Category Archives: US Destinations

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

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

 

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


A remarkable near 90-degree turn on the concrete bridge out of Medina on the Erie Canalway. A new form of mortar had to be devised to build this part of the Erie Canal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Day 2: Medina to Fairport, 53 Miles 

Immediately upon leaving Medina on Day 2 of Parks & Trails NY’s 19th annual 8-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie biketour, which transverses New York State from Buffalo to Albany, we reach one of the highlights of the Erie Canalway: you ride over a concrete embankment that goes over a waterfall which turns at a hard angle. You marvel at the construction as much as the view – the quaint Industrial-era town on one side, the dramatic forest and falls on the other. I stop at one of the many historic markers that are along the trail to learn about the special mortar they had to devise to accomplish this engineering feat.

Riding out of Medina on Day 2 of the Cycle the Erie 8-day, 400-mile biketour © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just a little further is another remarkable feature of the Erie Canalway, the multi-use trail built mainly upon the original towpath that makes biking so pleasant: the culvert. We leave our bikes on the trail and climb down an embankment to where this tunnel has been cut under the canal. Here you can really appreciate just how shallow the Erie Canal is  – really just a bathtub. This is the only place on the 353-mile long canal where a road is built under the canal – and is quite a dramatic scene.

The culvert just outside of Medina is the only place where cars travel under the Erie Canal; it shows just how shallow the canal is © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com
Walking through the culvert under the Erie Canal, just outside of Medina © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

This is also one of the more scenic parts of the trail, at least to an urban Downstater like me: here we see sprawling farmland. I later learn that the Erie Canal does not just play a role in transportation (now more recreational than commercial), but in irrigation and flood control.

Some of New York State’s prettiest pastoral scenery is on this stretch of the Erie Canalway. The Erie Canal doesn’t just provide a water transportation artery, but serves the purpose of irrigation and flood control © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

We come into Albion, one of the charming canaltowns we travel through, so rich in history, where you see in the stunning architecture, and the opulence  that the canal and the Industrial Revolution created – civic buildings, churches, banks.

Because I had been here before, I knew to ride a short distance up Main Street from the canal where there are churches and a Town Hall on four corners.

One of the churches, Pullman Memorial, has drop-dead magnificent Tiffany stained glass windows. I meet Bill Lattin, a church volunteer, and here is one time that my tardiness in leaving our campsite is rewarded: he wasn’t informed (as usual) that the 750 Cycle the Erie riders (a record) were coming through this morning, so no one was at the church to open it up for visits, but as he was coming in to town, he saw us and opened the church just in time for my visit.

Bill Lattin gives Cycle the Erie riders a tour of Pullman Memorial Church in Albion, which is decorated with Tiffany windows and gilded organ pipes © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear

George M. Pullman (1831-1897), who made his fortune manufacturing the luxurious railroad sleeper cars, was born in Albion. He had long before moved away but remained close to people in his hometown and one of his friends, Charles A. Danolds, in 1890, convinced him to donate $67,000 to build the church.

Shanties were set up to house the stonecutters who managed to complete the building in less than a year’s time and the church was dedicated January 1895. Pullman’s daughter bequeathed $5,000 to maintain the exquisite stainless glass window of Jesus which was created in the Tiffany Studios in New York (look closely to see the Tiffany signature etched in a corner) – an early example of Art Nouveau. There is also a 1,248-pipe organ with pipes of gold leaf decorated by Tiffany Studios. Lattin tells me that there are only 30 people left in the congregation (Albion has a population of 5,000). (10 East Park St., Albion, NY `14411, 585-589-7181, PullmanMemorial.org).

The Tiffany stained glass windows at Pullman Memorial Church in Albion © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

At Mile 21, we come to a small town of Holley, settled in 1812 and established on the original Erie Canal. Originally, this was an enormous and complicated loop that was straightened out when the canal, already hugely successful in its first several years, was expanded, putting the town a few blocks from the repositioned canal. The restored railroad depot (circa 1907) is now a museum. Holley was the center of a community of Italian immigrants who were brought over to work in Medina’s sandstone quarry (the sign says, “affectionately called, Podunk”).

As we ride into Brockport, where one of the State University of New York campuses is located as well as a prison, we are greeted with water, lemonade, and free stamped postcards. Brockport has a charming Main Street. Brockport, it turns out, was where Cyrus McCormick contracted a factory to manufacture his reapers (there is a marker near the dock), seeing that the reapers could be shipped on the canal to the Midwest where he was getting orders from the large farms.

Farm workers in the fields © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

We ride passed Adams Basin and Spencerport (recommended for our lunch stop), where a unique lift bridge carries Main Street over the canal.

The part of the ride that goes into Rochester is some of the toughest – a series of up-and-down hills and dales, twists and turns, but from the perches we can see how the canal was sheer-cut into high rock faces.

The Erie Canal crosses with the Genessee River at Rochester © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear

We ride over a bridge from which we can have a dramatic view of where the Erie Canal crosses the Oswego River. (I’ve done this by canalboat, a floating RV, which you can rent through Mid-Lakes Navigation, Skaneateles. So much fun to go through the canal locks, under the lift bridges, tying up where whimsy takes you. 800-545-4318, info@midlakesnav.com, midlakesnav.com.)

Our rest stop is here at Rochester (mile 45.8) is at a beautiful park along the Genesee Valley Waterway Center, where the organizers have arranged for us to go swimming, canoeing and kayaking, as well as for escorted bike rides to High Falls – a phenomenal sight – in downtown Rochester. REI has sponsored the stop, as well as bike repair.

Rochester, one of the cities birthed by the Erie Canal. Parks & Trails NY arranges for the Cycle the Erie riders to take an optional ride downtown © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

The Erie Canal, known as “The Mother of Cities,” turned tiny Rochesterville into an American “boom town” and today, is the third largest city in New York State, the brochure says. The canal first went through the center of the city, across an 800-foot aqueduct over the Genesee River – a major engineering achievement at the time. A second, sturdier version, built in 1842 to replace the original aqueduct, can be seen at the base of the Broad Street ridge. Eventually, as Rochester was built up and the canal interfered with traffic, the canal was rerouted to bypass the city.

But as we leave Rochester, we see how the Erie Canal is still the “mother of communities” – along much of the trail, we see new housing developments that come right up to the Canalway.

A few of the 750 Cycle the Erie riders on the Erie Canalway © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear

We now ride along the Great Embankment, yet another engineering marvel. At the evening lecture, we had learned that they actually had to move a creek and flood a town in order to straighten out the canal, but this required engineering that had not yet been invented.

“You can get a lot done when you don’t have to file environmental impact statements. They moved the canal, redirected the creek, to create the Great Embankment.”

They put in floors of concrete and the re-done canal opened in May, 1912. But just a few months later,, in September, there was a break at Bushnell’s Basin and it collapsed.

They managed to keep navigation flowing by creating 70-foot high stilts to support a wooden trough while they rebuilt the Great Embankment from the bottom up (quite literally a concrete bathtub). There is a photo from May 1918 of the men standing in it when it reopened.

New housing development along the Erie Canalway, at Spencerport © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear

This day’s route has us riding through a sequence of charming canaltowns – Spencerport, Brockport, Pittsford (one of my favorites), and finally, our destination for the night, Fairport (my favorite) – which are experiencing the most marvelous renaissance because of the repurposed Erie Canal: no longer a polluted cesspool of stinky commercial boats, foul water and even fouler boatmen, but pastoral scenes of non-intrusive recreational boats. Indeed, there are charming residential communities – among them, at Buffalo, Rochester, Pittsford and Fairport – that are sprouting up right along the canal. Some like in Rochester are a planned community of single-homes built around a recreation center, and others, like in Spencerport and Fairport, are townhomes that seem ideal for empty-nesters (or people escaping summer heat in Florida).

Pittsford and Fairport are the best examples of this renaissance. In Pittsford (where I tied up one summer in the canalboat to overnight), you can see what was a grain silo repurposed as an office tower, and other structures turned into charming restaurants and boutiques.

The lift bridges are themselves an attraction – Fairport’s lift bridge, which celebrated its centennial in 2014 is a particular attraction because it has no right angles.

The unusual lift bridge across the Erie Canal in Fairport has no right angles © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

Our campsite tonight is at the Minerva DeLand School in Fairport, and they have arranged for shuttle buses to take us back into Fairport to enjoy the lovely restaurants and shops. But I don’t want to miss the talk by Andy Beers, director of the Empire State Trail about the Erie CanalwayTrail and New York State’s plans to build a new Empire State Trail – for a total of 750 miles of dedicated biking and walking trails. The plan is to complete the Erie Canalway from Buffalo to Albany (long the goal of Parks & Trails NY and this annual Cycle the Erie ride), and also to link and build new trails that will extend from the tip of New York City (the Hudson River trail) north to the Canadian border, making the longest state ‘shared use’ trail in the nation.

Day 3: Fairport to Waterloo/Seneca Falls, 62 Miles

This is my second time doing the Cycle the Erie ride, and I am attuned to the things I did not get to do the first time. So, leaving Fairport to start Day 3’s ride, I am alert to stopping off the trail (crossing over the canal) to visit Macedon, where you follow a nature trail to the end and come to a point where you can see where all three canals – the original 1825 canal, the expanded canal, and the Modern Barge canal – converge together.

