Category Archives: See America

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

Cycle the Erie, Day 3: Seneca Falls Hails its Role in Birthing Women’s Rights

The “First Wave” statue, by Lloyd Lillie, in the lobby of the Women’s Rights National Historical Park visitor center puts you in the march toward the first Women’s Rights Convention, in Seneca Falls, July 1848 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

We finish our 62-mile ride on this third day of our 8-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie biketour in Seneca Falls, renowned as the birthplace of Women’s Rights, where the organizers have arranged for the major sites, including the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, to stay open for us, and for a shuttle bus to take us from our campsite on the grounds of the Mynderse Academy into the downtown.   

My impression of the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, operated by the National Park Service, has not changed from my first visit two years before: It is an absolute dud, especially when you consider the innovations in museums – especially compared to Fort Stanwix National Historic Site in Rome and the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse (both of which we will see in coming days). What is more, the NPS rangers who run the site know how antiquated and uninspiring – even disrespectful to women and the struggle for equality – the exhibit is and revealed a frustration in their inability to improve it.

There are no new insights or inspiration to be gained. The exhibit doesn’t have a clear theme, point or focus: is it about how and why the Women’s Rights movement started here in Seneca Falls (the influence of the Oneida Indians, which allowed women to become chiefs, have property and retain custody of their children, on Melinda Gage, for example; the prevalence of Quaker women among the early women’s rights leaders who had roles in their church; and the number of factories, spurred by the Erie Canal, which in turn employed women who subsequently wanted equal pay and to control their earnings)? Is it about the leaders of the movement, the courage they needed and how they persevered?   What about exploring why it took 80 more years for women to get the vote, even after former slave men got their (theoretical) right to vote after the Civil War? Nor does it confront the controversies behind the continuing fight for women’s rights: why women still don’t earn as much as men for the same work, what is the “glass ceiling”. What role does the lack of affordable, accessible child care and healthcare play, and the mother-of-all controversies: why are women’s reproductive rights still so tenuous? And, oh yes, why are women still so underrepresented in elected office, including the highest office in the land, the Presidency?

What is glaringly obvious is that the exhibit reflects the 1980s Reagan perspective – more Phyllis Schafly than Gloria Steinem – a half-assed, slap in the face, disrespectful, condescending lip service to women’s rights and the ongoing struggle. If there is a theme, it is that women should be grateful for the opportunity to work in fields beyond teaching, secretarial and nursing – but nothing about pay equity or glass ceilings or sexual harassment. To Reagan (and now Trump), women’s rights are simply a way of supplying more workers and keeping wages low.

No discussion of how laws and the lack of anti-discrimination laws helped keep women down: How a woman could be raped, beaten, killed by her husband – was not much more than property (as were children) – and how a woman’s property became her husband’s. How women could be fired from jobs once married or pregnant or had children or reached a certain age or weight, or not hired at all merely because of gender. How insurance companies could charge women more (preexisting condition for being able to give birth). How landlords could refuse to rent to a woman without a husband’s signature; banks would not loan money for a home or business; how women couldn’t get a license to practice law. Sexual harassment”? The phrase was only invented in the 1970s, as the modern Woman’s Movement came into flower.

What did not having a vote mean for women in society? What happened when women were widowed or divorced? Why were there certain professions that women were steered into – like teaching, secretarial work, factories and nursing, positions which as a result tended to be woefully underpaid?

The spartan interior of Wesleyan Methodist Chapel where the women’s Rights Convention took place in July 1848, part of the Women’s Rights National Historical Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

What was the role of the Church in suppressing women’s rights? That is, except for the Quakers who were the earliest advocates of women’s rights.  What was the influence of the Oneida Indians, which gave women property rights, custody of children and the ability to become a tribal chief, on the early feminists including Melinda Gage (the mother-in-law of Frank Blum who wrote Wizard of Oz).

Where is the discussion of the women who opposed suffrage, equal rights (ie. Equal Rights Amendment, Phyllis Shafly), even the fact that Eleanor Roosevelt initially was not a supporter of women’s suffrage (until happened), and the women today who oppose a woman’s right to choose (then and still today)?

Instead of “women’s rights”, (and this is pretty typical of women’s issues generally) the exhibit goes off track into the bigger topic of civil rights (Abolition, the Underground Railroad). This should be seen in the context of how women were the backbone of the movement to end slavery, but after the Civil War, fully expected to win the vote along with freedmen, but instead only black men got the right to vote (such as it was, before Jim Crow). Also, it gives a nod to Jacksonian Democracy but doesn’t answer the question how white men without property got to vote without the need for a Constitutional amendment, but women didn’t get the vote until the 19th Amendment was finally ratified in 1920.

The exhibit is largely devoid of the heroic women (except for the sculpture) who fought for suffrage, and what the fight was like (locked up, force-fed).

There’s copy of Lily Ledbetter act signed by Obama in a case in the lobby, but no explanation or context.

