedication) and I race over there.

Asa Packer Mansion

Two things stand out as I regard the exquisite decoration and furnishings in the Asa Packer Mansion in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, a charming town on the Delaware-Lehigh trail: the house, which dates from 1861, was vacant from 1912 to 1954, but never disturbed, never vandalized, never burgled despite the fantastic riches it contained; and Asa Packer, who I had never heard of before, was a rags to riches American Dream come true story, who became one of the richest people in the world (Queen Victoria even gave him a table which we see in the house), but was always beneficent to his workers (he built housing for them and paid in cash from a strongbox), founded Lehigh University (was originally for boys who attended tuition-free), hospitals. In fact, everything that he built is still in existence and used for good purpose. Cornelius Vanderbilt hated him because Packer, an intensely religious man, made the miser look bad.

The mansion, built in 1861 by Philadelphia architect, Samuel Sloan, and containing the original furnishings and exquisite architectural details, is spectacular in its own right.

Asa Packer Mansion in Jim Thorpe, PA © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The mansion was constructed over a span of two years and cost a total of $14,000 dollars.  Topped by a red-ribbed tin roof and a central cupola, or belvedere, the home was built over a cast iron frame and consists of 3 stories, 18 rooms and approximately 11,000 square feet of living space.

The furnishings are exquisite – a “Mermaid” chandelier, an important grandfather clock by Bailey Bay Banks & Biddle of Philadelphia, a table that was a gift of Queen Victoria. The mansion had gasoliers (capable of both electric lights, which was new, and gas) and a self-cleaning stove. But out of all this splendor, there is a “settler bench,” dating from the 1700s, that seems out of place: Asa kept it as a reminder of where he came from.

The mansion is spectacular enough, but  what fascinated me is the story of Asa Packer, one of the early Industrial Revolution millionaires (he became one of the richest people in the world), but who never forgot his humble beginnings, acted honorably to his workers, antagonized the likes of the cheapskate Cornelius Vanderbilt, and whose beneficence created many important institutions that are still operating today, including Lehigh University (which was tuition free when it opened) and St. Lukes Hospital, because there weren’t any hospitals in the area. He made considerable donations to the Gothic Revival  St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in downtown Jim Thorpe. “Everything he built is still operating,” the docent tells me.

The mansion – in contrast to Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s Breakers mansion in Newport – is a testament to Asa Packer’s humanism: he kept a safe from which he would pay workers’ wages and from the mansion you can look out on row houses on Ray Street that he built for workers; he built an entire new wing on the mansion and hung gold wallpaper (literally gold) for his 50th wedding anniversary gala at a time when few people lived long enough to celebrate a golden anniversary. He took in two orphan girls who became cooks – their rooms were actually quite splendid (especially compared to the servants’ quarters at The Breakers); the butler’s room had a copy of Lincoln’s bed and was where the son, Harry, would stay when the Bishop visited. (Just next door to the Asa Packer Mansion is the Harry Packer Mansion which was a wedding present; the Victorian mansion is also a jewel, indeed it was the model for Disney’s Haunted Mansion; today, it is an inn and hosts murder mystery weekends and wine tasting events.)

Born in Mystic, Connecticut, Asa Packer (1805-1879) left home when he was 17, setting out on foot to Brooklyn, Pennsylvania where he apprenticed as a carpenter to his cousin, Edward Packer. In 1828, he married Sarah Minerva Blakslee (1807-1882) and the couple tilled a farm they rented from Sarah’s father.  But after four years, they were just as poor as when they started. So hearing that men were needed to captain coal barges on the Lehigh Canal, Asa traveled to Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, in the winter of 1832. He used his skill as a carpenter to build and repair canal boats. He resettled his family in Mauch Chunk and became the owner of a canal boat that carried coal to Philadelphia, then opened his own firm, A. & R. W. Packer, which built canal boats and locks for the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company.

He tried to get the company to build a railroad, but was refused. So, in October 1851, risking financial ruin, Asa purchased nearly all the controlling stock and interest for the unfinished Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill and Susquehanna Railroad (later known as the Lehigh Valley Railroad).  By November, 1852, he expanded the railroad from Mauch Chunk to Easton, Pennsylvania, in exchange for the company’s stocks and bonds, and later into New York State.

He became the third richest person in the world and parlayed his business success into political success, serving asja Judge, a state representative, a two-term Congressman (1853-7), and challenged Ulysses S. Grant for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1868. He narrowly lost election to become Pennsylvania’s Governor in 1869.

The Packers settled in their Italianate Villa in Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania in 1861 and on January 23, 1878, Asa and Sarah celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with a fantastic gala (a newspaper printed in gold described it, and the man who performed their wedding attended). Asa died just 18 months later. For all his success, their life together was marked by tragedy.  Daughters, Catharine, Malvina and Gertrude all passed away before the age of three.  Lucy Eveline (1832-1873), Robert Asa (1842-1883) succumbed to pneumonia. Harry Eldred (1850-1884) passed away from cirrhosis of the liver (the mansion next door was built for him and is operated as an inn today). Mary Hannah (1839-1912), was the last of their children to pass away; she was supposed to sail on the Titanic, but got sick in 1912; she was legally blind when she died.

The Harry Packer Mansion Inn inspired Disney’s Haunted Mansion; it offers Murder Mystery Weekends and wine-tasting events © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

“Asa never fully forgot his humble beginnings, his generous deeds spoke for him. A philanthropist throughout his lifetime, Asa gave $33 million to the town of Mauch Chunk and the Lehigh Valley.  At the time of his passing, Asa retained an estate valued at $55 million.”

Asa’s daughter, Mary Packer Cummings, who moved into her mother’s bedroom when she got sick, inherited the mansion and estate as the last surviving child of seven (becoming the second richest person in the world after the Queen of England). When Mary died in 1912 (the calendar on the desk is from 1912); she bequeathed the home and all its contents to the Borough of Mauch Chunk as a memorial to her father and his accomplishments. But the house remained shuttered from 1912 to 1954, until the Bear Mountain Lions became trustees and reopened the mansion to the public in 1956. Remarkably, the true testament to Asa Packer and his family is that in all that time the mansion was vacant, with all these priceless antiques inside, it was never vandalized or burgled.

“Robert, the only grandchild who survived, didn’t want the house after Mary died,” the docent relates. “Robert’s great granddaughter and her daughter came on tour once,” she recalled.“

(The Asa Packer Mansion Museum, Jim Thorpe PA  18229, 570.325.3229, www.asapackermansion.com).

Rides on the historic the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway are one of the attractions at Jim Thorpe © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This quaint village of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania is actually a hub for many marvelous natural and historic attractions including the Harry Packer Mansion; the Old Jail Museum (where the Molly McGuires were jailed; Cell 17 with its mysterious handprint on the wall, under the gallows on which seven of the accused Molly Maguires were put to death, and down into the eerie dungeon); the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway, the St. Mark’s Church, Historic Stone Row, the Mauch Chunk Opera House, Anita Shapolsky Art Center, Mauch Chunk Museum and Old Jail Museum, plus wineries, distilleries (Big Creek Vineyard and Stonekeep Meadery), biking, hiking and rafting (PoconoBiking.com, PoconoWhitewater.com, Adventurerafting.com.

There are a score of historic bed-and-breakfasts, inns and guesthouses.

Jim Thorpe Visitors Center, 2 Lehigh Ave., Jim Thorpe PA 18229, 570-325-3673, jimthorpe.org. 

The Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, 2750 Hugh Moore Park Road, Easton, PA 18042, http://delawareandlehigh.org/ (It also has a description of the bike trail.)

Rails-to-Trails Sojourners are among the first to cross over the new Mansion House Bridge © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines and connecting corridors; it advocates for  its 160,000 members and supporters, 31,000 miles of rail-trails and multi-use trails, and more than 8,000 miles of potential trails waiting to be built, with a goal of creating more walkable, bikeable communities in America. RTC offers TrailLink, a free service that lets you access RTC’s 30,000 miles of trail maps and itineraries and downloadable mobile app.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, 2121 Ward Court, NW, Washington, DC 20037, 866.202.9788, railstotrails.org,TrailLink.com.

Next:

Rails-to-Trails Sojourn on Delaware-Lehigh Trail Showcases Repurposed Canal Towpath & History of Industrial Revolution

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© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

A Potpourri of Summer Family Vacation Choices to Get You Outside, Together

Nothing builds brotherly bonds like roasting marshmallows over a campfire during a moonlight kayak trip at Sebasco Harbor Resort, Midcoast, Maine © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Dave E. Leiberman, Eric Leiberman

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

It’s officially the start of the summer family vacation season! It is widely known that getting out and experiencing things first hand is the best way to cultivate learning. The experiences also engage children, forge bonds and provide lifelong memories. Here are “get out there and do it” summer family vacation ideas.

Looking for adventure, for discovery, for immersion in culture, heritage or the natural world? Many of the most respected ecotourism operators offer special itineraries tailored for families:

Smithsonian Family Journeys by Perillo’s Learning Journeys has created a series of multi-generational itineraries, including Discover Japan (meet students of anime), Iceland Explorer, Exploring London and Paris (take a scavenger hunt through the Louvre), and Discover Ireland (learn to speak Gaelic). (Visit https://www.learningjourneys.com/family-journeys/smithsonian, 855-215-8691; Perillo’s Learning Journeys, www.learningjourneys.com, 888-884-8259; www.SmithsonianJourneys.org).

Wild Women Expeditions’ globe-spanning roster of women-only itineraries also beckons adventurous mothers to join their daughters on journeys into the wilderness that can re-cement relationships. One adventure just for moms and girls ages 10 to 16 is on horseback in Iceland. The other for moms and daughters ages 8 to 13 is closer to home in canoes on a lake in Canada. (888-993-1222, info@wildwomenexpeditions.comhttps://wildwomenexpeditions.com/).

Wild Planet Adventures has family-focused departures in Costa Rica, Africa, Borneo, Brazil, Costa Rica, Galapagos, India, Laos, Nepal, Panama, Peru, Thailand and Zambia (800-990-4376, www.wildplanetadventures.com, email trips@wildplanetadventures.com.

Other adventure operators that offer family-focused trips:

Thomson Family Adventures, Watertown, MA, familyadventures.com, 800-262-6255

Backroads, Berkeley, CA, backroads.com, 800-462-2848
Austin Adventures, Billings, austinadventures.com, 800-575-1540
Lindblad Expeditions – National Geographic
, New York, NY, 800-EXPEDITION, expeditions.com

Wildland Adventures, Seattle, WA, wildland.com, 800-345-4453

Kids-Friendly Walking Tours: Perhaps you are exploring roots or your heritage in a foreign country. Context Travel, which specializes in walking tours, has designed programs specifically for families with interactive experiences: a private tennis lesson on Henry VIII’s court in London; turn the whole family into samurais for the day in Kyoto; sweet immersion into French food in Paris; go underground to the forgotten streets and houses buried under Rome. Family walks also are available in cities across Europe, Asia, North America and Australia. Context also can create a custom family tour in the 37 cities where it offers programs across the globe. Contact info@contexttravel.com, 800.691.6036, www.contexttravel.com.

Danube Bike Trail is one of the best bike tours to take with kids © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Bike Tours: Biketours.com which specializes in Europe has recommended itineraries for families; I can personally recommend the Danube Bike Trail, Passau to Vienna, which I did with my sons – one of the best trips of my life. You can do it as a self-guided tour – it is very easy to follow, and that gives you more control over your schedule, as well as excellent value. BikeTours.com also offers an itinerary specially tailored for families with children (1222 Tremont Street, Chattanooga, TN 37377 ,877-462-2423, 423-756-8907, info@biketours.com, biketours.com).

We’ve also recommended outstanding biketours close at home that do good while giving everybody a great time: Parks & Trails NY, which offers the annual 8-day 400-mile Cycle the Erie ride, which is a camping and biking adventure that draws families with tiny tots in tow, as well as self-pedalers as young as 10 years old. A major highlight is camping out at Fort Stanwix, Rome NY, an 18th century living-history experience. (Parks & Trails New York at 518-434-1583 or visit www.ptny.org).