At the end of the nature trail in Macedon, you can see where three incarnation so f the Erie Canal come together © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

Our rest stop is in Palmyra, a 19th century village which predates the Erie Canal (that’s why it isn’t called Palmyraport), which has 200 buildings on the Historic Register in one square mile, and where Joseph Smith founded the Mormon religion (you can visit his farmhouse). I take time to ride through Palmyra, which I had visited more extensively on a prior trip, by Mid Lakes Navigation canalboat (like an RV on the water) to enjoy its architecture. (www.palmyrany.com, 315-597-4849).

Palmyra has 200 historic buildings on the Historic Register in one square mile, and was where Joseph Smith founded the Mormon religion. © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear

There is an unexpected treat at Newark, where the community has set up a welcome table for us at the canal park. You walk down to the canalside walkway (excellent rest facilities) and there are the most magnificent murals painted on the base of the bridge that tell the story of life for canalers on the Erie Canal with reflections on the Civil War era, some of which can only be fully appreciated if you come by boat.

Section of one of the murals that decorate the base of a bridge in Newark. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

Peppermint Museum 

On my first Cycle the Erie ride, because I was in a hurry to get ahead of the rain (it didn’t work), I missed the Peppermint Museum in Lyons, where a clever food scientist (not sure that is what he was known as), H.G. Hotchkiss, revolutionized the use of peppermint oil, so I was intent to visit this time. Once again, this is a tiny site that you might miss except if you were looking for it, and it proves fascinating in ways you never expected.

Warehouse at the Hotchkiss Peppermint Museum in Lyons © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

The Erie Canal is what brought Hiram Hotchkiss to Lyons in 1841. Indeed, there was an oversupply of peppermint oil, an herb that was grown extensively in fields around Lyons. But because of the Erie Canal, Hotchkiss had the idea to export the peppermint oil to Europe. Europe already had its own peppermint oil and his product was at first met with skepticism. But Hotchkiss perfected the process and his product won medals. The long success of H.G. Hotchkiss Company in peppermint and other essential oils made Lyons, New York, the Peppermint Capital of the world for many years. Indeed, at one time, Hotchkiss was responsible for half the annual production of peppermint oil in the United States. Canallers would say they could tell when they were approaching the village by the smell.

H.G. Hotchkiss’ laboratory, in Lyons. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

Until Hotchkiss, peppermint oil was used for medicinal purposes and to make tea. But Hotchkiss expanded its use – Beech-Nut (which has a factory in Canajoharie, another town where we will stay) first started using peppermint in candy and gum.

Hotchkiss, who was brilliant at branding and packaging in gorgeous blue glass bottles manufactured at the Clyde Glassworks (another town we visit) became a millionaire. He had a 42-room home a few blocks up the hill, which a couple from New York City purchased.

We get to visit Hotchkiss’ laboratory and warehouse; the parlor offers an exhibit honoring suffragettes. Indeed, we learn that Lissat Hotchkiss Parshall (1840-1913),one of Hotchkiss’ seven daughters, was a suffragette and Anne Hotchkiss (1914-2010),was the company’s fourth president (1963-1984), and one of the first women to become president of a company. This is most fitting because we will wind up this day in Seneca Falls, the birthplace of Women’s Rights.

Suffrage Tea Party: Lissat Hotchkiss Parshall was a suffragette and Anne Hotchkiss was one of the first women to head a company © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

Gradually, though, Lyons farmers started planting apples and switched to dairy production; and the peppermint factory closed in 1990. The town just about forgot about its peppermint past and locals didn’t know what the building was until the Lyons Heritage Society reopened it as a museum.

(The Peppermint Museum, an absolute jewel, is open by appointment only; you can arrange a tour by calling Patty Alena at the Lyons Heritage Society, 315-946-4596; 95 Water Street, Lyons, NY 14489,  www.lyonsheritagesociety.com).

Cycle the Erie riders get a tour of the Peppermint Museum in Lyons © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear

I ride up to the Lyons town square and get some feel of the community before continuing on the trail.

Amish Farmers © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

We have our afternoon rest stop in Clyde  (the townspeople have gone all out on the Village Green with music and ice cream for us) and then go off the Canalway trail onto country roads through Amish Country (who knew there was an Amish country in New York State?), some of the prettiest farmland anywhere. On my last visit, it started pouring immediately as we left  Clyde, and I was unable to capture these exquisite scenes that evoke Currier & Ives, in photos. This time, I am lucky because it is sunny and some of the farmers are out. I pass the barn where last time we took shelter from lightening.

Cycling the country roads toward Seneca Falls © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

Our 51-mile ride ends Day 3 of our 8-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie biketour at another stunning school campus, Mynderse Academy in Seneca Falls.

Because I want to have as much time as possible in Seneca Falls, where the Women’s Rights National Park and other sites are staying open until 8 pm for us, I drop my things in the school gymnasium for “indoor camping,” (the school even has a TV where we get to watch the All-Stars baseball game at night) and rush out to the school bus which is shuttling us into town. Tonight is one of the two during our eight-day trip where we are on our own for dinner, but I occupy my time touring the attractions dedicated to Women’s Suffrage (New York State is making a big deal of the centennial of the 19th Amendment that is coming in 2020) and exploring Seneca Falls.

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:  Seneca Falls Hails its Role in Birthing Women’s Rights

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

_____________________________

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

Lockport is the only place where you can see the Modern Barge Canal locks side-by-side with the original Erie Canal locks © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Lockport is the best place of all to appreciate the engineering marvel of the Erie Canal and what the Canal meant to propelling the Industrial Revolution and the economy, ultimately establishing the United States as a global industrial power. And it is our first stop on our first day of our eight-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie journey, an annual hosted ride offered by Parks & Trails NY, that takes us across New York State, from Buffalo to Albany, and with it, through 400 years of American history.

Here in Lockport, you not only see the only original part of the canal that is left – the famous “Flight of Five” locks in a short sequence – but they are literally adjacent to the modern Barge Canal and its only double-locks – two locks, one immediately after the another.

The 200-year old Flight of Five consecutive locks is the engineering marvel for its time which made the entire canal possible – finishing the distance to Lake Erie. Here at Lockport, the planners had the critical challenge of navigating the 60-foot elevation in the Niagara Escarpment. In these days before steel and electric motors, the wooden gates could only hold back the volume of water of a 12-foot drop.

View of the Flight of Five © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Amazingly, they didn’t figure out the solution before they committed to building the Canal and started digging in Rome, on July 4, 1817. This was deliberate: Rome is right at the center of the state where it is the flattest, where the Oneida Indians already had a crossing through the Appalachian Mountains. What is more, since the federal government had refused to provide any funding, New York State was funding the project on its own; Governor Dewitt Clinton felt there would be more likelihood of getting more funding from the state legislature if they had already started building). New York ultimately spent $7.7 million, the equivalent of $18 billion in today’s dollars.

“There were no civil engineers at that time. They had to invent their way across the state,” we are told in one of the evening lectures. (The telling of this story reminds me of the line in “Shakespeare in Love” to describe how everything would somehow work out: “It’s a mystery.”)

By 1822, 300 miles of the Erie Canal had already been dug. But to the west, the canal builders faced their most difficult challenge: the Niagara Escarpment was a 70-foot natural solid rock obstacle, the same mountain ridge over which Niagara Falls joins Lake Erie to Lake Ontario.

Nathan Roberts, who had no formal engineering training but had been working on the canal, came up with an innovative solution – still one of the most staggeringly unusual designs for its time: a series of five locks, each one raising or dropping a boat 12 feet. And because he knew it would consume a tremendous amount of time, he built two parallel steps of locks, so boats could go in both directions – an advancement in canal engineering.

“They had to build five levels of locks because each one could only go 12 feet. In the 1820s and 1840s, they didn’t have structural steel. The lock gates are wooden. ”

Even today, the “Flight of Five” locks are still admired as among the most extraordinary in the world. (We get to visit Nathan Roberts’ hometown, Canastota, much further down on the canal where there is a marvelous museum).

Indeed, like the 20th century space program, what was invented for the purpose of digging the canal became new techniques that could be applied elsewhere. The Erie Canal led to the founding of America’s first engineering school, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in 1824, in Troy.

A re-created wooden boat in one of the two restored 200-year old Flight of Five locks on the Erie Canal, in Lockport. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Here at Lockport, we get to see how the lock system worked. New York State has restored two of the original 19th century locks, and you can see how the wooden doors (a design that Leonardo Da Vinci had used) were opened manually using a large wood oar (they demonstrate this frequently during the day); the goal is to restore all five locks. The Buffalo Maritime Club built a replica wooden boat that is now in the lock. Here, you can see just how narrow the locks were. (New York State has funded the restoration of the other three locks.)

Indeed, this is the only place along the canal where you see the original and the modern canal locks in operation. And this is also the only set of modern double-locks on the Erie Canal, where boaters consecutively go from one to another.

Erie Canal Cruises

You especially appreciate this on the canal cruise that NY Parks & Trails, has arranged for the 750 cyclists who have joined the Cycle the Erie ride (a record number) on Erie Canal Cruises (210 Market St, 716-433-6155). I race through Lockport to get to the marina just in time for the 11 am cruise. It takes about an hour, and is really fun, especially as you go through the first lock and are spilled directly into the second.

Cycle the Erie riders get a free Erie Canal cruise through the locks in Lockport © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The first Erie Canal was 40 feet wide and just four feet deep, stretching 363 miles, from Albany-Buffalo, with 83 locks to take a boat the 565 feet in elevation. There were no motors involved, so a towpath was constructed along side, and mules, led by young boys known as “hoggies,” who walked 15 miles a day, pulled the canal boats along. One of these hoggies grew up to become president: James Garfield, Ben Willis of the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse tells us at one of the evening lectures.