There is a film in a lovely auditorium, “Dreams of Equality,” (delightfully cool and relaxing after biking 62 miles in the hot sun) which dramatizes the early internal debate over breaking out of the constrained role women were relegated to, is woefully and pathetically outdated – the historic elements aren’t bad but the pseudo “conversations” between girls and boys is frankly stupid and archaic.

But in the film, one of the main characters loses her husband in the Civil War and one woman says to the other, “If a woman had a say in making laws, there would be no wars,” to which the other woman replies, “If we had a say, who would listen?”

And in another bit of dialogue, the woman wonders, “Don’t women also have rights?” to which her brother responds, “What men most prize in a woman is affection.”

Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, a simple structure, was the setting for the first Women’s Rights Convention in July 1848 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

You also visit the Wesleyan Chapel where the first Women’s Rights convention was held in 1848 and the “Declaration of Sentiments,” modeled after the Declaration of Independence was signed. The structure’s history can be a metaphor for the ambivalence of American society to women’s rights: From 1843-1871 it was chapel, then an opera house/performing arts hall; then a roller skating rink, a movie theater (in 1910s), then a Ford dealership, and ironically enough, was a laundromat before facing a wrecking ball.

Women fought to save the building, and in 1982, during the Reagan Administration, it was turned into a national park.

(Womens’ Rights National Historical Park, 136 Fall Street, Seneca Falls, NY 13148, 315-568-0024, www.nps.gov/wori.)

To put faces to the women’s movement, I walk down the main street to the National Women’s Hall of Fame. It is still in a ground floor storefront in a former bank building, awaiting its move into the factory building that was the Seneca Knitting Mill across the canal. This is most appropriate because the mill was where a number of the early feminists came from (they had a taste of earning their own money and were fired when they asked for wages equal to men).

This massive factory, which dates from 1844, was owned by two men, Charles Hoskins and Jacob Chamberlain, who were among the 32  who supported women’s right and signed the Declaration of Sentiments which came out of the Women’s Rights Convention. That is saying something because out of the 300 people (40 of them men) who attended the convention in the Wesleyan Chapel in 1848, only 32 people signed the Declaration. The Seneca Knitting Mills, which operated until 1999 (can you believe it!), manufactured heavy woolen socks for 150 years, and then went the way of 50,000 other factories in the US.

The plan is to turn the 170-year-old limestone building into the hall of fame, research center and museum celebrating women and their accomplishments, to be called the Center for Great Women.

The Seneca-Cayuga Canal brought factories, like the Seneca Knitting Mill, which employed women who questioned why they couldn’t keep their own money, igniting the women’s rights movement in Seneca Falls. It will soon house the Center for Great Women © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

When I was in school, I could count on one hand the number of women who were presented as heroic figures – Madame Curie, Molly Pitcher (who I learn may have been fictional but still representative of women who took up the guns when their husbands were killed in the Revolutionary War), and the reporter, Nellie Bly.

I am thrilled to find Nellie Bly among the honorees. Her real name was Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman (1864-1922, honored in 1998), and was a trail-blazing journalist considered to be the “best reporter in America” who pioneered investigative journalism (hence the pseudonym); Paulina Kellogg Wright Davis, (1813-1876, honored 2002), who headed the committee that organized the first National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, MA in 1850, helped found the New England Women’s Suffrage Association and established Una, one of the first women’s rights newspapers; Amelia Bloomer (1818-1894), the first woman to own, operate and edit a newspaper for women, The Lily (first published in 1849 in Seneca Falls) and whose penchant for wearing full-cut pantaloons under a short skirt (as a protest to the way women were expected to dress), gave birth to the term “bloomers”.

It turns out there were dozens and dozens of women, going back to Colonial times, who did really important things. The women who are honored here are not necessarily honored as feminists, but for their accomplishments.

“Women’s stories are not told,” the organization notes. “Less than 10% of the content of history books references women. Students cannot name 20 famous American women through history, excluding sports figures, celebrities and First Ladies. Only 20% of news article are about women. A society that values women values all of its members. By telling the stories of great American women through exhibits and educational resources, the Hall will make a future where all members of society are valued a reality.” (Indeed, the New York Times, during this year’s Women’s History Month, began publishing obituaries of women who were overlooked in their own time.)

The bank building on Fall Street where the Women’s Hall of Fame is currently located in Seneca Falls could easily be the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan from Frank Capra’s film classic, ”A Wonderful Life.” There are many connections between Seneca Falls and the mythical Bedford Falls © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Founded in 1969, the Women’s Hall of Fame actually predates the Women’s Rights National Historic Park (one could say it even was at the very cusp of the Women’s Movement which really emerged in the 1970s). And when you contemplate the timeline of the biographies, you get a better understanding of the historical context of the Women’s Rights Movement.

Looking around: Abigail Adams, what a pistol she must have been!  She had such a strong influence on her husband but clearly was frustrated in the lack of opportunities women had to utilize their potential. (“Remember the ladies” in forming the new government,” she admonishes her husband, John Adams, in 1776).