Three generations of the Parsegian family bike the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Sojourn on the Great Allegheny Passage © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Similarly Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (202-974-5150, Railstotrails.orgTrailLink.com) sponsors an annual Sojourn supported biketour that showcases bikeways that have been converted from old rail lines; their  annual ride is organized by Wilderness Voyageurs, which offers Ride the GAP trips with bed-and-breakfast accommodations (they portage luggage from inn to inn), as well as a full catalog of guided bike tours that includes Colorado; Missouri’s Katy Trail; Idaho’s Hiawatha & Coeur D’Alene; South Dakota’s Mickelson & the Badlands; the Erie Canal, Finger Lakes, and Adirondacks in New York; Shenandoah and the Civil War; Gettysburg & the Civil War; Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay; Pittsburgh to DC on the GAP & C&O; Pennsylvania’s Amish Country; Kentucky’s Bike & Bourbon; Georgia’s Gold Coast; and a biking trip in Cuba. (855-550-7705, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com)

Camping: Camping has really changed over time, frequently offering a range of experiences from rustic adventures to resort-style all in the same venue. Kampgrounds of America, with 485 locations in North America, makes it easy to find camping resorts by destination, amenities and programming (www.KOA.com). We have a personal favorite: the Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA is a true camping resort, set along a creek (tubing, fishing) and close by the Erie Canal (cruises, biking), and most unique of all, a chance to mine for Herkimer diamonds! The Herkimer KOA offers unbelievably delightful themed cabins (would you believe a cabin with its own planetarium?), fabulous activities. Choose a cabin, cottage or RV or tent site. (Herkimer Diamond KOA, 4626 State Route 28, Herkimer, NY 13350, 315-891-7355, E-mail: hdmkoa@ntcnet.comwww.herkimerdiamond.com; mining info at 315-717-0175,diamonds@ntcnet.com.)

Family gathers around a fire pit at Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA, a camping resort with themed cabins and a quarry where you can mine for diamond-like quartz © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The most intriguing in my book is the full-service Lion Country Safari’s award winning KOA campground located adjacent to a 320 acre drive through wild animal preserve and theme park, yet secluded enough for a restful campout (though you are apt to hear the lions roaring), offering RV sites, tent sites and rustic cabins (http://www.lioncountrysafari.com/koa/, 561-793-1084).

Sandy Pines Campground in Kennebunkport, Maine, opened for its second season with a roster of curated new experiences, custom designed glamping accommodations and engaging programming, Kids Camp and entertainment for every level and style of camper – from RVers and traditional tent campers to glampers. (277 Mills Road, Kennebunkport, Maine 04046, 207-967-2483, www.sandypinescamping.com)

Point Sebago is a resort spanning 775-acres on the shore of Sebago Lake in Casco, Maine. It has its roots as a campground, but while there are still 100 RV, travel trailer and tent sites available, it is a well-equipped resort affording small two-bedroom cabins, with a mile of sandy beach, an 18-hole, par-72 championship golf course that is hailed as one of the finest in Maine. There is a full activities program for kids and families – like a summer camp – with camp counselors, mini-golf, arts and crafts, kayaking, canoe races, boat rentals, fishing, swimming, sand volleyball, shuffleboard, golf, tennis, basketball, games, happy hours with entertainment and free hors d’oeuvres, nightly entertainment for families and adults, dancing, shows, and s’mores by the campfire, free wireless internet access. Also, great bass and landlocked salmon fishing. The resort is next to Maine State Park at Sebago Park where there are hiking trails. (Point Sebago, 261 Point Sebago Road, Route 302, Casco, ME 04015, 800-530-1555, 207-655-3821,info@pointsebago.com. 

Stay in a Dude Ranch – One of the best family experiences is on a dude ranch. New York State actually has several of them, such as Rocking Horse Ranch Resort, Highland, Hudson Valley, (845-691-2927, www.rockinghorseranch.com), which has been delighting generations of families with its all-inclusive fun (meals, entertainment, activities and riding). Pine Ridge Dude Ranch (the new owners of the venerable Pinegrove Ranch), 30 Cherrytown Rd, Kerhonkson, NY 12446-2148, 866-600-0859, www.pineridgeduderanch.com, reservations @pineridgeduderanch.com). Ridin’ Hy, an absolutely delightful guest ranch in the Adirondack State Park, near Lake George, Warrensburg, NY, Warrensburg, NY 12885, 518-494-2742, www.ridinhy.com. 

Further afield, check out the Colorado Dude & Guest Ranch Association members (www.coloradoranch.com, 866-942-3472), like the luxurious C Lazy U Ranch which since 1919 has provided highest level of personalized service, professional horsemanship programs, first-class amenities, enriching children’s programs, gourmet meals and upscale accommodations; or the Bar Lazy J Guest Ranch, which opened in 1912 and considered the oldest continuously operating guest ranch in Colorado, is also ideally located just southwest of Rocky Mountain National Park and nestled in a peaceful valley along the Colorado River.

Resorts with a Twist 

Sebasco Harbor Resort, Mid-Coast, Maine: This resort (“Pure Maine”) manages to be a delightful cross between a fine resort and a camp, with plenty of opportunity be outdoors, while still enjoying such refinements as golf on a superb course, full-service waterfront Fairwinds Spa, plus marvelous activities like kayaking (do the moonlight kayak trip, it is beyond fabulous), boating.. Actually, you can imagine Sebasco being the kind of “camp” that the Gilded Age moguls would have for one of their holiday homes. Nestled among whispering pines on the rugged coast Sebasco is tucked away on 550 acres with breathtaking views and a wealth of activities the entire family can enjoy. We stayed in the converted Lighthouse for the most magical experience. Check out special deals. (Sebasco Harbor Resort, 29 Kenyon Rd., Sebasco Estates, ME, 04565, 877-389-1161, info@sebasco.comwww.sebasco.com).

Moonlight kayak trip at Sebasco Harbor Resort, Midcoast, Maine © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Among our favorite grand, historic resorts for families for facilities, activities programs, destination, sense of heritage and “place,” and overall ahhh experience:

Basin Harbor Club, Vergennes, Vermont on 700 acres of Lake Champlain shoreline is about the best family-friendly luxury resort you can imagine with golf, hiking, biking, kayaking, cruises on Lake Champlain, fishing, watersports, tennis, outdoor pool children’s activities program (4800 Basin Harbor Road Vergennes, VT 05491 info@basinharbor.com, 800.622.4000 or 802.475.2311, www.basinharbor.com).

Basin Harbor Club, a grand, luxurious resort on Lake Champlain, Vermont, is a spectacular venue for families to come together © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Mountain Top Inn & Resort, tucked in a Courier & Ives landscape in Chittenden, Vermont, near Killington, has all the charm, the warmth, the cozy, intimate hospitality of a country inn, and all the luxury, amenities, activities and quality dining of a resort. It offers just about every outdoors activity you can imagine, even an equestrian center, private lakeside beach, children’s adventure camp, tennis, disc golf, clay-bird shooting, and hiking, biking, golf nearby. (195 Mountain Top Road, Chittenden, Vermont 05737, 802-483-2311, www.MountainTopInn.com)

A real novelty in historic hotels (and a fantastic city to visit) is the Choo Choo Train Hotel in Chattanooga, TN, where you actually stay in a historic train car (motel rooms also available), and the station is the restaurant and lobby (1400 Market Street, Chattanooga, TN 37402, 423-266-5000, 800-Track29, choochoo.com)

You can stay in one of the historic train cars at Chattanooga’s famous Choo Choo Train Hotel © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Other resort favorites: 

Cranwell Resort, Spa and Golf Club, Lenox, Massachusetts

Omni Mount Washington Resort, Bretton Woods, Bretton Woods, New Hampshire

The Sagamore, Bolton Landing, Lake George, New York

Mohonk Mountain House, New Paltz, New York

The Hotel Hershey, Hershey, Pennsylvania (added benefit: proximity to Hershey theme park).

Skytop Lodge, Skytop, Pennsylvania

More at Historic Hotels of America, historichotels.org, 800-678-8946. 

Cruising is always a great choice for families – a way to see lots of different places with minimal hassle. Best itineraries (and cruiselines that have best family programs) are to Alaska, the Galapagos (really a favorite for grandparents to take their grandkids).

For those who want a floating resort with rock walls, ropes course, ziplines, glitzy Broadway and Las Vegas-style entertainment and great supervised children’s activity programs, the most acclaimed lines are Royal Caribbean (Anthem, Symphony, Harmony, Allure, Oasis of the Seas); Norwegian Cruise Line (Norwegian Escape, Breakaway, Getaway, Epic); Carnival Cruise Line (Carnival Vista, Breeze, Dream, Magic); Disney Cruise Line (Disney Dream, Fantasy, Magic) and Princess Cruises. (See more at www.cruisecritic.com).

But here is a novel choice: Maine Windjammer Cruises – these are historic sailing vessels repurposed for passengers, that ply the waters around Rockland and Camden, Maine in the Penobscot Bay. The experience is more rustic (part of the fun!), where passengers can help raise and lower sails, even steer, help serve and gather the plates for meals served in the galley or on deck. You can even choose to sleep out under the stars instead of in the cabin, which is outfitted more like you would expect of summer camp, with bunk beds and shared bathroom facilities (hot showers are available). All the cruises typically include a lobster bake on a secluded beach.

Share in the thrill of the Great Schooner Race aboard one of the historic sailing ships in the Maine Windjammer fleet © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Many of the cruises have special-interest themes, and some are very dramatic, that include a Schooner Gam, where all the historic schooners gather in one place and tie up and passengers can go and visit; there is also an annual Schooner Race which is tremendous fun. Visit the Maine Windjammer Association for a list and description of age-appropriate sailings (usually 10 years old). In the past, we have sailed on the Victory Chimes (the largest in the fleet), the American Eagle and the Isaac H Evans (www.sailmainecoast.com/ 800-807-9463).

Rent a Mid-Lakes Navigation Lockmaster canalboat and explore the Erie Canal to see how America came to be © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Another novel experience is renting a canalboat on the Erie Canal, tying up where whimsy takes you and exploring the canaltowns on foot and by bike on the tow-path that has been turned into a bikeway. It’s an amazing way to immerse yourself in history, and terrific fun to go through the locks, and have the bridges lift just for you. Mid-Lakes Navigation, Skaneateles, has these specially designed Lockmaster canalboats that are easy to maneuver, very comfortable, and oh so charming. (800-545-4318, info@midlakesnav.com, midlakesnav.com).

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© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Cycle the Erie, Days 7-8: Schoharie Crossing, Mabee Farm, Cohoes Falls to Finish Line in Albany of 400-Mile BikeTour

 

Outside of Conajoharie, a Cycle the Erie rider stops off to buy some fresh-baked cookies © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

A highlight on Day 7 of Parks & Trails NY’s annual 8-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie biketour from Buffalo to Albany is Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site. It looks fairly innocuous at first, a farm house along the canal, but here is the only place where you can see all three alignments of the Erie Canal – the 1825 “Clinton’s Ditch”, the 1836 expanded canal and the modern, 1918 “Barge Canal.”  The house, now a visitor center, contains a fascinating exhibit and is adjacent to outlines of Fort Hunter, an 18th century fort and trading post, remarkably only discovered after Hurricane Irene in 2011.

Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site dates from colonial times; it was a trading post. Here you can see all three incarnations of the Erie Canal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The historic flooding caused the Schoharie Creek to breach its banks and destroyed the site’s parking lot. After the flood water receded, a number of stone walls and numerous artifacts associated with Fort Hunter emerged. Excavations revealed flat stone foundations upon which a fort wall and 24-foot square blockhouse would have been constructed.

After the archaeological work was completed, these original fort foundations were preserved by reburying them. Their exact locations are now represented on the surface with modern stone pavers. Artifacts recovered during excavation included a mix of domestic and military objects that represent the site’s Mohawk and British occupants. Dates associated with the artifacts suggest that the blockhouse saw greatest use from the 1740s to 1760.

Though you don’t really see anything of Fort Hunter, it points to how significant this area was in colonial times: Schoharie was a place of key interactions between Europeans and Indians, setting up a later clash of cultures.

Outlines of the foundation walls of Fort Hunter were revealed after Hurricane Irene in 2011© Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

During the 1600s, the British and French competed for control here. In the 1690s, the British forged an alliance with the Iroquois to establish a permanent structure – a fort/trading post – in order to solidify their standing.