“The effect of the Canal was both immediate and dramatic, and settlers poured west.  The explosion of trade prophesied by Governor Clinton began, spurred by freight rates from Buffalo to New York of $10 per ton by Canal, compared with $100 per ton by road.  In 1829, there were 3,640 bushels of wheat transported down the Canal from Buffalo.  By 1837 this figure had increased to 500,000 bushels; four years later it reached one million. In nine years, Canal tolls more than recouped the entire cost of construction. Within 15 years of the Canal’s opening, New York was the busiest port in America, moving tonnages greater than Boston, Baltimore and New Orleans combined,” according to the state’s canals website (www.canals.ny.gov/history/history.html)

Going through the modern double-locks on the Erie Canal Cruise in Lockport © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In order to keep pace with the growing demands of traffic, the Erie Canal was enlarged between 1836 and 1862. The “Enlarged Erie Canal” was 70 feet wide and 7 feet deep, and could handle boats carrying 240 tons. The number of locks was reduced to 72.

In 1898 Theodore Roosevelt, as Governor of New York, pushed to enlarge the canal again and straighten its route – in many cases relocating the canal altogether – to a width of 125 feet and minimum depth of twelve feet. The “modern” Barge Canal – the one we see today – was opened in 1918 and the motors which still open and close the lock doors are a century old, as well.

Cruising through the Modern Barge Canal locks in Lockport © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The cruise gives us a wonderful side-by-side view of the “modern” canal and locks (they still use the original GE motors which are 100 years old to open the large steel gates) against the original Clinton’s Ditch lock system, a town that was one of many along the route literally birthed by the Erie Canal. Only the gates are motorized; the rest is gravity.

Lockport offers insights into more than the extraordinary engineering of the Erie Canal: it is here where you get the clearest understanding of how the canal spurred the Industrial Revolution, and made the United States a manufacturing and global power. By 1830, Lockport had grown to the size of Buffalo and Rochester but was eclipsed after Civil War.

Lockport Cave & Underground Boat Ride

You really appreciate this when you take the Lockport Cave & Underground Boat Ride, which I did on my first Cycle the Erie trip (absolutely fascinating and I have to believe is fairly unique; Cycle the Erie riders get a discount with our wristband).

Up on the hill above the canal were a string of factories. Before Tesla and Edison, engines used water power which was abundant in Lockport. Birdsell Holly, who had a three-story factory, Holly Manufacturing Company, devised a water “raceway” to power the factory –which involved digging a tunnel to capture the seemingly unlimited flow of water.

Our walking tour starts on the canal, where our tour guide, relates the history. Then we walk down a slope to where the hillside means the canal, passed where there would have been three factories.

We walk passed where there would have been a three-story factory, the Holly Manufacturing Company.

“Birdsill Holly, the owner, was famous in his day. He had 150 patents, second-most to Thomas Edison” who was a friend and who asked Holly to join him at his lab in Menlo Park, but Holly wanted to stay on his own. He was a genius at mechanical engineering and specialized in hydro-mechanical systems.” He also created the system of using the rushing water through tunnel (a hydraulic “raceway”) to power turbines.

Among Holly’s inventions: the rotary water pump, the Silsby steam fire engine, the fire hydrant (he actually reminds me a lot of Ben Franklin). Holly had the idea to build a 19-story skyscraper with a view of Niagara Falls, which he expected to become a popular tourist attraction, but never raised the financing.

Holly, who was born in 1820, came to Lockport from Seneca Falls in 1851. He opened the Holly Manufacturing Company in 1859 to produce sewing machines, cistern pumps and rotary pumps.   Holly built the Lockport Fire Protection and Water System in 1863, which used pumps powered by water-turbines and steam-engines to bring water to hydrants in the city. He patented a fire hydrant in 1869, manufactured in his factory.

At its peak, the factory employed 500 people. Ironically, his factory was destroyed by fire in 1909 (there is a photo of the fire hanging in the tour office).

Next, we walk passed where the Richmond Factory, founded in 1868, would have been – portions of gatehouse can still be seen. It utilized Holly’s hydromechanical system. But in 1993, it too, was destroyed by fire.

The third was the Lockport Pulp factory, which operated from1880-1941, when it went out of business after the invention of galvanized steel. “Their lease ran out in 1941 and they lost the use of the water.”

Walking through the outflow pipe of Birdsell’s hydraulic raceway during the Lockport Cave & Underground Boat Ride © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We come to a great outflow pipe which we use as our entrance into the cave, which once would have been the “raceway” for the rushing water.

This is the system devised by the privately owned Hydraulic Raceway Company (Birdsill Holly was a major investor) to serve his factory and the others.

It is quite an interesting sight – pitch black except for the artificial light.

The tunnel was cut by Irish and Italian workers. Our guide points out what would have been involved in digging out this tunnel and creating the cave, using the technology they had – sledgehammers and black powder. “They worked long hours doing dangerous work for low wages.” At one point, they went on a labor strike.

Boys as young as five years old would be the ones to plant the dynamite because they were small and fast. Each charge would blast a hole the size of a basketball. There are no statistics as to how many boys or men died building these tunnels.

Holly built his tunnel first, in 1858. It took 1 1/2 years to dig 750 feet. Richer opened his factory in 1868. A third section was opened eight years later, taking three years, until 1880 to finish. The factories would have paid $200 year for access to water.

Now our walk takes us to a wooden boat, built inside the cavern. “Welcome aboard Titanic 2,” the guide, jokes.

A boat ride is the climax of the Lockport Cave & Underground Boat Ride on Day One of the 8-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie bike tour. © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is very “Phantom of the Opera”-ish, but here, you really appreciate the physical labor that was involved in cutting through rock to create these mechanisms that made the Industrial Revolution factories possible.

It is really a delightful boat-ride, full of atmosphere, that takes us through the oldest section of the tunnel. You can see some differences in how it was constructed. We can appreciate how long it takes to form a stalactite by how small these are. We see soda stalactites  (they have a hollow interior).

($13 plus tax, but $9 for Erie Canal riders. Lockport Cave & Underground Boat Ride on the Erie Canal, (5 Gooding St., 716-438-0174, www.lockportcave.com).

There is a lot to see in Lockport, including the Erie Canal Discovery Center, a small museum right at the base of the original five locks, which I visited on my first Cycle the Erie ride; Tiffany windows at the First Presbyterian Church, the Historic Palace Theater, and delightful eateries (www.discoverlockport.com).

Biking on the Erie Canalway from Lockport to Medina © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

I am anxious to get to Medina, though, which I remember from my first Cycle the Erie ride as being a really charming town (they even have a concert planned for the afternoon, and swimming at our campsite), and last time, I didn’t get there early enough to enjoy it.

We ride through a sequence of quaint canaltowns, Gasport, Middleport, – on our way to Medina.

Mural at Middleport, one of the canaltowns that sprung up all along the Erie Canal, where we have a rest stop on the Cycle the Erie bike tour © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Medina is famous for its sandstone, a 19th century building material that was used for the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, the State House in Albany, St. Paul’s Episcopal in Albany and in the foundation of Buckingham Palace. The stones, discovered during the building of the canal, were prized because they were so hard, they were the best for fireproof building material.

Cycle the Erie riders come into Medina, our destination. © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Much of Medina is built of the stone. You see it at one of America’s oldest Opera Houses (it is being restored) – a tribute to the wealth that the stone and the Erie Canal brought,.

I arrive in Medina, our destination for the day, at around 2:30 pm, in time to catch a delightful folk concert at the canalside park. The band, Traveling Troubadours, perform on the roof of a rented houseboat. Wearing tie-die, the aging hippies will be spending 6 days, going canaltown to canaltown to perform.

Medina has one of the oldest Opera Houses in the country, a testament to how the Erie Canal brought prosperity to these canaltowns. Building the canal exposed the special Medina sandstone that was used for Opera House, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Buckingham Palace. © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

I must have had a tailwind because the 54 miles of biking today didn’t feel like it at all.

The architecture is absolutely magnificent – and our ride to the campground takes us through neighborhoods with gorgeous, but fading, Victorian houses.

On the way into the campsite, I stop at Medina Railroad Museum – housed in the former New York Central Freight Depot. Built in 1905-6, and 300 feet long, it is the longest wood frame freight house ever built by NYC Systems. There are over 7,000 artifacts on display covering the history of railroads from the early steam era up to the modern age. Exhibits feature vintage toy trains from Lionel, Marx and American Flyer, as well as extensive firefighting exhibit with 460 fire helmets. The HO model train layout is one of the longest on one floor in the country, measuring 204 feet long by 14 feet wide, and featuring lifelike scenery of Western New York. The museum also offers excursions on vintage trains. (530 West Ave., Medina 585-798-6106, MedinaRailroad.com)

Concert at Medina’s canalside park by the Traveling Troubadours © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

As I set up my tent at the beautiful grounds of the Clifford H. Wise Middle School, I think how we have gone from an urban to a pastoral setting. They have arranged for us to swim in the school’s pool, as well as stretching class and yoga and there is a massage therapist as well. This evening after dinner, there is a talk about canal history by Tom Grasso, president of the NYS Canal Society.