Secagewea, Annie Oakley, Harriet Tubman. Jane Addams, Clara Barton, Margaret Bourke-White, Pearl S. Buck, Rachel Carson. Frances Perkins (Labor Secretary under Franklin Roosevelt), Eleanor Roosevelt, Anne Sullivan, Rosa Parks.

Of course, there are the suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony (there is a Susan B Anthony bench which came from the Ontario County courthouse in Canandaigua), but I also discover women identified as being early feminists (most you never heard of), and you realize that the struggle goes way, way back.

As you go through the timeline, the women honorees in the National Women’s Hall of Fame are less about struggle and more about achievement in a plethora of professions and activities. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

For example, Anne Hutchinson who lived 1591-1643 (honored 1994), was the first woman in the new world to be a religious leader and for it, was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony (there is a parkway in the Bronx named for her); Sarah Grimke, who lived 1792-1873 (honored 1998), who published papers championing abolition and women’s rights, and with her sister Angelina Grimké Weld, 1805 – 1879 (honored 1998), were southerners, born in South Carolina, who became the first female speakers for the American Anti-Slavery Society; Fanny Wright, 1795-1852 (honored 1994), the first American woman to speak out against slavery and for the equality of women; Mary Lyon, 1797-1849 (honored 1993), who founded Mount Holyoke in 1837, the first college for women, which became the model for institutions of higher education for women nationwide; and Maria Mitchell, 1818 – 1889 (honored 1994), an astronomer who discovered a new comet in 1847 and the first woman named to membership in the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and a founder of the Association for the Advancement of Women.

Walking around (you can also peruse the website to find these biographies) I am introduced to all sorts of women I had not known, that fill me with pride: women on the front lines of science, civil rights, labor rights, education, human rights.

Mary “Mother” Harris Jones, 1830-1930 (honored 1984), a labor organizer and agitator who worked on behalf of the United Mine Workers and other groups; Sarah Winnemucca, c1844-1891 (honored 1994), Native American leader who dedicated her life to returning land taken by the government back to the tribes, especially the land of her own Paiute Tribe; Susette LaFlesche, 1854-1903 (honored 1994), a member of the Omaha Tribe and a tireless campaigner for native American rights; Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910 (honored 1998), suffragist and author of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” a lecturer on religious subjects, a playwright, an organizer of a women’s peace movement and advocate for women’s equality in public and private life; and Emma Lazarus, 1849-1887 (honored 2009), famous for authoring the words at the base of the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” and an important forerunner of the Zionist movement.

There is the famous flyer Amelia Earhart but also Bessie Coleman, an aviatrix of  the1920s, who was the first African American woman to have pilot’s license (at a time when women, let alone a black woman, were not allowed to have a license; Coleman went to Europe to get her license, what does that tell you?).

I so appreciate the diversity of the women represented, especially in the 20th century, when women do have more educational and professional opportunities: astronaut Sally Ride; tennis player Billie Jean King who broke through for women’s athletics; Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sandra Day O’Connor. Madeleine Albright, Bella Abzug, Oprah Winfrey, Lucille Ball, Dorothea Lange, Lilly Ledbetter, Margaret Sanger.

(Go to the website to see the most recent inductees as well as search all).

Susan B. Anthony beside the bench which came from the Ontario County courthouse in Canandaigua, and the Women’s Hall of Fame © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We commiserate over the life-size portrait of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was already in the Hall of Fame as First Lady and New York Senator, the first woman to be a presidential candidate of a major political party, but should have been the first woman President.

It is remarkable to look at the faces and read the short biographies of women who have made such important contributions, going back to colonial times.

(National Women’s Hall of Fame, 76 Fall St, Seneca Falls, NY 13148, 315- 568-8060, www.womenofthehall.org)

WomanMade Products shop on Fall Street, Seneca Falls, the birthplace of the Women’s Rights Movement. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Across the street, I stop in at the shop, WomenMade Products (how can you not?).

I have time to wander around. I try to get to the “Wonderful Life Museum,” but it is closed. It offers a brochure for a self-guided walking tour. Seneca Falls is supposed to have been the model for Bedford Falls in the James Stewart classic movie, though it is hard to recognize today. (See: “Seneca Falls History and Connections,” www.wonderfullifemuseum.com/seneca-falls-history-and-connections.)

I wander over to the canalside park just in time, 7 pm, to enjoy an old-fashioned band concert by the Seneca Falls Community Band (33rd season!); there is a stand selling the absolutely best ice cream in the world. Perfect.

Seneca Falls evokes images of Bedford Falls, the fictional town in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” There is even an “It’s a Wonderful Life” museum. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our campsite tonight is on the grounds of the gorgeous Mynderse Academy, which even has a flat-screen TV where a few of us gather around to watch the All Star Baseball Game.

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: Day 4: Seneca Falls to Syracuse, Crossing Half-way Mark of 400-mile Biketour

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