The Indians at the time of the Revolutionary War were settled on farms and in towns. They employed European style farming techniques, lived in houses, and the gender roles started to shift away from the matriarchal society to male-dominated, copying the Europeans.

By the time of the Revolutionary War, there might have been about 10,000 Indians living in the area.

“They didn’t have a concept of property ownership. They were outnumbered early on” largely because of the diseases the Europeans brought that wiped out large numbers of the population, and over-trapping which pushed many further west.

“They were very good at diplomacy – well organized – and controlled access to the waterways. They played the European powers,” David Brooks, Education Coordinator says.

East Guard Lock – the original 1820s “Clinton Ditch” canal – at Schoharie Crossing State Historic State © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Historic photo of the lock at Schoharie Crossing © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Most interesting at Schoharie Crossing is you can stand over the East Guard Lock – the original 1820s “Clinton Ditch” canal (now overgrown) – and see the same scene, minus water, as depicted in a historic photo.

Facing the other direction, standing beside the water, you can look over to what remains of the Schoharie Creek Aqueduct, built between 1835 and 1841 for the enlarged canal. This once grand 14-arch, 624-foot long aqueduct carried the canal above and apart from the Schoharie Creek (it enabled the canal to continue to function during flooding). The aqueduct was abandoned in 1917 when the Barge Canal opened on the Mohawk River, and over the years it declined so only six of the arches remain.

What remains of the Schoharie Creek Aqueduct © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.comA short bike ride further along the trail, you can visit Yankee Hill Lock #28 and the Putman Canal Store – the last double lock that was completed in eastern New York. The Putman’s Lock Grocery was constructed in 1856 and owned by the Garrett Putman family into the 1900s. (Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site, 129 Schoharie St., Fort Hunter, NY 12069, 518-829-7516, SchoharieCrossing@parks.ny.gov).

Putman Canal Store sits amidst at the convergence of the three Erie Canals © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

Mabee Farm

The initial appeal for me to join Parks & Trails NY’s annual Cycle the Erie bike tour was the exciting prospect of biking 400 miles, point to point, mostly without cars (and mostly on a flat trail), across New York State, with support services to carry our gear and host meals. But each and every day, I am pleasantly amazed at the array of sites to explore and discover. The Parks & Trails NY people who have designed the tour not only arrange visits at important sites along the way, but for morning and afternoon rest stops at interesting attractions that you might not have considered visiting on your own.

This is the case for our afternoon rest stop (at Mile 33.6), at the Mabee Farm Historic Site, which also houses the Schenectady Historical Society Museum.

Here, you can visit the Mabee’s 1705 Dutch-style Stone House, which was owned by the Mabee family until 1999.

This is one of the oldest homes in New York State and the oldest in the Mohawk Valley. It was first built in 1670 by Daniel Janse Van Antwerpen, who, it is believed, opened it as a fur-trading post. The property was sold to Jan Pieterse Mabee in 1705 and the house stayed in the Mabee family for a remarkable 288 years. It was given to the Schenectady County Historical Society in 1993 by George Franchere, the last descendant of the Mabee line, for the purpose of being a museum and education center.

Mabee’s 1705 Dutch-style Stone House, which was owned by the Mabee family until 1999, This is one of the oldest homes in New York State and the oldest in the Mohawk Valley © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is a surprise to most who visit these colonial sites to learn that slavery was practiced here, beginning after Jan Mabee’s death in 1725 and ended 100 years later in 1827 with Jacob Mabee, his great grandson (when New York State abolished slavery). Among the 583 original documents from the farm are three bills of sale for slaves, wills giving slaves to children and a receipt from the Crown Point Expedition in 1755 when a trusted slave, Jack, was sent to Fort Edward and Lake George with supplies, two weeks before the Battle of Lake George.

“What is significant about the Mabee family is that they were ordinary,” the docent says.

Jan Mabee, born in Holland, bought the property from a neighbor in 1705, and lived in the cellar as he built the house. Jan and his wife Annette had 8 kids.

The house partly made out of stone; the wood beams are 1000 years old.

Jan was likely involved in the illegal trapping business. His wife was part Mohawk so they had a good relationship with the local Indians. The Dutch were tolerant and fair with the tribes (it was the British and French who cheated them).

Over the years, the house was turned into the Mabee Inn. Simon Mabee farmed the land and when he died, he left everything but the Inn to his son, Jacob;  he left the inn to his two sisters.

It turns out that the Mabee farm is more than a history lesson, but a study of a dysfunctional family.

“Jacob was not a nice man. Jacob evicted them. He hired a carpenter and flipped the staircase around so they have no way to get up to the second floor. He built a new door. The sisters lived in one room. Jacob died 6 years later and the land passed to Margaret.”

The Mabee sisters were confined to just one room of the house by their brother, Jacob © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just outside the house is the family cemetery. You can visit the 1760s Nilsen Dutch Barn, see the beautiful Mohawk River flow alongside the site. Tied to the dock or parked behind the Dutch Barn is a reproduction 18th century bateaux, the De Sagar and the Bobbie G , which provides an idea of how goods were shipped up and down the river.

Mabee family cemetery © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

During our visit, a country fair is underway.

(Mabee Farm Historic Site, 100 Main St (Rte 5s), Rotterdam Junction, NY 12150, 518-887-5073, schenectadyhistorical.org/sites).

The Schenectady History Museum offers wonderful exhibits that follow the history of the county from the early settlers who traded with the Indians and farmed, to the 19th and 20th century. There is a collection of early American artifacts of the American Revolution era, the impact of the Erie Canal, and artifacts that show the role this area played in technological innovation and industrialization because of General Electric and the American Locomotive Company.

Coming upon a country fair at the Mabee Farm Historic Site © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We ride a newly paved bike path into Schenectady.

In Schenectady, they have arranged for us to leave our bikes in a “corral” so we can explore the city.

I spend my time riding through The Stockade District. The oldest neighborhood in Schenectady, the Stockade District has been continuously inhabited for over 300 years, and is New York State’s first Historic District (since 1962) with an amazing assortment of historic buildings with more than 40 pre-Revolutionary houses and architectural styles that include Dutch Colonial, Georgia, Federal and Victorian.(You can access a cell phone walking tour at www.historicstockade.com.)

Riding through the Stockade District in Schenectady, New York State’s oldest neighborhood and first historic district, it has been continuously inhabited for 300 years. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I pull myself away to finish the ride to get to the Jewish Community Center at Niskayuna, a suburban neighborhood of Schenectady, where we camp. This is an incredible facility with a country-club like outdoor pool (indoor pool also).  I get there in time to swim.

This is the last night of our journey – and what a journey it has been. They have an elaborate “gala” dinner starting with beer and wine and hors d’oeuves, a fantastic catered dinner, and a “No Talent” talent show and a fashion show put on by the van drivers and baggage handlers of all the stuff that is still in the Lost & Found. And awards: like the most bones broken; the most crashes (5); most flat tires (4); the youngest solo peddling cyclist (8), the oldest cyclist (84). Side-splitting fun.

Truck drivers put on “fashion” show of Lost & Found items on last night of Parks & Trails NY’s Cycle the Erie bike tour © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Day 8, Schenectady to Albany, 31 Miles

Our last day, the eighth of our 400-mile journey which began in Buffalo, is a breeze. Just 31 miles from Niskayuna into downtown Albany where most of us have parked our cars to take the bus to Buffalo for the start of the tour. The weather is perfect – sunny, cool.

Riding along the Mohawk River © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The highlight of today’s ride comes at Mile 12: Cohoes Falls, one of the most powerful falls east of the Rockies which posed a major challenge for the Erie Canal engineers. Some of our riders who started in Buffalo were able to visit Niagara Falls and now are ending with Cohoes Falls, outside of Albany. What a way to bookend this journey.

Cohoes Falls, one of the most powerful falls east of the Rockies, posed a major challenge for the Erie Canal engineers © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just next to the falls are 19th century brick structures, built as factories that have been repurposed to apartments.

Our ride takes us onto Peebles Island State Park, Waterford, where our final rest stop of our journey is arranged at the Erie Canalway Visitor Center. During the Revolutionary War, American forces prepared defenses here to make a final stand against the British. (518-237-7000, www.eriecanalway.org).

Biking over the bridge from Peebles Island State Park © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We ride through city streets – notable for the American flags that are flying – neighborhoods that have seen better days but nonetheless evoke a folksy feel of Americana.

Now, we come to the Hudson River, a goal in itself. We ride along a beautiful paved trail beside the Hudson that takes us into downtown Albany, New York State’s 300-year-old capital, and finally, cross the finish line, 400 miles.

You realize you haven’t just traveled 400 miles, but 400 years of American history, back to its very founding. And you understand so much better, the trajectory from colonialism and the clash of cultures with Native Americans, the transition from an agrarian economy to the Industrial Revolution, the wave of immigration and innovation, the progressive movements that followed and precipitated the explosive changes in society: labor, Women’s Rights, abolition. Most interesting of all, is how all of these seeds still flower in contemporary culture and politics. All of this unfolds before our eyes, mile by mile.

Youngest self-pedaling rider, 8-year old Sam Demeritt, with 11-year old brother, crosses the finish line in Albany, after biking 400-miles from Buffalo on the Cycle the Erie bike tour. Family, from Malta NY, also included Mom and Dad and 4-year old brother. © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Biking adds an extra dimension to sight-seeing. It’s physical participation, an endorphin rush, an immersion. It puts you into the scene rather than merely observing – a participant, a part of the scene, rather than apart from it.

The tour is meticulously planned, well organized and supported, and how we have such wonderful opportunities to meet people from around the country (36 states are represented) and around the world (travelers from a half-dozen countries are here). A gathering like this prompts such fascinating interactions as people share their backgrounds, perspectives.

All of us have been so impressed by how well organized the trip is – from the truck drivers who pick up and drop off our gear each day, to the people who set up our breakfast and dinners and the morning and afternoon rest stops, to the SAG drivers and the riders who are there to assist if we have a problem. To the lecturers, the massage therapist and bike mechanics who travel along with us like camp followers.

Ah, this is the life. Camping on the grounds of the Schenectady Jewish Community Center in Niskayuna © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

For those who prefer not to set up their own tent (or take advantage of “indoor camping”) there is Comfy Campers, the closest thing to “glamping”. You have the luxury of having someone set up tent so it’s ready when you arrive, especially if it is raining, where you get a remarkably comfortable air mattress to put your sleeping bag on (amazing what a difference this makes), and take the tent down in the morning so you can just hit the trail again. Not to mention a fresh towel each day! Also, they set up a separate comfortable sitting area under canvas with charging stations. Those who want can also pay for coffee in the morning.

Camping on the grounds of the Schenectady Jewish Community Center in Niskayuna © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We are told that the finish line right at the Albany visitor center closes at 2 pm; UPS is on hand for those who need to ship their bikes home; a shower is made available nearby at the North YMCA; the municipal parking lot where many of us have parked our car is just next door; our luggage is deposited in the parking lot behind the visitor center for us to claim; some of us will take the shuttle bus back to Buffalo.

This has been one of the best, most memorable trips I have ever taken because the end-to-end Cycle the Erie ride hits on all cylinders: physically active and challenging so you feel you have really accomplished something at the end; communal – being with like-minded people from all over the country and the world, rich in heritage, scenic, affording real exploration and enlightenment. It’s no wonder that so many of us (myself included) have done it multiple times. (On this trip, the oldest cyclist, 84-year old, has done the tour 12 times.)

Cycle the Erie is an annual event, but you can download the route and do it all, or do segments as you like. A novel way to do it is by houseboat  through companies like Mid-Lakes Navigation Co., Ltd. (11 Jordan St., PO Box 61, Skaneateles, NY 13152, 315-685-8500, 800-545-4318, info@midlakesnav.com,www.midlakesnav.com, and take a bike onboard, providing a unique experience. (Be aware: they pull the plug on the Erie Canal – actually drain the water – from November through April).

The 20th Annual Cycle the Erie Canal ride is scheduled July 8 – 15, 2018 (www.ptny.org/canaltour). In the meantime, you can cycle the trail on your own – detailed info and interactive map is at the ptny.org site (www.ptny.org/bikecanal), including suggested lodgings. For more information on Cycle the Erie Canal, contact Parks & Trails New York at 518-434-1583 or visit www.ptny.org.