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 2: Medina to Fairport, 53 miles

See also:

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

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

Cycle the Erie riders leaving Medina on Day 2 of the 8-day, 400-mile bike tour from Buffalo to Albany. The 19th Annual Cycle the Erie had a record 750 riders © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

To see how America came to be – and what really made America great – you need only to join Parks & Trails NY’s annual eight-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie Bike Tour from Buffalo to Albany. Riding the multi-use Erie Canalway, which closely follows the towpath along the original Erie Canal that was built between 1817-1825, transports you 400 miles and through 400 years of history. Unfolding before you, at a pace that flows like a movie, are the pastoral scenes of farmlands, the canaltowns that sprang up to handle the trade, the factories that emerged to manufacture the myriad inventions and innovations spawned by Yankee ingenuity, you cross the Native American tribal areas, the colonial settlements, the Revolutionary War sites. You see the rise and fall of industrialization and urbanization, and now, most marvelous of all, you see before you the reinvention, revitalization and repurposing of these villages, towns, cities and communities that the Eric Canal spawned.

The Erie Canal turned a modest port called New York City into a global trade and financial center, New York into the Empire State, and the United States into a global industrial power, with New York City as its center. It turned a subsistence farmer in the Midwest into a purveyor to the world, and not only transformed geography, but society. The Erie Canal “was the Mother of Cities” – overnight, canal towns catering to the boat traffic sprung up from nowhere and cities like Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse blossomed. The canal was an incubator for innovation and a transmitter for new ideas. It unified the nation, tying together East and West, and was the artery by which pioneers and immigrants made their way to the settle the frontier. You come away from this journey with renewed understanding of what it means to be an American.

Cycle the Erie riders in Lockport explore the Flight of Five– the original canal locks that were an engineering marvel © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Besides being a marvelous car-free trail (mostly flat), with gorgeous landscapes (you can’t believe this is New York State!), what distinguishes this bike  trip is that it is so interesting – the sites, and sights along the way. Every day is enlightening, inspiring, serendipitous. We go from urban to rural, pastoral lands and back to urban, from main streets into forest and into neighborhoods “tourists” would never see. There is so much to see, in fact, all along the way you have to make choices, which is why so many people come back multiple times. Indeed, this is my second Cycle the Erie tour.

This is no typical bike tour.

In the first place, it is one of the best managed, organized and supported bike tours you will ever experience – the 2017 ride (the 19th annual Cycle the Erie) which coincided with the bicentennial of  beginning the building of the Erie Canal, July 4, 1817 – had a record 750 cyclists. The bicentennial of the opening of the Erie Canal will be held in 2025 (I’m already making plans.)

Our ride is supported by 90 volunteers and you appreciate each and every one: people who go out and mark the trail for us to follow; truck drivers and baggage handlers; SAG drivers and bikers who are there to help if someone has difficulty on the trail; rest stop crew; food service people; bike repair mechanics; medical nurse; site-set up crew; even a massage therapist and yoga instructor.

Massage therapy after a day of cycling the Erie Canalway © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

What is most impressive is how everything seems to be taken into account – texting is with a severe weather alert or some emergency, orientations that let us know what to expect from the trail and what to watch out for and what weather conditions to expect, what attractions to look for along the way, the best places to stop off for lunch and the best ice cream stops and trailside breweries, even cycling safety talks (done with great creativity and humor). Shuttle buses are organized to take us from the campsite into town for the evening; they arrange for indoor camping (typically the school gym) as well as Comfy Campers (a service that sets up tent for you, the closest thing to glamping). There are shower trucks to supplement the indoor facilities; access to swimming pools; charging stations.

Fairport community puts out the welcome mat for Cycle the Erie riders © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The routes are well marked and signed, and there are as rest stops morning and afternoon with water and snacks and restrooms. Very often the towns and villages set up welcome centers for us on the trail with special snacks and bottles of water that supplement the rest stops. Museums and attractions stay open, early in the morning or into the evening to accommodate us; we get discounts on admissions, shopping and free shipping just by waving our Cycle the Erie wristband.

Our tent city at the base of Fort Stanwyx, Rome. For those who don’t want to pitch their own tent, Comfy Campers provides a service that feels like glamping © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The trail makes for superb cycling – most of the 400 miles are on the dedicated multi-use trail, about 75 miles on roads (that is, until the trail is completed which is in the works by New York State). Much of the trail is crushed limestone; some of it is more rugged or overgrown (making it challenging when it rains); some is paved. The trail is mostly flat except for where we come off and ride the highway overpasses to get to our campsites, most typically on gorgeous grounds of private schools (which amazingly always seem to be at the top of a hill), and then we get to see neighborhoods that we would otherwise be unlikely to visit.

Riding the Erie Canalway. The 19th Annual Cycle the Erie 400-mile ride had a record 750 riders © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

And the people! A trip like this brings like-minded people who enjoy camping, biking and discovery from across the country and around the world, and who very soon form a whole nomadic tribe. Sitting around tables at breakfast and dinner, or catching up with people on the trail, and finding people who step up to help with setting up a tent or fixing a broken pole, there is this marvelous sense of community and camaraderie. This year’s ride – with the most riders ever – drew people from 36 states including DC, 15 from Canada, as well as from as far away as Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom; the oldest rider was 84 (doing the ride for her 12th time); the youngest was 3, but the youngest self-powered cyclist was just 8 years old. Three-fourths of us are doing the ride for the first time. There were families, groups like Troop 497 from Baltimore, and lots of solos. One couple rode to the start in Buffalo from Canada and was linking this 400-mile trip to biking down to New York City.

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 © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The unexpected treat is how fascinating the historic sites are along the way – it is so intellectually and culturally satisfying. In addition to organizing our visits so that attractions stay open for us either early in the morning or into the evening, each day there are lectures or special programs, like music.

Every day’s ride – averaging 50 miles a day but as much as 63 – is special in its own way – the sights, the experiences, the ride and its physical challenge. First timers tend to focus on the ride – making sure they can complete the distance (we travel at our own pace). But those who have done the ride before know they will be able to go the distance, so take more time to take in the sights; third timers or more explore even further afield – take that yellow brick road up to the Oz Museum, go for that farm-to-table restaurant for lunch, stop in at the brewery or ice cream shop.

Cycle the Erie riders get a tour of the Peppermint Museum, the H.G Hotchkiss Essential Oil building, in Lyons © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This was my second time doing the ride – I did it two years before. There is so much to do – so many attractions and sites and experiences – that I tried as much as possible to do things I hadn’t done on the first ride. And then there is pure serendipity, like weather, which makes a terrific difference in the experience. Knowing what to expect (and that you have done the distance before) gives you the extra confidence to take more time to explore.

Registrations have just opened for the 2018 ride, it’s 20th Annual Cycle the Erie bike tour, which will take place July 8-15. (If you don’t want to do all eight-days, 400-miles, they offer two and four-day segments but then you would have to organize getting back to your starting place.)

And We’re Off! 

The tour begins in Buffalo and a good portion of us drive to Albany where we pull up to the Visitors Center, drop off our gear, then park in the adjacent municipal lot before boarding buses for the five-hour drive to Buffalo, where we camp at the Nichols School, a magnificent private academy. (If you don’t want to set up your own tent, you can sign up for Comfy Campers, a service which sets up a truly comfortable tent, with air mattress and fresh towel daily; there is also “indoor camping,” typically in the gymnasium at the schools where we stay. There also are recommended bed-and-breakfast inns along the way.)

The bus ride from Albany to the Buffalo start of the 400-mile Cycle the Erie bike tour gives peeks at the New York State countryside that will be seen from the Canalway © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our journey begins on Saturday night before the start of the ride on Sunday, on the campus of the Nichols School, a magnificent private academy in Buffalo, where we have a welcoming reception and gala dinner, and an orientation about the Erie Canal and our route  (Those of us who are here early enough can join an optional pre-tour ride to Niagara Falls and around historic Buffalo, but those of us who have come by bus from Albany arrive just in time to register and enjoy a festive kick-off reception and dinner and orientation meeting.)

The Erie Canal was the most successful public works project in America. Despite its cost ($7.7 million, the equivalent of $18 billion today), the opposition to the folly of Governor DeWitt Clinton’s “ditch” (nothing really changes) and the fact that the new nation did not even have the engineers nor the technology to build such a canal when the first shovel was put into the ground in Rome, on July 4, 1817, the canal actually quickly recouped its investment. In fact, the original canal only lasted until 1836, when it was essentially rebuilt and expanded, and then again, by President Theodore Roosevelt who redirected and replaced the Modern Barge canal altogether in 1903. No longer a “mom and pop” operation where barges and packet ships were pulled by mules, the new canal involved motorized boats.

Day One: Sunday, Buffalo to Medina, 54 Miles

Unlike my first time doing the Erie ride, when we all left at once with great fanfare, this time, we leave the campsite as every other morning, at our own pace (except that we have to get our gear on the trucks between 6 and 8 am and have breakfast (5:30-8:30 am).

Every morning during breakfast there is an orientation to that day’s ride (given twice, once for the early birds, 6:30 am and once for the rest of us, 7 am). They prepare us for road conditions, the weather forecast, alert us to any safety issues in the route, tell us about upcoming attractions we will come upon. We ride at our own pace.

We form a line of cyclists on the five-miles we ride through Buffalo’s streets before we get to the entrance to the Canalway The streets are well marked and there are police to help us through thoroughfares. It is exhilarating to be setting out.

At the start of the Erie Canalway in Buffalo, where the bike trial has brought new housing and revitalized communities © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We ride a new section of the Canalway into Lockport – indeed, the goal of this annual 8-day, 400-mile ride is to raise money and awareness to close the gaps. And it’s worked! New York State now has an ambitious program to not only complete the entire Buffalo-Albany trail, but to create a new north-south trail, the Empire State Trail, that will link New York City to the Canadian border – 750 miles of off-road trails all together. This would be the longest state ‘shared use’ trail in nation.