The entire Erie Canal corridor has been designated the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, Waterford, NY 12188, 518-237-7000, www.eriecanalway.org.

More information about traveling on the Erie Canal is available from New York State Canal Corporation, www.canals.ny.gov.  

See also:

Cycle the Erie: 400 Miles & 400 Years of History Flow By on Canalway Bike Tour Across New York State

Cycle the Erie, Day 1: In Lockport, See Erie Canal Engineering Marvel, ‘Flight of Five’, Cruise Thru Double Locks, and Go Underground to Fathom Rise of Industrial Revolution

Cycle the Erie, Day 2-3: A Sequence of Charming Canaltowns, Pastoral Landscapes, Punctuated by City Birthed by ‘Mother of Cities’

Cycle the Erie, Day 4: Seneca Falls to Syracuse, Crossing Halfway Mark of 400-Mile Biketour

Cycle the Erie, Day 5: Deep Dive into The Erie Canal: ‘Mother of Cities’, Empire Builder, Wonder of the World

Cycle the Erie: At Fort Stanwix, Rome, Time Travel Back to America’s Colonial, Native American Past

Cycle the Erie, Days 6-7: Erie Canal Spurs Rise of America as Global Industrial Power

_____________________________

© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

Cycle the Erie, Days 6-7: Erie Canal Spurs Rise of America as Global Industrial Power

Moss Island trails let you see prehistoric potholes, extensive growth of mosses and lichens and some of the oldest rocks in North America © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Day 6: Rome to Canajoharie, 63 Miles

It’s Day 6 of our 8-day, 400-mile Parks & Trails NY’s annual Buffalo to Albany Cycle the Erie bike tour following the Erie Canalway. I was lucky last night when the deluge we had while biking stopped just as I came into the campsite and I was able to set up my tent on the grassy area surrounding Fort Stanwix, in Rome. This morning, I am awakened at 4:15 am to another massive downpour. I check weather.com app on my cellphone which says the rain would stop by 5:45 am. So I get up at 5:45 am (which is not unusual for the Erie Canal cyclists) and sure enough, the rain has stopped. I take advantage of the dry spell to organize my packing and take down the tent to avoid more rain.

Our breakfast – freshly prepared pancakes which we consume at long tables laid out with pretty placemats – is at the local YMCA before we head out onto the Canalway for our 63-mile ride to Canajoharie – the longest ride of our trip, there are actually three rest stops along the ride today, at mile 14, 41.5 and 52.5).

Yesterday’s rain has made the trail muddy, and when we go off the trail onto the road, there are serious headwinds and some significant hills, and my gears aren’t working properly.

Remington Arms Factory, founded in 1816, closed when we pass. Its museum shows a legacy of typewriters, bridges, and guns, and early marketing branding genius: getting Annie Oakley to endorse its rifle. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We ride past the Remington Arms Factory housed in a massive 19th century complex of brick buildings (the factory opened in 1816 and employed hundreds of people from here, which helps explain the pro-gun voting sentiment in this part of upstate New York). Two years ago, on my first Cycle the Erie biketour, I visited the Remington Museum (a highlight was seeing how they branded and marketed the guns, making a promotion deal with the celebrated Annie Oakley, for example; and how the company also produced other things, like bridges and typewriters but guns were the cash cow). I was looking forward to visiting again but it is closed and the cyclists are clearly not invited anywhere near the premises. (News update: the Remington Arms company has filed for bankruptcy protection – and I am reminded of several other periods of financial woes in its history – but I’m betting it won’t actually go out of the business of manufacturing guns.)

Fort Herkimer, named for General Herkimer , “the most important hero of the American Revolution that few have heard of,” who was fatally wounded at the Battle of Oriskany © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

I come upon Historic Fort Herkimer Church, built around 1767 which is thought to be the second-oldest surviving church. From my visits to Fort Stanwix last evening, I understand why General Herkimer is known as “the most important hero of the American Revolution that few have heard of “. General Herkimer led that ill-fated group of 800 volunteers who were ambushed at Oriskany on their way to reinforce Fort Stanwix. Oriskany turned out to be one of the bloodiest battles of the Revolutionary War, with 600 killed in the space of an hour, but by a weird chain of events, indirectly altered the course of the Revolutionary War which the Americans were losing. Herkimer died here. Later (at Mile 43.4), we pass directly in front of Herkimer’s mansion home that is literally along the Erie Canal Trail, so I take a few minutes to walk the grounds before continuing on my way, paying respects to an unsung hero.

The second rest stop is at a beautiful visitor center at the Little Falls Canal Park on the bank of the river where I buy a long-sleeve t-shirt for added warmth). The weather improves after, with 25 miles to go, and I don’t need to wear the extra shirt.

Just beyond our rest stop at mile 41.5 at the Little Falls Rotary Canal Park,  at mile 42.6, we can explore the glacial potholes of Moss Island, a National Natural Landmark and Lock 17, the highest lift lock on the Erie Canal (located .8 miles off the route but you don’t have to go back up). The geology here is most impressive: Moss Island trails let you see prehistoric potholes, extensive growth of mosses and lichens and some of the oldest rocks in North America. The Mohawk River Valley, the marker says, is the only horizontal break in the Appalachian mountain chain, which is what made it possible for the Erie Canal to be built and provide a water route west for trade and settlement of the United States interior.

Moss Island trails let you see prehistoric potholes, extensive growth of mosses and lichens and some of the oldest rocks in North America © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We pass German Flatts townpark, which you are unlikely to take note of, except that in Fort Stanwix, I had learned that German Flatts had been burned to the ground by Loyalists, part of the brutal scorched-earth strategy waged by both sides in the Revolutionary War.

This part of our ride immerses us in colonial-era America. At mile 52.5, we have an option of two routes to take into Canajoharie and consistent with my plan to do as much as possible differently from my first Erie Canal ride, I take the blue trail option along the road to three historic sites (I miss the first one, the Nellis Tavern built in 1747, which was serving travelers along this route well before the Erie Canal was opened, in 1825); I stop at Fort Klock, built in the 18th century where there is a 1750 farmhouse, a schoolhouse and a blacksmith shop);  I see the Palatine church, built in 1770 by Palatine Lutherans, from across the busy road. But I also see Amish (or Mennonite) workers using a power saw, one gets into truck; an Amish horse and buggy passes by. I am happy with my decision.

Fort Klock, built in the 18th century, where there is a 1750 farmhouse, a schoolhouse and a blacksmith shop © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

One of the challenges of the entire 400-mile ride now faces us: the last mile is the steepest climb of the trip, up to the Canajoharie High School at the very top where we will camp. There is a t-shirt for anyone who makes the climb. (I almost make it but my gears fail me, and I give up.)

Taking the historic “blue” route instead of the Canal trail into Canajoharie, passing farms, I encounter this scene © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Parks & Trails NY biketour organizers mercifully have arranged buses to take us back down into the town center to the Arkell Art Museum where we are being treated to a fantastic barbecue chicken dinner, and the museum is staying open for us until 7:30 pm (at a reduced fee of $5).

The Arkell Art Museum was established by the millionaire founder and first president of the Beech-Nut Packing Company. I hadn’t visited the museum the last time (when we also had a fantastic chicken barbeque dinner here), so I made a point of visiting this time.

Bartlett Arkell, built the original Canajoharie Gallery in 1927 based on galleries he had visited on his travels to Europe. A museum designed by Ann Beha and DesignLAB Architects was added in 2007 to the existing Canajoharie Library and Art Gallery to provide new space for exhibitions and programs.

Visiting the Arkell Art Museum, founded by Bartlett Arkell of Beech-Nut © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“Almost all of the paintings in the permanent collection were purchased by Bartlett Arkell for the people of Canajoharie. The American painting collection includes 21 works by Winslow Homer, and significant paintings by many distinguished artists, including George Inness, William M. Chase, Childe Hassam, Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keeffe, Robert Henri, and other members of The Eight. Permanent and changing exhibitions also feature selections from the museum’s Mohawk Valley History collection as well as the Beech-Nut as the Beech-Nut archives of early twentieth-century advertising material.”

Artwork for Beech-Nut ad © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I am even more intrigued by the exhibit that tells the story of Arkell and the Beech-Nut company, which (at least the photos suggest) was the Google of its day in terms of providing a cafeteria for its workers and other employee niceties.

Artwork for Beech-Nut ad © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I learn that the key renovation that led to Beech-Nut’s success was the invention of the flour bag and that Beech-Nut began as a packaging enterprise; gum and candy came later (and used the peppermint oil from Hotchkiss Oil company in Lyons which we had visited).

You can see the old Beech-Nut factory (now shuttered) across the street; Beech-Nut was acquired by another company which has a new factory nearby. 

(The Arkell Museum ,2 Erie Blvd., Canajoharie, NY 13317, 518 673-2314, info@arkellmuseum.orgarkellmuseum.org)

From the village center, we see the old high school, a cold, gothic style structure, up on another hill. The new high school, where we are camping, is luxurious. We wander around the quaint village, which has some striking Victorian architecture as a tribute to its wealth, before taking the shuttle bus back up the hill to our campsite.

I get back to the school in time for a rock n’ roll concert in the auditorium.

Day 7: Canajoharie to Schenectady, 46 Miles

It is Day 7 of our 8-day ride and we are already feeling nostalgic that the end of our 400-mile journey from Buffalo to Albany is near. It’s a nice day for biking the 46 miles to Schenectady: perfect temperature, little wind, morning sun. The trail is nice, with a slight downhill tilt.

A glimpse of the break in the Appalachians which provided the route for the Erie Canal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A fellow has stopped on the trail and I look to where he is looking and see “Big Nose & Little Nose” –  where a glacier cut a path through Appalachians which is why this was always the place where the Erie Canal could be constructed  (it’s hard to appreciate because of the overgrowth of trees).

Unscheduled rest stop: buying cookies © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

A highlight of this day’s ride is the new pedestrian/bicycle bridge across the Mohawk River connecting to Amsterdam.

The bridge is fabulous, much like the Walkway over the Hudson in Poughkeepsie (now one of New York State’s most popular attractions). I meet Michelle Eggleston who is a good-will ambassador for the town of Amsterdam, who tells me, “The bridge gives the community a sense of place,” she tells me. “More people are enjoying the river. My daughter started a kayak business, Down by the River Kayak. There are more boats on the river.”

Amsterdam used to be a center of carpet manufacturing factories which shut down, bringing down with them the economy and living standard of the city. Now many of these buildings have been repurposed to business incubators; there is ballroom in the clock tower.

The new bridge over the Mohawk River at Amsterdam © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

“New people are moving in. Two of my four kids bought houses in Amsterdam. They are seeing it as a great place to live – the waterfront, the bike trail, restaurants they can walk to. Other business are seeing that and that Amsterdam is a great place to be, and are coming in. We had the Albany Symphony here on July 4 – thousands of people on the bridge. I’ve lived in Montgomery County my whole life – I’ve never seen that before. We have been given a sense of place; people are proud of our town.”

In one fell swoop of the space of our bikeride, today, we have gone from colonial times to the Industrial Revolution, to the post-Industrial Revolution.

Next: Schoharie Crossing, Mabee Farm, Cohoes Falls and Finish Line of 8-Day, 400-Mile Cycle the Erie BikeTour

The 20th Annual Cycle the Erie Canal ride is scheduled July 8 – 15, 2018 (www.ptny.org/canaltour). In the meantime, you can cycle the trail on your own – detailed info and interactive map is at the ptny.org site (www.ptny.org/bikecanal), including suggested lodgings. For more information on Cycle the Erie Canal, contact Parks & Trails New York at 518-434-1583 or visit www.ptny.org.

The entire Erie Canal corridor has been designated the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, Waterford, NY 12188, 518-237-7000, www.eriecanalway.org.

More information about traveling on the Erie Canal is available from New York State Canal Corporation, www.canals.ny.gov.  