Blue paint along our route points the way to a historical/attraction (for example, the Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village); orange paint on road shows us the way to bike to our destination. There are markers before and after each turn.

We reach a rest stop at 17 miles before coming into Lockport.

Biking into Lockport on our first day of the eight-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie bike tour © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This day brings us into Lockport, where they have arranged for anyone who wants, a free 1 ½-hour-long cruise on the canal through two locks.

Here in Lockport, you get to see in the most compressed amount of space, the entire history of the Canal, with the original Flight of Five locks just next to modern locks (the only place where there is a double lock, one after another), combined with the story how the Erie Canal spurred America’s industrialization.

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

At Sonesta Philadelphia Rittenhouse Square, Art is More than a Theme, but a Mission

Sonesta Philadelphia’s LiquidArt served in its artful ArtBar (photo courtesy Sonesta)

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Philadelphia is like hopping from time-capsule to time-capsule because you go from one authentic site where events happened, where the Founders and builders of this nation actually stood, to another. Come, time-travel with me. And the best way to appreciate it – and be wonderfully surprised at ever twist and turn– is to walk. That’s how you come upon things you never considered – the historic markers which point out where Wanamaker’s Department Store was, the Ricketts Circus, the American Philosophical Society (founded by Ben Franklin). I practically fall over what closer inspection tells me is the very townhouse where Thomas Jefferson stayed when he wrote the Declaration of Independence (called “Declaration House”), a short walk from Independence Hall.

But I soon appreciate something more: an arts tradition that is infused throughout: the breathtaking majesty of City Hall built in the Second Empire Style; an Art Deco “Automat” sign; the stunning Art Deco architecture of a building, gorgeous giant murals that pop up out of nowhere, indeed the streetscape.

Walking about Philadelphia, you come across surprises like this Art Deco building © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This is why it is so terrific that my hotel, the Sonesta Philadelphia Rittenhouse Square, in downtown Philadelphia, is so well located: because it’s only by walking to places that you can really enjoy these visual surprises.

It’s the afternoon when I arrive at the Sonesta (a parking garage is adjacent for added convenience) and after checking in, I have just enough time to explore one attraction on my list.

I set out down Market Street, walking through the magnificent City Hall, designed by John McArthur Jr and constructed between 1871 to 1901 within Penn Square (you can stand on a pedestal placed there to take photos of yourself as a monumental statue) and head down toward the historic district that surrounds Independence Hall. You appreciate the changes in style as traveling through époques.

This becomes my route over the course of my three days in this city, each time setting out on foot and delighting in discovering architecture, historic sites, colorful murals painted across entire building facades. And each evening, I find myself drawn to Rittenhouse Square, a few blocks away, which is hopping with activity and color, with quaint restaurants, taverns and shops alongside the charming urban park.

Sonesta Philadephia is a short walk to Rittenhouse Square where there are pleasant restaurants © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Sonesta Hotel’s location makes all of this possible.

The Sonesta has everything you would want in a city-center hotel (there is even a rooftop swimming pool, in season), an ArtBar where you can have cocktails, Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse for dining, a gallery that showcases local artists. It is ideal as a base for business travelers as well as for those coming for a convention (the state convention center is walking distance) or meetings (it has 16,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and 16 conference rooms), like the conference of literary writers who are in attendance during my visit (I wished I could have hung out more with them). But I am visiting for a family occasion, and looking around at the other guests holding flowers and centerpieces and guest-bags, there are many of us who are similarly celebrating, as well as scores of visitors from around the world who appreciate having such a comfortable hub for our expeditions.

The parking garage, which is independently owned and operated,  is attached to the hotel and is valet only, which is really convenient (you can check out and store your bags with the bellman and keep the car there until you are ready to pick it up; some packages include parking or discounts on parking; other options including a municipal lot, are also in the area).


The Sonesta Philadelphia’s rooftop pool, open in season (photo courtesy Sonesta)

The rooms are spacious, stylishly appointed in what I refer to as “retro modern,” and very comfortable with plush bedding and bathroom amenities (my stay was hosted by Sonesta). All the rooms have been redesigned and include: flat-screen LCD televisions, complimentary wireless internet service, in-room safe, iHome docking station for iPhone 4, coffee maker, and mini-refrigerator. (Feather and fragrance-free rooms are available upon request.)

Club Level Guest Rooms also feature Keurig coffee machine, bottled water, plus access to the Sonesta’s club lounge where you are provided continental breakfast daily (with one hot upgraded item), snacks throughout the day; hot and cold hors d’oeuvres; two adult beverages in the evening.

My room at the Sonesta Philadelphia © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

All the rooms have beautiful views of the city; the Junior One-Bedroom Suites feature a stunning view of City Hall, and has a chic living room with contemporary décor flowing into a separate modern bedroom, Queen sleeper sofa, refrigerator, wet bar, oversized bathroom with dressing area, large work station, bathrobes in addition to the other amenities.

There are also two-room King Suites and a Presidential Suite.

Guests in Executive Club Floor rooms enjoy a complimentary continental breakfast and evening refreshments in a private lounge with their accommodations on weekdays; on weekends, Club Level room guests receive two complimentary drink tickets for beer or wine at the Art Bar and a $10 breakfast voucher in the Art Bar.

Embracing & Promoting Philadelphia’s Arts Tradition

Philadelphia is a city whose appreciation for the arts is legendary, and the Sonesta is helping to promote that tradition, in its architecture, interior design, food presentation, and in its collaborations with the local art community and city.

I soon realize why its lounge is the ArtBar and why the visual arts provide a vibe for the re-designed and art-inspired hotel: it’s more than a theme, it’s a mission. The Sonesta Hotel Philadelphia embraces and fosters the creation of art in the hotel and the community by partnering with the Center for Emerging Visual Artists. Its in-house art gallery located in the lobby, showcases paintings by local artists which are available for purchase; the gallery rotates every 6 months.

It is also promoting the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, with a record-breaking mural, 22-stories high, alongside its façade. The mural was completed in just two weeks time.

“We’re so committed to Art, we tattooed it on our face.”

Philadelphia is a city whose appreciation for the arts is legendary, and the Sonesta Philadelphia has partnered with Open Source on their citywide exhibition that is bringing 14 international artists to Philadelphia. These artists’ practices vary widely, from sculpture to community muralism to street art. They are working with the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program to create a new series of public artworks that explore and illuminate Philadelphia’s diverse urban identity. The Sonesta Hotel Philadelphia is a central Open Source venue and a hub for talks, tours, visual documentation, and direct engagement with staff, artists, and curator Pedro Alonzo.

The artist who is executing the mural on the hotel’s  25-story facade is “Momo” from New Orleans, who is regarded as a standard-bearer for abstraction in street art. “Momo” has since transitioned into creating large-scale murals in countries all over the world, including as a perennial participant in Italy’s legendary FAME Festival. (For more information on Open Source Mural Arts, visit http://opensource.muralarts.org/)

One of the magnificent murals that grace Philadelphia’s streetscape © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program Is the nation’s largest public art program, “dedicated to the belief that art ignites change. For 30 years, Mural Arts has united artists and communities through a collaborative process, rooted in the traditions of mural-making, to create art that transforms public spaces and individual lives.” Mural Arts engages communities in 50–100 public art projects each year, and maintains its growing collection through a restoration initiative. Each year, 12,000 residents and visitors tour Mural Arts’ outdoor art gallery (including docent-led trolley and walking tours between sites, as well as audio guides and maps for self-guided visitors, which has become part of the city’s civic landscape and a source of pride and inspiration, earning Philadelphia international recognition as the “City of Murals.”

I come upon some of these impressive murals as I walk to the historic district.

Philadelphia’s impressive City Hall © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I used the opening of the brand new Museum of the American Revolution as the theme for my three-day visit to Philadelphia – a really deep dive probe of the Revolutionary War era, a return to understanding the founding of the nation through, as it were, original documents, materials and artifacts, at a time when we need to be reminded. During this all-too-brief time, I also visited the National Museum of American Jewish History, the Benjamin Franklin Museum, Betsy Ross House and the National Constitution Center. But I can’t wait to return and delve into the city’s rich arts tradition.

Sonesta Philadelphia Hotel Deals Year Round

The Sonesta Philadelphia is located close to the Convention Center, Financial District and Rittenhouse Square, and a pleasant walk to the Historic District. There are numerous special rates and packages geared to business travelers, AAA members, government employees and visiting college students as well as property specific seasonal offers and deals tied to special events

Package deals, which can be found at the website, are available, including Art of Romance Valentine’s Day Package (champagne, breakfast in bed and 2 pm late check out); VisitPhilly Overnight Winter Package, includes valet parking and winter attraction tickets; Bed and Breakfast package; Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse Package includes $100 gift card to the steakhouse (located in the hotel) and free parking. There is also a “best available rate” option. A Winter sale going on now offers 20% off.

Sonesta Philadelphia Rittenhouse Square, 1800 Market Street, Philadelphia PA 19103, 215-561-7500, www.sonesta.com/us/pennsylvania/philadelphia/sonesta-philadelphia-rittenhouse-square.

Visit Philadelphia provides excellent trip planning tools, including hotel packages, itineraries, events listings: 30 S 17th Street, Philadelphia PA 19103, 215-599-0776, visitphilly.com.

 

See also:

National Museum of American Jewish History is Unexpected Revelation in Philadelphia 

Philadelphia’s New Museum Immerses You into Drama of America’s Revolutionary War

72 Hours in Philadelphia: Ben Franklin, America’s Revolutionary ‘Elder Statesman,’ Would Have been Quite at Home in 21st Century 

72 Hours in Philadelphia: Meet Betsy Ross: A Thoroughly Modern Woman

72 Hours in Philadelphia: A Visit to the National Constitution Center Exposes Contradictions in ‘We the People’

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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

72 Hours in Philadelphia: A Visit to the National Constitution Center Exposes Contradictions in ‘We the People’

The National Constitution Center puts life into this founding document. In Signers Hall, walk among life-size statues of the 42 Founders who hashed out the framework for ‘We the People’ government © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is a cold, institutional feel to the National Constitution Center – as if you fell into a law book. And oddly, even though this place more than any other, recognizes the impact of words on paper – the decisions, pronouncements, laws – on each and every person’s everyday life, there is that struggle between the “rule of law” without fear or favor, that objective, dispassionate application, and any sense of what is right and good for ordinary people. What emerges is a sense that law and government, like evolution, is not good or bad, but reflects politics and power: look at the restrictions on voting to “white men over 21;” the Dred Scott Decision based on 5th amendment property rights; the evolution of rulings that elevate corporations to the status of people (despite fact “corporation” is not mentioned in the Constitution) including Citizens United which established that cash is equivalent to speech and corporations have a right to spend as much as they want on political speech regardless if it is corporations spending the cash or a person (so speech is not really “free”, but whoever has more cash has more speech) and Hobby Lobby which determined that corporations could possess religious “conscience” in order to deny their female employees access to contraceptives.  You realize that the progressive change on behalf of ordinary people occurred during brief episodes.

I used the opening of the brand new Museum of the American Revolution as the theme for my three-day visit to Philadelphia – a really deep dive probe of the Revolutionary War era, a return to understanding the founding of the nation through, as it were, original documents, materials and artifacts, at a time when we need to be reminded – everything from the off-hand comment by Trump Chief of Staff John Kelly that the Civil War could have been averted if only there were compromise (he should go to the National Constitution Center), to the quixotic amazement of a US Treasury official pining on his research into what’s this thing, “The American Dream,” all about before adopting the biggest redistribution of wealth since the Gilded Age, to the pronouncements by some politicians that America is a Christian Nation, to Trump’s remarks about immigrants coming from s-hole countries. I felt a driving need to go back to the beginning, the foundations, remind myself of those values and debates and compromises and circumstances.

So far, during my three-day visit to Philadelphia, I have visited the new Museum of the American Revolution, the National Museum of Jewish American History, the Ben Franklin Museum, the Betsy Ross House, the Old Burial Ground – each one adding to my understanding and appreciation of the founding values of this nation – and now I have arrived at my last stop, the National Constitution Center.

The National Constitution Center, which opened in 2003, is on federal land but is a private, independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan institution. It is the first and only institution in America established by Congress to “disseminate information about the United States Constitution on a non-partisan basis in order to increase the awareness and understanding of the Constitution among the American people.” Its mission is to spark constitutional debates that impact citizens and inspire active citizenship.

“As the Museum of We the People, the Center aims to bring the Constitution to life for visitors of all ages through interactive programs and exhibits that include coming face to face with original documents, rare artifacts and hearing personal stories. As America’s Town Hall, the Center brings the leading conservative and liberal thought leaders together to debate the Constitution on all media platforms. As a center for Civic Education, the Center delivers educational programs and online resources that inspire, excite, and engage citizens about the U.S. Constitution.”

I arrive just in time for a multi-media orientation experience, “Freedom Rising” in a theater that has the metallic feel and design of a 21st century dystopian gladiator arena. For some inexplicable reason there is a live person who is not so much a narrator as a ringmaster as video images flash around the ceiling so you can’t fully see them or process them.

‘Freedom Rising’

“Freedom Rising” is intended to highlight the primary themes of the main exhibit gallery, making an effort to tell the story of “We the People” in two senses of that phrase: First, the Constitution’s vision of “popular sovereignty,” or rule by the people; Second, how the definition of citizenship has expanded over more than 200 years of American history to gradually include those who were left out in the 18th century – white men without property, women, African Americans, other people of color.  It rang hollow to me.

‘Freedom Rising’ is presented in an arena-like setting at the National Constitution Center © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

You walk out of the arena to the Richard and Helen DeVos Exhibit Hall, which is designed as two concentric rings. The outermost ring is presented chronologically with 13 sections which relate American history through the lens of the Constitution from 1765 until today and a central ring focused on civics and how government operates.

Exhibits along the outermost ring use multiple techniques to bring the story to life: a short general video introduction to each section; text-and-graphic based story panels and reading rails; maps and images; game-like computer interactives; video and audio segments focusing on specific historical moments; selected artifacts; and walk-in immersive environments that render key ideas, moments, and stories in three dimensions.

For instance, you enter a re-creation of the floor of the Senate during the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson and listen to the debate; you can step into a 1940s living room and hear one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous fireside chats playing on the radio.

A device that is used to fairly good effect is presenting a major Supreme Court decision or milestone event as if told as a news story that day, making it more immediate and relevant.

The “Founders’ Library,” presents a sampling of the books that the Library Company of Philadelphia made available to the delegates during the Constitutional Convention – giving visitors a sense of the intellectual origins of the Constitution and make it more accessible.

What’s on that bookshelf that helped shape the Constitution? Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, King James Bible, Magna Carta, Machiavelli, John Locke, Cato’s Letters, Baron Montesquieu, David Hume, Sir William Blackstone, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, John Adams, John Dickerson, among others. What’s missing: anything about the Iroquois Confederacy which provided a framework for democratic leadership and a confederation of states, not to mention women’s rights.

Other features include the Civil War alcove, an exploration of the turning point year of 1863, which features a rare copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln as well as pages from an autograph book with the only-known Lincoln signature from the day that he gave the Gettysburg Address. Here I encounter a docent who lets us handle some artifacts from the Civil War.

I pose to him my theory that the Civil War could have been avoided had the slave-holding states accepted the entreaty from Zachariah Kingsley, a plantation owner in Florida, which was part of Spain until 1845 when it became part of the United States and subject to its laws regarding slavery; he entreated Congress that the United States use the Spanish model of slavery that was much less cruel (if any form of slavery could be less cruel), that provided a pathway to freedom and did not automatically enslave future generations. It was ignored. (I saw a copy of Zachariah Kingsley’s letter to Congress at Kingsley Plantation on Fort George Island near Jacksonville, Florida which stuck in my mind, “What if…”.)

You also can see a fascinating display of archeological artifacts from the late 1700s that were uncovered at the site of the National Constitution Center between 2000 and 2003, only two blocks from Independence Hall where the Constitution was drafted. These historic treasures illuminate daily life in Philadelphia as a new nation was being born.

The Central Ring through the main gallery explores how the constitutional system works through a series of immersive, interactive exhibits designed with families and school groups in mind. Visitors have the opportunity to learn about the great rites of democracy, such as serving on a jury or voting.

Role-playing is a key component of the central path. In one of the most popular displays, you can stand behind a presidential podium and take the oath of office. You can try on a judge’s robe, sit at a replica of the Supreme Court bench, and decide landmark cases selected to illustrate the broad range of constitutional issues that come before the court: Katz v. United States is a wiretap case involving the Fourth Amendment and issues of privacy; Texas v. Johnson, the flag-burning case, tested the protection of the First Amendment; United States v. Nixon, the Watergate tapes case, involved separation of powers and executive privilege.

The American National Tree, another prominent exhibit, tells the stories of 100 Americans – a few of them well known, but most of them unheralded. By selecting their faces streaming by on touch screens, you can read and hear how these noteworthy Americans have shaped constitutional history.

The recent discussion on the Senate floor over the government shutdown was reminiscent of this scene in Signers’ Hall at the National Constitution Center © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

People really enjoyed Signers’ Hall, where you walk into a stylized evocation of the Assembly Room in the Pennsylvania State House, known today as Independence Hall, where the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. The room is “peopled” with life-sized bronze statues of 42 men: the 39 delegates who signed as well as the three present on September 17, 1787, who refused to sign. We are encouraged to walk among them and to consider them as real people, imaging the dilemma they faced in creating the framework for a new nation founded on “We the People” –  choices that still impact the nation, the oldest continuously surviving democratic republic. You also can add your name to a digital version of the Constitution alongside the Founding Fathers’ signatures.

Notably, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, signers of the Declaration of Independence, are not represented in Signers Hall because they were both serving as ambassadors overseas (Jefferson in France and Adams in England) during the Constitutional Convention. Several other famous Founding Fathers who were not signers of the Constitution include John Hancock, Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry.

The statues in Signers’ Hall were created by some 50 artists – sculptors, designers, costumers, mold makers – at Studio EIS in Brooklyn, who used numerous historical sources, including portraits and written descriptions, to create the most accurate likenesses possible. The project began in early 2001 and was completed in May 2003.

Unanswered Questions: How Democratic are We?

I come away with a few new insights, but few answers to long-lingering questions I have harbored:

Everything George Washington does as president sets a precedent, including doing the unimaginable of stepping down after two terms when many wanted him to be president for life. (But having visited the Museum of the American Revolution, I wonder what would have happened if Washington had been younger and not so anxious to retire to Mount Vernon, if he would have been so interested in giving up presidency.)