See also:

Cycle the Erie: 400 Miles & 400 Years of History Flow By on Canalway Bike Tour Across New York State

Cycle the Erie, Day 1: In Lockport, See Erie Canal Engineering Marvel, ‘Flight of Five’, Cruise Thru Double Locks, and Go Underground to Fathom Rise of Industrial Revolution

Cycle the Erie, Day 2-3: A Sequence of Charming Canaltowns, Pastoral Landscapes, Punctuated by City Birthed by ‘Mother of Cities’

Cycle the Erie, Day 4: Seneca Falls to Syracuse, Crossing Halfway Mark of 400-Mile Biketour

Cycle the Erie, Day 5: Deep Dive into The Erie Canal: ‘Mother of Cities’, Empire Builder, Wonder of the World

Cycle the Erie: At Fort Stanwix, Rome, Time Travel Back to America’s Colonial, Native American Past

_____________________________

© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Cycle the Erie: At Fort Stanwix, Rome, Time Travel Back to America’s Colonial, Native American Past

National Park Ranger Bill Sawyer (right) and two other reenactors bring Revolutionary War-era history to life at Fort Stanwix, Rome © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Fort Stanwix, in Rome, New York, is a revelation. Hardly anyone knows of it – it doesn’t even seem to merit a footnote in history – but it played a role in two incidents, one during French & Indian War and one during Revolutionary War, that proved pivotal for American history, like a tiny peg in the giant cogwheel of history.

A National Historic Site, Fort Stanwix also offers one of the best presentations of tribal Indians and European settlers in the colonial and Revolutionary War period. Indeed, the Erie Canal was built across what was the Oneida Carrying Place, vital to the earliest traders. This fort is where the British negotiated and signed the 1768 treaty with the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. I suspect this area is also where Melinda Gage drew upon what she learned of the Oneida Indian women to form key planks of women’s rights movement.

The presentation here (in contrast to how pitiful the Womens Rights National Site in Seneca Falls is) is fantastic, both in the exhibits and the commentary. Engaging, informative, dramatic, thoughtful. Also, the park rangers are in period dress so you really feel as if you have stepped back in history. You wind up speaking to these people as if it was 250 years ago.

This part of the eight-day Cycle the Erie bike tour, 400 miles from Buffalo to Albany organized annually through Parks & Trails NY, takes us back to the very beginning of the United States, to its native American origins, European colonization and its emergence as an independent nation. It is 400 miles and 400 years of history.

Cycle the Erie riders set up tents just outside the fortifications of Fort Stanwix, in downtown Rome, a reconstruction of the 1758 fort, now a National Historic Site © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At Fort Stanwix National Monument in Rome (where the 750 of us actually camp out outside the fort, making it look like an army bivouac), we are put squarely into the drama of the American Revolution. Interpreters in period dress take on the roles of American soldiers and British prisoners in period dress – creating such realism that you appreciate so much more the context and the conditions. Most surprising, is that it also tells the story of the Native Peoples, almost entirely forgotten as having an equal stake in the Revolution. (It didn’t go well.)

The reconstruction of Fort Stanwix comes alive through the personal stories recounted inside the fort. You get to experience the American Revolution and the Siege of Fort Stanwix through the eyes of soldiers and their families, American Indians and traders. This is accomplished through the realistic recreations (especially of the fort), the costumed interpreters, outstanding markers, artifacts, the art, portraits and graphics, and superb videos. They create characters who are composites of actual people, and you hear their voices in a context.

It’s humbling to realize how little you actually know about Colonial America and the American Revolution.

The Fort puts the competing interests of the Patriots, Loyalists and Indian peoples into balance. You have empathy for each. (Especially the Native Americans, who were dragged into the fight, upsetting a long-standing peace among the Confederacy of Iroquois nations, found their whole society upended, and were literally screwed by every European and American they dealt with. George Washington, shockingly, even betrayed the Indians who were allied with the Patriots). But you also understand better the Loyalists, whose property was being seized by the Patriots, and the Patriots, who were not necessarily British subjects, but German and Dutch colonists – whose property was being burned by the Loyalists.

The National Park Service is keeping the fort open late for us and hosting tours, and is keeping the visitors center open all night (the indoor camping location, though, is off-site at a local YMCA).

We arrive at Fort Stanwix after biking 50 miles from Syracuse, a good chunk of our Day 5 ride in drenching rain. I set up my tent (fortunately, the rain stopped just as I came into Rome), grab a shower, and race over to the visitor center to join a guided tour. I am so lucky to attach myself to the same Park Ranger as I toured with two years ago, on my first Cycle the Erie tour.

Fort Stanwix as we see it today literally rose out of ash heap of history – reclaimed from earthly grave.

At one point, the fort was the reason Rome developed at all, but ultimately Rome grew up over its ruins, from fire and neglect. Then the city Rome went through a decline. But in 1960s, as part of urban renewal, planners wanted to redevelop the dilapidated downtown. A grassroots movement grew up to excavate the fort; meticulous archaeology unearthed some 400,000 artifacts. (Visitors can actually get a back-stage view of the archaeology being done during summer tours.)

The National Park Service was faced with a quandary – its mission at the time discouraged reproduction or re-creation of a historical site. But there were strong arguments in favor of reconstructing the fort: they found the original fireplace (the only part of the fort that remains of the original, which we get to see); had the original plans (obtained from British archives); plus papers and drawings so they could reproduce it accurately; and letters of soldiers so they had a better idea of what happened here.

Reenactors patrol the ramparts at Fort Stanwix © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The location of this fort is significant. It sits along “Six Miles that Changed the Course of America,” reads the National Park Service brochure. “For thousands of years, the ancient trail that connects the Mohawk River and Wood Creek served as a vital link for people traveling between the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Ontario. Travelers used this well-worn route through Oneida Indian territory to carry trade goods and news, as well as diseases, to others far away. When Europeans arrived, they called this trail the Oneida Carrying Place and inaugurated a significant period in American history – a period when nations fought for control of not only the Oneida Carrying Place, but the Mohawk Valley, the homelands of the Six Nations Confederacy and the rich resources of North America as well. In this struggle Fort Stanwix would play a vital role.”

The British built the fort in 1758 with the permission of the Oneida to protect their commerce, but abandoned it to cut back on spending after the French & Indian War (taxes imposed by Britain to recoup their expenditures is what incited the American Revolution).

The fort was never put to the test, because the French were defeated elsewhere. But though Fort Stanwix fell into decay, the site was still important for trade and relations with the Six Nations.

Map of the Six Nations territory, according to the 1768 treaty negotiated by Sir William Johnson © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is here at Fort Stanwix, in 1768, after the Europeans had spread into “empty” spaces and fought with the Indians, that Sir William Johnson, Indian Supervisor, negotiated a treaty with the Six Nations of the Confederacy, basically laying out the terms that everything east of the fort would be for Europeans, and everything west would be for Indians.

“Over 3,000 American Indians from the Six Nations, Shawnee, Delaware, Mingo and other dependent tribes attended the treaty negotiations,” the notes read. “Ignoring British Crown instructions, Sir William Johnson encouraged the Six Nations to draw a new boundary line favorable to their mutual interests. Rather than settling tensions, frontier strife between colonists and American Indians increased.”

“I can never look upon that (Proclamation of 1763) in any other light… than as .. temporary expedient to quiet the mind of the Indians,” land speculator George Washington wrote to surveyor William Crawford, 1767. “Any person… who neglects the opportunity of hunting out good lands…for his own, in order to keep others from settling them, will never regain it.”

Reenactors patrol the ramparts at Fort Stanwix © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Meanwhile, British attempts to govern the growing colonies from afar and the associated costs led to strained relations. Hoping to defray the cost of colonial administration, the British parliament taxed many goods arriving in North America. But growing independence and identification as Americans caused many colonists to question British rule. Tensions steadily increased until American “Patriots” declared their independence in 1776.

The exhibit gives me a new perspective: a good number of colonists were not British – they came from Germany, Holland and other places. I realize that becoming a Patriot would not have been such a hard choice as for those with British ties.

“For colonists living on the frontier, the issues included British imposed restrictions on trade, limits on settlement, and continuing violence with American Indians. As war approached, many colonists had to choose between remaining loyal to the King or joining the movement to American independence.” Each side considered themselves “patriots”. But those who stayed loyal to the Crown became known as “Loyalists,” while those who sought independence called themselves “Patriots.”

In 1775, Patriots and Loyalists began struggling for control of the New York frontier. The British invaded the Mohawk Valley in 1777. Their strategy was to capture an important east-west supply route, deprive American soldiers of food grown in the valley, and strengthen Six Nation and Loyalist Alliances, and slice the colonies.

British General John Burgoyne led an invasion of New York from the north and west. His army advanced from Montreal towards Albany. A second force commanded by General Barry St. Leger invaded the Mohawk Valley. Strategically, St. Leger aimed to control the Oneida Carrying Place, create a diversion to split Patriot forces, and reinforce Burgoyne. Politically, he wanted to rally support among American Indian allies and Loyalists.

Patriots had taken over Fort Stanwix in 1777 and renamed it for General Schuyler. The fort was under the command of Col. Peter Gansvoort when it came under siege by the British. Some 2,000 British troops set up a blockade, helped by Indians allied with the British, which went on for months.

General Nicholas Herkimer assembled an 800-man militia to come to the fort’s aid, but was betrayed (by Molly Brant, a Mohawk woman allied with the British, and the second wife of Sir William Johnson). Herkimer’s militia was ambushed along the way at Oriskany. This became one of the bloodiest battles of the Revolutionary War, in which 600 were killed in a matter of hours. General Herkimer, himself, was fatally wounded, dying 10 days later. (Later in our trip, we pass Herkimer Church where he died, and his home.)

The British surrender at the Battles of Saratoga removed the threat of a British invasion in northern New York. Few realize how the Patriot victory was a ripple effect of events at Fort Stanwix © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

But the Indians allied with the British, hearing that the Americans had plundered their encampments, left the fort to go to their families’ aid. Fearing that more American reenforcements were on the way, the British retreated, handing the Patriots their first victory (of sorts) of the Revolutionary War. This, critically, boosted the Americans’ morale, and helped set the stage for the Patriots’ victory at Saratoga (under General Benedict Arnold).

This, then, is what changed the course of the war. Because of the victory at Saratoga, which was the unanticipated consequence of what happened at Oriskany and Fort Stanwix, Americans won the critical support of France (long time enemy of Britain), without which, the Americans could not have defeated the British and the British were forced to fight a world war.

In 1778, the British again attempted a formal invasion of New York, planning to burn the Mohawk Valley fields of grain that supplied the Continental Army.

The last battle here took place in 1780, when a work party outside the fort was ambushed by British-allied Indians and Loyalists.

National Parks Ranger Bill Sawyer guides us through Fort Stanwix © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But for most of the Revolutionary War, “It is frustrating for the troops to be here, the backwater of the Revolution,” Park Ranger Bill Sawyer, who is dressed in the uniform of the 3rd New York regiment, tells us. The men were upset because they were far from the fighting. But “Washington was vindicated in his decision to keep it fortified because the British refortified Fort Ontario. Washington wanted to block the British.”

And I am certain that those disgruntled soldiers confined to Fort Stanwix never appreciated that as a result of these events at Fort Stanwix, the British grand plan to slice off New York from the rebelling colonies and cut off the Continental Army’s source of food, failed.  Instead, the Americans had the critical support of France.

Fort Stanwix: Living History

After this introduction in the Visitors Center, Park Ranger Bill Sawyer, walks us into the Fort, where we are greeted by costumed interpreters dressed as American soldiers. A couple of teenage boys (summer interns at the fort) patrol the ramparts of the fort. You are immediately transported back centuries.

The fireplace is the only part of the original 1758 fort that remains at Fort Stanwix. The fort was rebuilt to original plans retrieved from British archives © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This fort is a nearly complete reconstruction on the original foundation – the only thing original is a fireplace (that can be seen in one of the rooms). Over the decades, Rome was built up on top of the fort. Archaeological excavations conducted in 1970-73 uncovered the site, but all the artifacts were removed, the site completely cleared, and the fort rebuilt with new materials.

The fort held 800 soldiers (twice the number the fort was built to hold); families of soldiers (who couldn’t afford to maintain them in their homes) camped in the ditch outside the wall; women would try to get jobs within the fort. People died of disease and winter cold.

By February 1778, the soldiers’ clothing was reduced to rags, they hardly had any bedding left or blankets. They would have been stationed here for anywhere from 4 months to 2 years. Morale was terrible.

We see the harsh living conditions. Artillery men, though, had somewhat better accommodations, because they were specialists. “They had to have knowledge of math and the use of measuring tools to calculate the trajectory of cannon and mortar. They had better pay and living conditions.”