We learn that slander and scandals have always been a part of the political process: A Federalist called Jefferson “a Godless man whose election would lead to reign of terror, like France.” Republicans claimed John Adams was “a British-led tyrant bent on enslaving us.”

The Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott Decision was based on a ruling which found that Congress in its 1820 Compromise deprived slaveholders of their 5th Amendment property rights.

I learn that 1824 was the first presidential election that counted the popular vote (though I don’t really understand what that means, to “count” the popular vote.) On the other hand, it renews a question that I had ever since visiting the Women’s Rights National Monument in Seneca Falls, NY: Without any change in the Constitution that gave voting rights only to “white men with property,” suddenly, in that election, white men without property were allowed to vote. And yet, it took the 15th amendment in 1870 to give Black men the vote, and the 19th amendment in 1920 to finally give women the vote. I’ve never seen anyone question how without any change in the Constitution, all of a sudden, white men were allowed to vote, and it enabled –Andrew Jackson, who lost in 1824 to John Quincy Adams, to win his election in 1828.

When freed black men also turned up to vote, states passed laws restricting voting to “white men over 21”.

Benjamin Franklin, “The Sage” is the only Founding Father to have signed all four of the major documents of the founding of the United States: the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Alliance (1778) with France, the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolution (1783) and the United States Constitution (1787), though he was sick and suffering in pain during the Constitutional Convention and died shortly after, in 1790 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I learn that the Bill of Rights, adopted in 1791 (itself a compromise because there were states that would not ratify the Constitution without a Bill of Rights, which are the first 10 amendments) only applied to federal law. In recent decisions, the Court ruled that their protections apply to states because certain rights are so fundamental, they are incorporated in amendment guarantee of due process.

“Like the preamble of Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights at the time of ratification was largely a promissory note. It was not until the 20th century when the Supreme Court vigorously applied the Bill of Rights against the states that the document becomes centerpiece of the contemporary struggle over liberty and equality. It defends the majority against an overreaching federal government but also against overreach by the state.”

What you appreciate, though, is that through all of American history, there have been “firsts” – challenges or unsettled issues of the Constitution. It was never fixed or complete. The Founders designed the Constitution to be a “living” document. So-called “originalists” who pretend to divine what was in the mind of the Founders are just that: pretenders.

A new display is an “Interactive Constitution”, where you can click on the freedoms of the Bill of Rights to see the documents that were used.

There are hands-on materials. For example, you can try on a black robe of a Supreme Court justice.

When I am visiting, I am lucky enough to see an original copy of the Bill of Rights on view in the George H.W. Bush Gallery before it was sent back to New York. It is one of 12 original copies that survive. (North Carolina’s was stolen during the Civil War but was returned in 2003 with the help of the National Constitution Center, which  informed the FBI after being told they could have it back for $4 million ransom). This copy, is shared by New York and Pennsylvania which alternates every three years (it now has gone back to New York, where you can see it on camera).

There is also a first-edition Stone Engraving of the Declaration of Independence and an original copy of the US Constitution.

The National Constitution Center has some cavernous spaces; from the picture window, you can see out to Independence Hall where the Constitution was signed in 1787 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I’m not sure that what I came away with was the message that the Center intended: Instead of assurances that the Framers created mechanisms – fool-proof checks-and-balances – to insure a democratic republic would withstand every challenge, I am shaken by the realization of how wrong those in power, with the ability to set laws, decide laws and implement laws, have been (think Dred Scott, Citizens United). It seems that it has been a matter of luck that has let us survive this long, but one wonders how would we survive a “perfect storm” of various levers breaking down against threats that the Framers could never have foreseen, like an election that was stolen by a foreign adversary, or a president who used his office to personally profit, who sold favors to a foreign government and then defied a subpoena. Andrew Jackson defied the Supreme Court’s ruling that his Indian Removal Act was unconstitutional, daring the court to bring its army to force him to do its bidding.

I went in wondering if it would address some of the questions that I have long harbored: did the Salem Witch Trials play any part in the Founders’ interest in preserving Religious Freedom? What role did the Iroquois Confederacy play in the writing of the Constitution? How does the notion of “originalism”  – the pretense of knowing what the Founders intended – carry sway since the Constitution was clearly not perfect, the Founders were not omniscient and could not predict technology of today, were not Gods, knew their own human fallibilities in devising a system of government that had never been seen before, as well as the need to compromise on such issues as slavery in order to forge a union and the fact we have already adopted 27 amendments?

The Constitution already has provision for impeachment (for “high crimes and misdemeanors”), already has an Emoluments clause, more recently adopted a 25th Amendment to provide for a President who is “unable” or unfit, but what provision is there to “re-do” (or nullify) an election that is stolen – votes literally being switched in an e-ballot box – using the advanced technology of today? I wonder about the changes that need to be made in light of expanded population and new technologies, but that are resisted.

For example, the Founders never imagined the powerful role that political parties would play – indeed, had to immediately change the procedure for “electing” the President and Vice President – but the present system almost guarantees a President elected by a minority of voters. The Electoral College, which functions mostly by tradition and not by law, but was created as a check against populism at a time when communications were slow, voting confined to a small elite, has already been demonstrated to be obsolete in its function by twice selecting as President a candidate who lost the popular vote, not to mention that it nullifies the ideal of “one person-one vote” because it gives so much unequal representation to small-population states over high-population states (as does the Senate). The Founders never imagined the fire power of an assault weapon at a time when the most sophisticated personal weapon was a single-ball musket.

I don’t find the answers to my questions.

Constitution Heritage Act

A permanent memorial to the Constitution was first proposed around the celebration of the centennial of the Constitution in 1887. It did not begin to take shape until the idea was proposed again 100 years later during the document’s bicentennial celebration in 1987.

President Ronald Reagan signed the Constitution Heritage Act of 1988 on September 16, 1988. The act directed the establishment of the National Constitution Center, an institution “within or in close proximity to the Independence National Historical Park” that “shall disseminate information about the United States Constitution on a nonpartisan basis in order to increase awareness and understanding of the Constitution among the American people.”

The National Constitution Center, which opened in 2003, is the first and only institution in America established by Congress to “disseminate information about the United States Constitution on a non-partisan basis in order to increase the awareness and understanding of the Constitution among the American people.” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Center opened on July 4, 2003, at 525 Arch Street (the date itself was significant, translating to May 25, 5/25, the date that the Constitutional Convention began in Philadelphia in 1787) in Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park, “America’s most historic square mile.” Designed by the architectural firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, the building is made of American products, including 85,000 square feet of Indiana limestone, 2.6 million pounds of steel, and a half-million cubic feet of concrete. The limestone used in the building is from the same quarry as the Empire State Building’s materials.

The National Constitution Center owns a rare, original copy of the first public printing of the Constitution. This printing was published in a newspaper, The Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser, on September 19, 1787—two days after the Constitution was signed. Since the Constitutional Convention was conducted under an oath of secrecy, this printing represents the first time that Americans (“We the People”) saw the Constitution. (The original signed, handwritten Constitution is at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.)

Now is an especially exciting time for visitors because the Center is displaying the rarest handwritten drafts of the U.S. Constitution through 2019.

In addition to exhibits, visitors can enrich their visit with daily museum programs or a Living News performance.

In Living News, today’s headlines are brought to life in a dynamic performance incorporating video, contemporary music, and current news broadcasts. Featuring three engaging actors who play multiple roles, Living News introduces controversial constitutional issues and encourages audience members to explore their own points of view during a post-show discussion.

Visitor amenities include The Delegates’ Cafe, a glass-enclosed restaurant providing the backdrop of historic Independence Mall, as well as a Museum Store, offering a wide range of gifts, books, apparel, jewelry, and toys.

The National Constitution Center also houses the Annenberg Center for Education and Outreach, the national hub for constitutional education, which offers cutting-edge civic education resources both onsite and online.

Constitution Daily Blog: constitutioncenter.org/blog

We the People Podcast: constitutioncenter.org/podcasts

America’s Town Hall Programs Live:  constitutioncenter.org/live

The National Constitution Center is located steps from Independence Hall, where the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were signed.

You need a minimum of 1 hour to visit, but more likely will spend at least two to three hours.

General Admission to the museum and daily programming: Adults $14.50; Youth (6-18) $11; Students w/ID, Seniors $13. Members, active military personnel, and children ages 5 and under admitted free.

The National Constitution Center, Independence Mall, 525 Arch Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19106, 215-409- 6700, constitutioncenter.org.

Visit Philadelphia provides excellent trip planning tools, including hotel packages, itineraries, events listings: 30 S 17th Street, Philadelphia PA 19103, 215-599-0776, visitphilly.com.

See also:

National Museum of American Jewish History is Unexpected Revelation in Philadelphia 

Philadelphia’s New Museum Immerses You into Drama of America’s Revolutionary War

72 Hours in Philadelphia: Ben Franklin, America’s Revolutionary ‘Elder Statesman,’ Would Have been Quite at Home in 21st Century 

72 Hours in Philadelphia: Meet Betsy Ross: A Thoroughly Modern Woman

 

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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

 

72 Hours In Philadelphia: Meet Betsy Ross: A Thoroughly Modern Woman

As she sews, “Betsy Ross” chats about her life as a single working woman in Revolutionary America and her experience making America’s first flag in her upholstery shop at the Betsy Ross House in historic Philadelphia © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

My third day of my deep-dive into Revolutionary War America in Philadelphia is devoted to exploring key figures and sites that I have never visited before: Benjamin Franklin Museum, the Betsy Ross House and the National Constitution Center. I especially appreciate what I am seeing after my visits to the newly opened Museum of the American Revolution and the National Museum of Jewish American History in the first two days.