We visit the different rooms for the junior officers, a family quarters, the officers’ lodging, the orderly room, the surgeon’s day room. The Commandant’s HQ had a fine room befitting his wealth and high station and had a private assigned.

National Parks Ranger Bill Sawyer guides us through Fort Stanwix © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

On my first visit, two years ago, I was able to see an outstanding film that depicted life in the fort and how the soldiers suffered. “The walls imprisoned them, supplies cut off. They were overcome by boredom and hunger. They wanted to go fight. Five men deserted, headed to Canada. Gansvoort sent out a band of Indians to recapture them. They were executed as an example to the rest….It was a forsaken place. Finally, they were sent to war.”

On my first visit, one of our cyclists, Peter Reeve, was British, though living in Maryland since 1981, and gave me the British perspective:  “The British people didn’t care to keep America,” Reeve told me. “They didn’t want to spend the money fighting the Revolution. Most British generals were against the tax acts. General Howell supported the Americans’ grievance.”

While major battles took place in the South, minor battles and guerrilla-style warfare characterized the fighting in New York. General Washington lamented that crops that were being destroyed in these raids were needed to feed his army surrounding New York City. These raids and counter-raids were waged by Patriots, Loyalists, American Indians, British and British-allied Germans, alike, often against civilians, and were among the most brutal of the war.

The fort served as an isolated outpost for another four years after the siege. The inaction drained morale and the constant shortage of food and munitions made the soldier’s life insufferable. Regular petitions for transfer and increasing desertions reflected the wretched conditions.

By 1779, British strategy changed and they invaded the other colonies. Though Britain won most of the battles, they failed to destroy the Patriot army. Outmaneuvered, the British surrendered at Yorktown in 1781, bringing an unofficial end to the war.

Following their 1781 defeat at Yorktown, the English saw little value in continuing large scale war in America. Two years later, war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris by the US, France and Britain. As the British Army withdrew, Loyalists migrated to Canada and elsewhere.

American Independence Voids Treaty with Indians

The 1783 Treaty of Paris officially ended the war – at least between the British and the colonists. However, no terms of peace were negotiated for the American Indians. In later years, American Indians negotiated their own treaties with the Patriots (who tossed out the Treaty of 1768.)

The focus at Fort Stanwix on Indian history is very clear from the first display that greets you as you enter the Visitors Center – of trappers trading with Indians.

American Indians’ history, NPS Ranger Sawyer says, “was long ignored. Now we interpret to include it.”

Fort Stanwix also offers one of the best presentations of tribal Indians and European settlers in the colonial and Revolutionary War period © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Indeed, Fort Stanwix offers one of the most interesting and informative presentations about American Indians outside of the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC.

I am most surprised to see that the Indians lived in villages, with a grid street plan; they wore western-style shirts and many had European names. They had many of the same household goods as the colonists – an indication of how well-developed trade had become, and in fact, how dependent the Indians had become on trade.

The constant theme in the history between the Indians and European settlers, though, was how the Indians were constantly betrayed.

The Indians wanted no part of the Revolutionary War and tried to stay neutral. That changed with the Battle of Oriskany, though.

Centuries of Peace Upended in One Day © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Revolutionary War split the Iroquois Confederacy (“Iroquois” was the French name for the Haudenosaunee, “People of the Longhouse”). Mohawks led by Joseph Brant (the brother of Molly Brant who triggered the ambush of Herkimer’s militia at Oriskany) adhered to their long-standing allegiance to the British, and eventually most Cayugas, Onondagas, and Senecas joined them. But Oneidas and Tuscaroras sided with the Americans, owing in large measure to the efforts of their Presbyterian missionary Samuel Kirkland. The Revolution became a civil war for the Iroquois, as Oneidas clashed with Senecas at the Battle of Oriskany in 1777. (“Centuries of peace upended in a single day,” the notes read.) Iroquois suffering was compounded in 1779 when General John Sullivan, on orders of General Washington, led an American army through their lands, burning 40 towns and destroying crops.

Iroquois suffering was compounded in 1779 when General John Sullivan, on orders of General Washington, led an American army through their lands, burning 40 towns and destroying crops © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Both sides practiced a scorched earth strategy. “Raids by Loyalists and British-allied American Indians in 1778 destroyed Patriot settlements in Pennsylvania and New York. In 1779, General Washington ordered Generals Sullivan and Clinton to retaliate and destroy Six Nation towns, homes and food. Soldiers from Fort Stanwix tricked Patriot-allied Oneida warriors into raiding the British supply depot at Oswegatchie before leaving to destroy Onondaga towns. These raids and counter-raids continued until 1783.” Afterwards, General George Washington was given the name “Town Destroyer” by the Seneca people.

The Americans, who always wanted to take over Indian lands (another sore point that led to wanting independence from Britain), nullified the treaty of 1768 as soon as they won independence in 1783, claiming it was negotiated with the British and did not apply to the new nation. The Americans voided the treaty with the Cayuga, Canandagua and Mohicans claiming that these nations sided with the British, and pushed them further west.

In 1784, Governor George Clinton (uncle of Dewitt Clinton who launched the Erie Canal project), who was not a supporter of the federal Constitution, decided to make his own treaty. The new treaty, negotiated at Fort Stanwix with the Oneida who allied with the Patriots, effectively relegated three Oneida Indian nations to a measly 32 acres, in which they were surrounded on all sides by settlers. (The Oneida tribe had already split, with half moving to Wisconsin).

“Now, for first time in history, the Indian nation is relegated to a reservation, surrounded by Europeans (whites),” Sawyer tells us.

By the 1790s, houses were built by the fort; by the mid-1800s, the fort was demolished and the city of Rome built on top of the ruins. In 1935, a national monument established, though by then the site a commercial district with no trace of the fort.

By the 1960s,a grassroots urban renewal effort was underway to revitalize the downtown and restore the fort, but this required the National Park Service to go against its long-standing policy: “We protect, preserve, interpret any natural thing, but nothing was left of fort.” But political pressure mounted to create a new Revolutionary War “themed park” to open in time for the bicentennial in 1976.

Household items, among the 400,000 items excavated from the Fort Stanwix site, would have been similar between Indian and settler homes © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A massive excavation got underway by local volunteers and in the process, 400,000 artifacts were uncovered in three years of archaeological work.

They had a the foundation plus they had the original plans (from the British museum) and maps, clothing and receipts, enough to reconstruct the fort exactly as it would have looked.

Ranger Sawyer, who tells me his interest in becoming a park ranger was ignited during summer internship at the fort when he was a teenager and got “hooked”, says that the 400,000 artifacts are housed in a cultural conservation center in the Visitors Center.

In summer, on Wednesdays & Thursdays, at 11:15 & 1 pm, they open up back area to guided tours to see archaeologists working with the artifacts.

Our Cycle the Erie encampment at Fort Stanwix © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I am literally the last person out of the fort when they close at 9 pm, and walk a block to get some pizza for dinner (this is one of two nights when we are on our own for dinner and the city of Rome has provided a list of eateries.)

The 20th Annual Cycle the Erie Canal ride is scheduled July 8 – 15, 2018 (www.ptny.org/canaltour). In the meantime, you can cycle the trail on your own – detailed info and interactive map is at the ptny.org site (www.ptny.org/bikecanal), including suggested lodgings. For more information on Cycle the Erie Canal, contact Parks & Trails New York at 518-434-1583 or visit www.ptny.org.

The entire Erie Canal corridor has been designated the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, Waterford, NY 12188, 518-237-7000, www.eriecanalway.org.

More information about traveling on the Erie Canal is available from New York State Canal Corporation, www.canals.ny.gov.  

Next: Cycle the Erie, Days 6-7: Erie Canal Promotes Rise of America as Global Industrial Power 

See also:

Cycle the Erie: 400 Miles & 400 Years of History Flow By on Canalway Bike Tour Across New York State

Cycle the Erie, Day 1: In Lockport, See Erie Canal Engineering Marvel, ‘Flight of Five’, Cruise Thru Double Locks, and Go Underground to Fathom Rise of Industrial Revolution

Cycle the Erie, Day 2-3: A Sequence of Charming Canaltowns, Pastoral Landscapes, Punctuated by City Birthed by ‘Mother of Cities’

Cycle the Erie, Day 4: Seneca Falls to Syracuse, Crossing Halfway Mark of 400-Mile Biketour

Cycle the Erie, Day 5: Deep Dive into The Erie Canal: ‘Mother of Cities’, Empire Builder, Wonder of the World

 

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© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Cycle the Erie, Day 5: Deep Dive into The Erie Canal: ‘Mother of Cities’, Empire Builder, Wonder of the World

Cycle the Erie riders stop in at the Syracuse Canal Museum, which opens especially early © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Day 5: Syracuse to Rome, 50 Miles

Day 5 of our 8-day, 400 mile Cycle the Erie biketour from Buffalo to Albany offers a deep-dive into the history of the Erie Canal, an appreciation for the engineering marvel that it was, and how it changed American culture and society, as our 50-mile ride today brings us to a sequence of museums and historic sites.

We begin the day riding into downtown Syracuse from our campsite at Burnet Park, adjacent to the Rosamond Gifford Zoo (we are so close, some said they could hear the animals during the night). A highlight for the entire trip is visiting the Syracuse Eric Canal Museum, which has opened early, from 7 am, especially for us. It is not to be missed and I plan to spend a couple of hours here. (The museum also was open especially for us last evening, with shuttle bus transportation from our campsite, to accommodate our riders, but I chose to visit the zoo.)

Downtown Syracuse, revitalized. The Erie Canal used to run through the city © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The downtown of Syracuse has gone through an amazing renaissance.

Erie Canal at one time went through Syracuse but President Roosevelt wanted a “modern” canal built and largely replaced the original canal.

Today, in a magnificent plaza there is an impressive Jerry Rescue Monument to William “Jerry” Henry, a freemason taken into custody under Fugitive Slave Act, despite the fact that New York State abolished slavery in 1820.

Daniel Webster, who was secretary of state under President Millard Filmore, came to Syracuse in1851 and declared that Syracuse (which was a stop on the Underground Railroad) was “a laboratory of abolitionism, libel, and treason” and warning local abolitionists and abetting slaves that any violation of the Fugitive Slave Law, which called for returning those in flight into bondage, would be “treason, treason and nothing else.”

A few months later, on October 1, a mob stormed a downtown police station, knocked down the doors and freed Jerry, and put him on a carriage traveling toward Canada.

Syracuse Canal Museum 

All along our Cycle the Erie route – mostly following the 353-mile long Erie Canalway – we have visited small canal museums and historical societies which each tell a part of the Erie Canal epic drama. At Lockport, which is itself a living-history museum, on the first day of our ride, we saw the astonishing “Flight of Five” locks and its small museum. At Camillus, the half-way mark of our 400-mile ride from Buffalo to Albany, we visited Sims Store, a re-creation of a 19th century general store that would have served the boats traveling along the canal. Still to come (later today), the Chittenango Landing Boat Museum which offers a look at how the canal boats were built and we get to look inside a reconstruction; Canastota, which offers a delightful Canal Town Museum in a tiny house that was once a bakery. Further on, we will see the Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site, featuring sections of all three alignments of the Erie Canal and a fascinating historic exhibit in a house-turned-museum.

A painting at the Syracuse Canal Museum depicts Governor Dewitt Clinton bringing water from Lake Erie to New York City, in the ceremony known as the “Wedding of the Waters,” symbolizing how the Erie Canal linked New York City to the West © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

But Syracuse is the “official” Erie Canal Museum – it offers the most expansive collection of artifacts, the most comprehensive history, starting the story well before Governor Dewitt Clinton pushed so obsessively for his Ditch. It offers the most sophisticated presentations, including lots of interactive exhibits and opportunities to engage. It is all the more remarkable because it is a maritime museum which is not on the water – indeed, the expanded canal was moved north of the city.

One of the unique features of the Canal Museum – indeed, the “most unique thing about Syracuse” – is the chance to visit the Weighlock Building, built in1850 – the only remaining weighlock building in America. You can walk aboard a replica passenger packet boat in the weighlock and get a real impression of how the Erie Canal transformed culture and society in America.