Betsy Ross was a pistol.

The Betsy Ross House, in Philadelphia’s historic district best known for Independence Hall, proved a real surprise.

I realize that all I know of Betsy Ross is that she created the first American flag. But this museum, which is operated as a private, nonprofit attraction, really conveys what a significant figure she was – independent when few women had any independence at all, a true patriot who was courageous in working on behalf of the Revolution. And, like Ben Franklin, what a modern person she was, who I can believe, would have been at the front of the Women’s Marches waving a feminist flag of her own design.

The Betsy Ross House is operated as a private, nonprofit attraction in historic Philadelphia. The small size belies the big picture that awaits inside © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Her story would be worthy of a drama: She was shunned by her Quaker family for eloping (at age 21) with John Ross, a man of a different faith (the son of an Anglican Reverend) – imagine running off and marrying for love in 1773. She was independent: soon after they were married, John, who had joined the local militia, was killed and she found herself a widow who had to fend for herself. Because they had no children, she was able to keep her property. She rented a room in this townhouse, as well as a shop on the street level where she had her own business sewing upholstery and throughout her life was a savvy businessperson.

She would have known General George Washington from Christ Church which the young couple attended.

You traipse through the small house – to the room she rented in what was a boarding house (not just women), and realize how unusual this is, and then, as you descend the stairs into the shop, much to my surprise, you meet Betsy Ross herself, sewing some fabric. You get to ask her questions about her life.

The room that Betsy Ross rented where she sewed the flag in secret © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I ask her what the date is – Nov. 5, 1776 – and really get into the spirit of the thing, knowing that she will only answer questions up to that point, when I know what comes next.

She has been working on the flag in secret, upstairs in the room, where she keeps it hidden under fabric.

Why did she take the risk? “My late husband was a patriot. I wanted to support Washington and make something to allow the spirit of my late husband live. We never had a child. [Creating the flag] this was like giving birth.”

She said that she went from father’s house to her husband’s. Now 24 years old, “the heaviness of a loss forces you to grow up in different manner. Being on my own is more difficult than I would have imagined.”

Her husband, John, passed in January and she moved in March. “This is the Widow Lithgow’s home –she rents to individuals. I rent a room and shop space from her. If I remarry, I will go to different lodging.”

She would have lived here between 1776 and 1779.

She relates how General Washington had particular design in mind when he came to her in 1776. He was open to suggestions: his original idea for the symbol for American independence had the shape of square rather than rectangle (that was her idea).

Betsy Ross designed America’s first flag © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Also, Washington had wanted six-pointed stars but Ross pushed to change the shape to five-pointed stars by demonstrating that it was easier and speedier to cut, and how she would sew it in so that the design could be seen on both sides.

She tells me with an appropriate measure of sass in her tone that a trusted messenger brought her flag  to Washington rather than he come himself. “He has heavier things on his mind – to win the battle, not a flag.”

I never considered, before “meeting” Betsy Ross how courageous she was to make the flag – she could have been caught and jailed for sedition.

I ask if she has met Ben Franklin (thinking that his printing shop is nearby), but she says that she knows of him but has not met him. “He’s out of town a lot. I hear he is quite taken with squirrels,” she says with a slight smile as she continues to sew.

She actually had a very good business going during the American Revolutionary War, making flags for the Pennsylvania Navy.

“Betsy Ross” is happy to answer questions about her life with visitors to the Betsy Ross House © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Betsy Ross was born in 1752, and after attending a Quaker-run school, her father apprenticed her to an upholsterer. There, she fell in love with John Ross, a fellow apprentice, the son of an Anglican priest at the historic city parish of Christ Church, and the nephew of George Ross Jr. who was a signer of the Declaration of the Independence. The young couple eloped in 1773 when she was 21, marrying at Hugg’s Tavern in Gloucester City, New Jersey. The marriage resulted in her expulsion from the Quaker congregation.

The young couple soon started their own upholstery business and later joined Christ Church, where their fellow congregants occasionally included the visiting Virginia Colony militia regimental commander who would soon become General of a newly organized Continental Army, George Washington, as well as other visiting notaries and delegates who would become leaders of the rebellion and later, members of the Continental Congress.

They were married only two years when John Ross, a member of the local militia, was killed. They had no children.

She continued working in her upholstery business for the Revolution, repairing uniforms and making tents, blankets, and stuffing paper tube cartridges with musket balls for ammunition for the Continental Army.

On June 15, 1777, she married her second husband, Joseph Ashburn, a seaman. In 1780, Ashburn’s ship was captured by a Royal Navy frigate and he was charged with treason (for being of British ancestry, because the British did not recognize American colonial citizenship) and was imprisoned at Old Mill Prison in England. During this time, their first daughter, Zilla, died at the age of nine months and their second daughter, Eliza, was born. Ashburn died in the British jail.

Three years later, in May 1783, she married John Claypoole, who had coincidentally met Joseph Ashburn in the English Old Mill Prison and had been the one to inform her of her husband’s death. (Ross must have really been something, and the young woman playing the part today conveys that spirit.)

Betsy gave birth to five daughters with John Claypoole: Clarissa, Susanna, Jane, Rachel and Harriet (who died in infancy). With the birth of their second daughter, in 1786, they moved to a larger house on Philadelphia’s Second Street, settling down to a peaceful post-war existence.  Philadelphia prospered as the temporary national capital (1790–1800) of the newly independent United States of America, with George Washington as the first President,

By 1812, John Claypoole’s war injuries had left him disabled; he died in 1817 after two decades of poor health. Betsy’s young, widowed daughter Clarissa moved into their home with her five children and a sixth on the way. With Clarissa’s help, Betsy continued to run her upholstery shop and flag-making business. But after 50 years in the trade, Betsy’s rapidly failing vision led to her retirement at the age of 76. Betsy eventually became blind. She spent the last three years of her life living with her daughter Jane’s family on Cherry Street in Philadelphia. She died peacefully in her sleep on January 30, 1836, at the age of 84.

Betsy Ross’ gravesite was moved to this location in downtown historic Philadelphia in 1975 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Betsy Ross’s body was first interred at the Free Quaker burial grounds on North Fifth Street in Philadelphia (interesting in that the Quaker’s shunned her); 20 years later, her remains were moved to the Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia. Then, in 1975, in preparation for the American Bicentennial, the City ordered the remains moved to the courtyard of the Betsy Ross House. Cemetery workers found no remains beneath her tombstone, but bones found elsewhere in the family plot were deemed to be hers and were re-interred in the grave which we tourists visit at the Betsy Ross House.

The museum does an excellent job of revealing the situation of women in Revolutionary times, what it was like for the women and children left behind when their men went to war, and how they provided for themselves when they were widowed. I go down to the kitchen area where another woman interprets what it would have been like to have been a Washerwoman – one of the few professions that a woman who had to fend for herself could undertake.

At the Betsy Ross House you learn about how women lived and worked in the Revolutionary War era © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“Working as a laundress was a difficult, low paying job in the 18th century; in early colonial period, many were enslaved or indentured servants; toward the end of the 18th century, most were free black women and widows struggling to support themselves.”

We are introduced to Judath, an African American washerwoman employed by Elizabeth Drinker, a wealthy Quaker woman. Jane Gray, a widowed African American washerwoman, who was a member of the “Black Class” at St. George’s Methodist church and later joined St. Thomas’ African Episcopal church. Susanna Cook, a widow with two children who lived at 3rd & Walnut Streets, whose husband died in the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793 and to earn a living, rented out rooms and worked as a washerwoman earning $3 a week; she fell ill in 1801 and died impoverished in an almshouse.

There are special exhibits: “Stitching the Story Together: Betsy Ross and the American Flag” opens March 1; “Furnishing the Widow’s Chamber (opens March 1).

Allocate about an hour to visit.

Admission: Self-guided tour: $5/adult, $4/seniors, children, vets, students; add $2 for the audio tour (a child’s audio tour is available).

Betsy Ross House, 239 Arch Street. 215-629-5801. Operated by Historic Philadelphia, Inc. 150 S. Independence Mall West, Suite 550, Philadelphia, PA 19106, 215-629-4026,  visitorservices@historicphiladelphia.org.

Shopping at The Outrage, a feminist shop that opened appropriately just a few doors down from the Betsy Ross House © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

When I leave the Betsy Ross House, I think how appropriate that other clothing/sewing places are also on this block, and just a few doors down, come upon Women’s Resistence – The Outrage (www.the-outrage.com)

The brand was started 2016 – it was supposed to be celebratory for first woman president, but instead, has become an outlet for outrage and resistance for artists and activists. A portion of sales helps benefit organizations – ACLU, Planned Parenthood, 350.org. The first store oened in DC; this one opened this fall, with other outlets planned across the country.

My immersion into Revolutionary War Americana in Philadelphia continues at the Constitution Center.

Visit Philadelphia provides excellent trip planning tools, including hotel packages, itineraries, events listings: 30 S 17th Street, Philadelphia PA 19103, 215-599-0776, visitphilly.com.

See also:

National Museum of American Jewish History is Unexpected Revelation in Philadelphia 

Philadelphia’s New Museum Immerses You into Drama of America’s Revolutionary War

72 Hours in Philadelphia: Ben Franklin, America’s Revolutionary ‘Elder Statesman,’ Would Have been Quite at Home in 21st Century 

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