Getting a tour inside the packet boat in the Syracuse Canal Museum © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

And, as we ride into the downtown historic district, with some magnificent architectural jewels (like the Niagara-Mohawk building, an Art Deco palace that is simply breathtaking), what we appreciate most is how the Erie Canal was the “Mother of Cities” – as historian Ben Willis has said – and how Syracuse is one of her children.

A chart in the museum graphs the explosive growth in population of Albany, Syracuse, Buffalo, and even small canaltowns like Lockport because of the Erie Canal, “It was the 8th Wonder of the World, the pathway to an empire, and a school of engineering.”

Indeed, in 1820, Syracuse was but a swampy settlement on Genesee Turnpike, its primary industry was salt production (a key reason that banks had already established themselves in Syracuse, before the canal). Because of the canal (“The Mother of Cities”) the population of Syracuse swelled 40-fold in just 10 years, from 250 in 1820, to 11,064 in 1830, and by 1920, a city of 171,717.

“German masons who came for the canal, stayed to build cobblestone houses, churches. The canal was a whole way of life.”

Before the Canal, it would take 6 to 8 weeks for a mule to carry less than a ton, versus 6 to8 days to transport up to 200 tons of freight on the canal. The cost dropped to one-tenth, $12 per ton and 60c for barrel of salt.

Each day, some 1,800 immigrants would come through Syracuse on the Erie Canal on their way to the west, paying 10c to travel from one town to the next.

“Land was free, you just had to get there, settle on it for a number of years. Often pioneers would work on the boat in exchange for transportation,” the notes read.

New York State financed the building of the Erie Canal (without any federal help) by selling $7.7 million in bonds; the state earned back revenue from fees on goods shipped and taxes on salt (because salt was brought out of salt springs that were owned by the state).

The success of Clinton’s Ditch was quickly apparent and in just 10 years (after paying off the $7.7 million), the Erie Canal had to be rebuilt and expanded to handle all the traffic.

Ben Willis explains some of the innovative engineering that went into building the Erie Canal to Cycle the Erie riders at the Syracuse canal Museum © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

There were no real engineers when they began to build the canal. The initial designers were surveyors. “They knew how to do property lines but were not engineers.” The biggest problem was figuring out the elevations. But when they completed the canal, these self-taught engineers started the engineering school, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy.

One of the innovative methods devised was a stump puller to clear the trees – a contraption that looks like a military armament, but actually had giant wheels to move it and give leverage to pull out stumps. 

There is so much that is so engaging in the museum – even the staircases are made so you can see the elevations of the different locks along the entire canal, and the elevator is painted so you feel you are stepping into a lock, yourself.

Indeed, a key message you come away with from the Erie Canal Museum, is how the canal keeps reinventing itself, and with it, the society around it.

Peak use of the Erie Canal was 1951, but it was also a time when the canal was fetid with pollution – oil slicks and raw sewage. Then the Clean Water Act of 1972, prohibiting dumping and requiring municipalities to have treatment plants, changed the way shippers and factories could do business. (My suspicion is that environmental protection and worker protections, not free trade, is what led to the demise of American manufacturing.)

So, up until the 1980s, the canal was almost exclusively for commercial traffic and was too polluted, fetid and crowded for the recreational boater, or, in fact, residential buildings anywhere near the canal. That’s all changed. Now, the canal is predominantly used for recreational purposes, there are lovely housing developments along the canal. But a changing upstate economy is seeing a resurgence of manufacturing and more commercial shipping is coming to the canal.

There are many other uses of the Erie Canal other than shipping and transportation. The canal is the largest source of irrigation for upstate agriculture. People don’t think of New York as agricultural, but it rivals other states, producing a range of foodstuffs – orchards, vineyards, dairy operations. Riding along the canal trail, you see the white pipes of the irrigation system. The canal also provides for flood control for upstate New York. Many of the dams generate electricity.

Here, I appreciate the ecology of the Erie Canal – not just for the people whose towns, livelihoods and lives revolved around the canal, but how it impacted the environment.

Cycle the Erie riders pass the Niagara-Mohawk building, an Art Deco palace, in downtown Syracuse © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

And you can see the social ecology as well – as the canal is cleaned up, there are new housing developments that are popping up alongside, as we saw at Rochester, Spencerport, Fairport, changing the economic base for these communities. (They are not intrusive, though – indeed, the entire Barge Canal was just placed on the National Register of Historic Places and is part of New York State’s Heritage Corridor). The small canaltowns are reinventing themselves – and the structures that had been factories and silos and such in places like Pittsford and Cohoes have been re-purposed for condos and offices, as well as to cater to new manufacturing ventures like manufacturing wind turbines.

“Everything reinvents itself – just like the Canal,” says Daniel Ward, who curated the exhibit. “When I was boy, there was no accommodation for pleasure craft, no tie ups. It was a barge canal. Now there is balance.

“Often the Erie Canal gets separated in people’s minds from the Port of New York, but New York City is the terminal port of the canal system. Our current work is trying to reconnect idea of New York City – we’re coming up to the bicentennial of the opening of the canal (2025), which was a celebration in New York Harbor.”

The museum has a marvelous animated display of Governor Dewitt Clinton sailing into New York City to spill water from Lake Erie into the Hudson River in a ceremony called, “The Wedding of the Waters” with simulated fireworks. (There were cannons set up all along the route and it took hours for the sound that started in Buffalo to make its way to New York City.)

He points to the Mount Vernon Museum, at 421 East 61st Street, which was a hotel that opened in the 1820s to accommodate visitors who wanted to travel on the Erie Canal on packet boats.

Before the Erie Canal, “New York City was an insignificant port city, dwarfed by Boston and Philadelphia, and became a great city, as a result of this engineering.”

What I come away with: It wasn’t that people were different in 1817 when construction of the Erie Canal began, that they had more guts, gumption, daring, pioneering spirit. If anything, what this journey back in time shows is that people are exactly the same – Governor DeWitt Clinton was mocked for the project, which was called “Clinton’s Folly” and “Clinton’s Ditch”; President James Madison refused to give federal funding, questioning the role of the federal government.

Country scene outside on the Erie Canalway on our way to Rome © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

“Farmers didn’t want to give right of way,” Ward tells me, “they didn’t envision a global economy. It turned out to be great for them. They went from local subsistence economy to global. When the Erie Canal was built, it was the wave of future.”

So many morals to be drawn to today.

You can easily spend two to three hours at the Erie Canal Museum, which I happily do, even with 50 more miles to travel today.

(Erie Canal Museum, 318 Erie Boulevard East, Syracuse, NY 13202, 315.471.0593, eriecanalmuseum.org.)

Chittenango to Canastota

My deep dive into the Erie Canal’s history continues on this day’s ride.

I am fairly amazed to find some of the cyclists still at the morning rest stop when I arrive at Chittenango Landing Boat Museum, which, through preservation, reproduction, construction, and interpretation of the Chittenango Landing industrial complex, instructs about the construction and repair of canal boats and the social history of the Erie Canal era. There are people in period dress and it looks like a historic village. Here, I get to poke inside a re-creation of a canalboat, and see where the mules would have been housed on the boat with the family. (7010 Lakeport Rd, Chittenango, NY 13037, 315-687-3801, clcbm.org/)

At the Chittenango Landing Boat Museum, we get to see how the canal boats were built and to look inside a reconstruction of one of the canal boats © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Chittenango is also the birthplace of L. Frank Blum who wrote “Wizard of Oz” (his mother-in-law was the mother of the Women’s Rights movement, Melinda Gates), and I am told the village has a yellow-brick road.

Once again, I am determined not to miss the things that I missed on my first Cycle the Erie ride two years before. I ride up the main street looking for evidence of Frank Blum – I find the yellow brick sidewalk, but before I can get to the All Things Oz Museum, which has family photos, early posters from musicals and movies before the 1939 MGM film, collectibles, it starts to rain. (Open year-round or by appointment, 219 Genesee St., Chittenango, NY 13037, 315-687-7772, allthingsoz.org).

And rain. And rain.

Riding through Old Erie Canal New York State Park – rural, quaint, with wildlife, five aqueducts, and very flat © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is a drenching rain by the time I get to Canastota, where I remember there is a delightful Canal Town Museum which I visited on my first Cycle the Erie ride. Inside, I find other Erie Canal cyclists huddled together in the back, happily watching a video while they get warm.

Housed in a former bakery and residence dating from 1873, Canastota Canal Town Museum is a major surprise. From the outside, you wouldn’t think much at all of the tiny frame structure, but once inside, it’s like a Harry Potter experience – the rooms are chockablock full of fascinating artifacts and portraits that make the inside seem enormous. It is a surprisingly fine museum, which adds pieces of understanding to the historic puzzle of the Erie Canal and the rise of the United States. Here the focus is on people – including important people who contributed to building the canal, like Nathan Roberts (a Canastota native who devised the ingenious “Flight of Five” Locks in Lockport which we saw on our first day of the ride); there is a portrait of him by an important 19th century artist, Frederick R. Spencer, and portraits of others who owned the very existence of their town to the canal.

Motion picture cameras on view at Canastota Canal Town Museum; Canastota was home to early movie and projection film industry © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In addition to the ingenious engineering of Nathan Roberts’ lock system, I realize an amazing array of inventions came out of this tiny village:  it was the birthplace of the American Microscope Industry; early movie and projection film industry.

I spot a photo on the wall referring to a action-adventure-comedy, “The Great Race” (1965), and only in that moment realize the movie was based on an actual event: the 1908 automobile race from New York to Paris, by way of Albany, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Valdez Alaska, Japan, Vladivostok, Omsk, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Berlin and finally Paris. I learn that it was only made possible because of an innovation by Weed Chains of Canastota that enabled a car to drive across frozen Siberia. The 1908 Race was won by the American Thomas Flyer driven by George Schuster Sr. of Buffalo, NY. There is even a connection between Amelia Earhart and Canastota’s Airport opening in 1928. I am dazzled.

(Canastota Canal Town Museum, 122 Canal St., Canastota, NY 13032, 315-697-5002, www.canastota-canal.com)

Deer on the Erie Canalway © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Of the 50 miles between Syracuse and Rome that we ride today, 36 miles are in the Old Erie Canal New York State Park – rural, quaint, with wildlife, five aqueducts, and very flat. This is where the Erie Canal building began, in the “Long Level”. And just outside of our destination for today’s ride, Fort Stanwix in the center of Rome, we come to the historic marker where the very first shovel to dig the canal went into the ground on July 4, 1817.

The Demeritt Family with their boys aged 4, 8, 11, from Malta NY. Sam Demeritt, age 8, was the youngest rider pedaling the 400 miles on his own pose in front of the historic marker where the first shovel to dig the Erie Canal went into the ground July 4, 1817, in Rome, NY © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Mercifully, just as I ride into Rome, the rain stops, and I am able to set up my tent right outside Fort Stanwix, take a shower at the shower truck, change into dry clothes, and rush over to the Fort where they have arranged for guided tours (by costumed rangers) until 9 pm. I am literally the last one out of the Fort at closing. I walk a couple of blocks to a pizza shop for dinner (this is one of two nights that we are on our own for dinner). The National Park Rangers keep the Visitor Center open for us all night long, and I love to really linger over the exhibits.

Setting up our tents at Fort Stanwix, Rome © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The 20th Annual Cycle the Erie Canal ride is scheduled July 8 – 15, 2018 (www.ptny.org/canaltour). In the meantime, you can cycle the trail on your own – detailed info and interactive map is at the ptny.org site (www.ptny.org/bikecanal), including suggested lodgings. For more information on Cycle the Erie Canal, contact Parks & Trails New York at 518-434-1583 or visit www.ptny.org.

The entire Erie Canal corridor has been designated the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, Waterford, NY 12188, 518-237-7000, www.eriecanalway.org.

More information about traveling on the Erie Canal is available from New York State Canal Corporation, www.canals.ny.gov. 

Next: Cycle the Erie: At Fort Stanwix, Time Travel Back to America’s Colonial, Native American Past

See also:

Cycle the Erie: 400 Miles & 400 Years of History Flow By on Canalway Bike Tour Across New York State

Cycle the Erie, Day 1: In Lockport, See Erie Canal Engineering Marvel, ‘Flight of Five’, Cruise Thru Double Locks, and Go Underground to Fathom Rise of Industrial Revolution

Cycle the Erie, Day 2-3: A Sequence of Charming Canaltowns, Pastoral Landscapes, Punctuated by City Birthed by ‘Mother of Cities’

Cycle the Erie, Day 4: Seneca Falls to Syracuse, Crossing Halfway Mark of 400-Mile Biketour

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© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Cycle the Erie, Day 4: Seneca Falls to Syracuse, Crossing Halfway Mark of 400-Mile Biketour

Cycle the Erie riders bike on the Erie Canalway © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Day 4, Waterloo/Seneca Falls to Syracuse, 39 Miles

Leaving our campsite at Mynderse Academy in Seneca Falls for Day 4 of our 8-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie biketour, I make a point this time of stopping into the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, keeping to my plan of doing everything I did not get to do on my first Erie Canalway ride two years before. I take care to cross the busy thoroughfare (this section of the ride is on roads rather than the non-motorized trail).

The Refuge is a breeding ground for bald eagles; unfortunately, perhaps because of the season, time of day, or that’s just the way the cookie crumbles, I don’t get to see any birds at all. But I still get to notch another one of the sites that I missed before, realizing that the time spent here is time lost to explore another point of interest. (3395 Rte 5 & 20 E, Seneca Falls, 315-568-5987, www.fws.gov/r5mnwr).

Cycling along the country roads outside of Seneca Falls © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

This part of the ride – on country roads – brings us through pastoral scenery.

Our rest stop – laid out with snacks, fresh fruit, water as well as our trusty bike mechanic – is at the brand new Port Byron Erie Canal Heritage Park (great bathrooms), where we get to visit the new historic displays before getting back on the Canalway.

Port Byron Erie Canal Heritage Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We ride into the quaint village of Jordan, distinctive for the lovely murals of historic scenes of the canal on a 19th century brick building. The Canalway – which was the original towpath – comes through though the Erie Canal was relocated when it was enlarged; the lock has been turned into a small park. Here, you can see what it means for a community to lose the canal. A historic marker notes: Opened 1819, abandoned, fall 1917. Aqueduct built 1841 when the canal was enlarged. Canal park built 1932.”

The Richmond Aqueduct © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just up from Jordan, on a particularly scenic section of the trail that passes Memphis, locals greet us with ice pops; one of the ladies is responsible for creating a gorgeous garden right on the trail in memory of her son and tells us that she tenders it 6-8 hours a week.

A particularly scenic portion of the Erie Canalway that passes Memphis © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We come to Camillus, where we are greeted with signs and cheers of “Half way!” as we cross the 200-mile mark, from where we started out in Buffalo. The rest stop has been set up for us here, and inside the Sims Store, they offer us refreshments, as well.

Crossing the halfway mark at Camillus! 200 miles from Buffalo, 200 more to go to Albany! © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Sims Store is a replica of the original canal store which would have been located two miles east. You enter the store where two years ago, a woman in period dress was there to show off the sort of stuff that would have been on sale to serve the boats. There is an excellent local history section, an Erie Canal Barge display, an 1800’s room, and a section describing the building of the canal including some of the tools used. There is also a wonderful wall-mural of a boat traveling over the Nine Mile Creek Aqueduct on the second floor.

The Sims Store in Camillus is a replica of the original canal store © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The artifacts on display are very interesting. The docent shows a map of New York State which shows why the Erie Canal was the only route to the West: a relatively flat, open portion cutting through a break between the Adirondacks and the Appalachians.

The Sims Store is part of a 164-acre Camillus Erie Canal Park, a town park that preserves a seven mile stretch of the Erie Canal. It includes the impressive Nine Mile Creek Aqueduct, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. From the Sims Store you can take a boat ride on the old canal, which several of our cyclists are taking advantage of;  they operate dinner cruises as well, (www.eriecanalcamillus.com/museum.htm)

At this point, we ride along the trail (the original towpath), but this part of what would have been the canal is no longer part of the Erie Canal – what looks like a stream now is where the original canal would have been and the water what is naturally collected.

We come to Nine Mile Creek Aqueduct, which is a stunning example of engineering. The aqueduct is a water-filled bridge that carried canal boats over rivers, streams or valleys. This 144 foot waterway enabled the first enlargement of the Erie Canal to be carried over Nine Mile Creek and is listed as the smallest of the larger aqueducts. Four stone arches made of fine Onondaga limestone quarried from Split Rock supported the towpath. Of the 32 original aqueducts on the First Enlargement, only about seven remain intact.

I try to rush to get to camp in time to also visit the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, which will close at 4:30 pm. (The organizers have also arranged for us to be able to visit the Syracuse Canal Museum this evening, with shuttle bus transportation into the downtown; I plan to visit the museum the next morning.)

It’s just about  3 pm when I arrive at our campsite in Burnet Park, alongside the Zoo. At the park, we can use the swimming pool and “indoor” campers can set themselves up on the hockey rink. Instantly, a whole tent city rises in front of the houses across the street from the park.

I promptly drop my things at the hockey rink, so I don’t lose time setting up the tent (also the forecast is for rain tonight). I walk directly to the zoo so I can see the animals before they are brought in at 4 pm. We also will be having a delightful barbecue dinner at the zoo this evening and a lecture in the visitor center auditorium.

Mother and baby elephant at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Yesterday’s ride to Seneca Falls was 62 miles over rolling country roads but I didn’t feel tired at all and was able to explore the attractions that evening, perhaps because of my excitement at being there. But even though today’s ride was a mere 39 miles, I am heat-exhausted. I drag myself around the zoo, spending more time sitting on a bench and looking into animal cages than I do walking around.

Seeing the Siberian tiger at the Gifford Zoo, just next door to where we camp in Syracuse; several Cycle the Erie riders said they could hear the animals at night © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Last time, I missed the excellent lecture that was held in the Rosamond Gifford Zoo’s visitor center auditorium by a representative of the Syracuse Canal Museum about the Erie Canal’s engineering. This time I wasn’t going to make the same mistake.

Sam Clemence presents “Engineering the Erie Canal” this year, and his talk is all the more fascinating because we have been riding alongside the canal and can appreciate the scale, the geography, the lift system, the aqueducts that made the Erie Canal an engineering marvel. And this evening, we not only appreciate the brilliant engineering, but what the canal meant in terms of transforming the United States into an industrial and global power, how it changed the face of the country quite literally in terms of population – bringing the immigrants to build and man factories, the settlers and pioneers through the west, unifying the nation, bringing down the cost of goods and improving living standards, and creating jobs and commerce.

A mural depicting Nine Mile Aqueduct, at the Sims Store © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Indeed, the idea for the Erie Canal goes back to George Washington and the French and Indian War. Thomas Jefferson, the guy responsible for such bold visionary enterprises as the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis & Clark Expedition, said in 1809, “It is little short of madness to think of it this day – a splendid project and may be executed 100 years from today.” Just eight years later, because of New York Governor Dewitt Clinton’s determination (and state financing), the first shovel went into the ground.

Before the canal, it would take three weeks to travel from Albany to Buffalo on sparse roads, involving fjording rivers and surmounting the Cohoes Falls, and would have cost $100 a ton to transport wheat; $6 a barrel to transport salt.

But a wheat importer named, Jesse Hawley, sitting in debtor’s prison, 1808-9, wrote a letter to the Genesee Messenger newspaper, using the nom de plume of “Hercules” and proposed the idea of building the canal for $6 million. His letter caught the attention of DeWitt Clinton.

“The USA in 1800 was a new country, with an expanding frontier, diverse and abundant resources, and a  shortage of labor. The new nation had an experimental form of government. It manifested confidence, embraced technology, epitomized ‘Ingenious Yankees’ – self-sufficient, versatile.”

But when they started to build the Erie Canal, there were fewer than 10 engineers in the whole country; by 1816 there were 37; by 1850 there were 50.

The two who headed up the Erie Canal project, Benjamin Wright and James Geddes (a surveyor and lawyer) were really county judges. Clinton hired them in 1811 to survey the route. They first thought to build a route along the Mohawk River (there were no dams then), but that was considered an unreliable source of water. So they decided to build a lock canal, fed by 12 feeder streams. This required building 185 locks, 18 aqueducts over the 363 miles from Lake Erie to the Hudson River.

The biggest challenge was the Niagara Escarpment, which we saw at Lockport – where they had to surmount a 60-foot elevation.  “In those days [before steel], they could only hold back 12 feet of water [with wooden gates].”

Pastoral scenes on the Cycle the Erie ride © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But they knew that the canal would go through the Mohawk Valley – the gateway to West. It was the lowest canyon, the only place with a break in the Appalachian mountain range, from Maine to Alabama. It’s called “Little Nose” and “Big Nose” (and we are alert to seek it out on tomorrow’s ride.)

Construction began on July 4, 1817 in Rome, the very center of the state where the ground was flat. Clinton wanted to get as many people to see it and built out. And he realized that if building started, it would be easier to get more money, if necessary.

They looked to English canal building as well as Leonardo Da Vinci’s gate system, and imported Irish immigrants who were paid $8-12/month and a ration of rum (the pay was pretty good for the time), but three-fourths of the laborers were US citizens (mainly farmers).

In the first two years, they only built 15 miles. Clinton was excoriated. “That Federalist Son of a [expletive] taxes our dollars to build a Ditch.”

Built at a cost of $7,700,000 (equivalent to $159 billion in 2018 dollars), the canal opened Oct. 20, 1825 and was an immediate success, bringing down the cost of commerce and transportation to a fraction of what it was.

A mural on a building in Jordan tells the village’s Erie Canal history © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We learn that at one time, more than 50,000 people depended on the Erie Canal for their livelihood.  A whole culture developed around canal life. For many, canal boats were floating houses, traveling from town to town: the father was the captain, the mother cooked for family and crew and children would serve as “hoggees,” leading the mules as they towed the boats. (At Chittenango Landing Boat Museum we see a model boat and how the mules lived onboard.) He tells us that one of the US presidents was a hoggee in his youth: James A. Garfield.

I can imagine how for those who traveled along the Canal in packet boats or passenger vessels, the Canal was an exciting place. Gambling and entertainment were frequent pastimes on the Canal and often, families would meet each year at the same locations to share stories and adventures.

Amazingly, by 1836, the very success of the original canal – which was a mere 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide (to permit east and west traffic), affording just 6 inches of draft below the boat –had not only paid back the original investment, but rendered it obsolete. An enlarged canal, 7-feet deep with locks 110 feet long and 18 feet wide, was built. That one, too, was replaced in 1905 with the New York State Barge Canal System; built for self-propelled vessels, it uses canalized rivers, lakes and land-cut sections with a minimum depth of 12 feet and electrically-powered locks 300-feet long, that still operate today.

The Erie Canal is called “The Mother of Cities” – a fact that is made eminently clear when I visit the Syracuse Canal Museum, which displays a graph showing the growth in population of cities like Syracuse before and after.

A heavy rainstorm is expected tonight, and I am happy to be doing my “indoor camping” in the hockey rink at Burnet Park, literally adjacent to the zoo. I hear from a few campers in the morning that they could hear the animals at night.

The 20th Annual Cycle the Erie Canal ride is scheduled July 8 – 15, 2018 (www.ptny.org/canaltour). In the meantime, you can cycle the trail on your own – detailed info and interactive map is at the ptny.org site (www.ptny.org/bikecanal), including suggested lodgings. For more information on Cycle the Erie Canal, contact Parks & Trails New York at 518-434-1583 or visit www.ptny.org.

Information is also available from the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, Waterford, NY 12188, 518-237-7000, www.eriecanalway.org.

More information about traveling on the Erie Canal is available from New York State Canal Corporation, www.canals.ny.gov.

Next: Cycle the Erie, Day 5: Syracuse’s Erie Canal Museum

See also:

Cycle the Erie: 400 Miles & 400 Years of History Flow By on Canalway Bike Tour Across New York State

Cycle the Erie, Day 1: In Lockport, See Erie Canal Engineering Marvel, ‘Flight of Five’, Cruise Thru Double Locks, and Go Underground to Fathom Rise of Industrial Revolution

Cycle the Erie, Day 2-3: A Sequence of Charming Canaltowns, Pastoral Landscapes, Punctuated by City Birthed by ‘Mother of Cities’

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© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures