Category Archives: US Destinations

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

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

by Karen Rubin

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Soggy Day One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Thorpe, PA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asa Packer Mansion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next:

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

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

 

Cruising into Martha’s Vineyard’s Warm Embrace

 

Viewing the sunset over Vineyard Haven, Martha’s Vineyard from the bow of Blount Small Ship Adventures’ Grand Caribe © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

What I love most about Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, is that this single island, just 100 square miles, holds such diversity of culture, heritage, ecology. You can find a place on this island to suit whatever mood or craving you have – Edgartown’s austere conformity; Oak Bluffs’ color and whimsy; Vineyard Haven’s seagoing tradition; Wampanoag Indian reservation; fishing villages, beaches, nature preserves, lighthouses, farms. Go a few miles and it’s like crossing a border to another state or state of mind.

Tossing out the line to dock at Martha’s Vineyard © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We arrive after a two-hour sail from New Bedford aboard Blount Small Ship Adventures’ Grande Caribe at 7:30 in the morning. I watch with great admiration how Captain Patrick Moynihan maneuvers us into the Tisbury Marina in Vineyard Haven, where billionaires have their yachts (our 84-passenger ship is about the size of the more ambitious of them), swinging us around so we are perpendicular to the pier. The first mate throws out a line to lasso the pylon.

Across the way, we can see where the big ferries come in from Falmouth, Hyannis, Nantucket, New Bedford, MA; Quonset Point, RI and New York.

The tall ship, Shenandoah, moored in Vineyard Haven, Martha’s Vineyard © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We see historic sailing vessels, like the tall ship Shenandoah, that add to the ambiance. Docked at the marina, we can go on and off the ship at will.It’s our third day of our New England Islands cruise – an itinerary that had to be completely rearranged because of storms at sea.

The best way to experience Martha’s Vineyard if you only have a day and especially if there are mobility issues is with an island tour. I am traveling with my brother who has some difficulty walking. We are recommended to Oak Bluffs Wharf & Land Company’s island tour, and we recommend it for both its length and scope. You come away feeling you really know Martha’s Vineyard from end to end, and more significantly, its people.

The tour company operates out of the Dockside Inn, an absolutely charming place a short walk from the ferry terminal; the inn (which I take note of for a return visit) and the tour company are both owned by John Tiernan (9 Circuit Avenue Ext., Oak Bluffs, MA, 508-684-8595, www.DocksideInnMV.com)

We hail an Uber and arrive at the charming inn in plenty of time to enjoy rocking in a wicker chair on the porch and watching the world go by (at least the people coming and going from the ferry) before we start the tour.

In the course of 2 ½ hours (more like 3) we get to visit all six of the island’s towns and go as far as Aguinnah and the Gay Head Cliffs.

Our guide, Linda, has lived on Martha’s Vineyard for 25 years but says her teenage grandkids still refer to her as a “washashore.” She is vivacious and interesting, as she drives the van and narrates about the points of interest, but also, gives us a real feeling for the people who live here and have been drawn here since the first European settlers arrived in 1642.

East Chop Lighthouse on Telegraph Hill © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Martha’s Vineyard is home to some 17,000 people year-round (I envy them); the population swells to 100,000 in summer. Traffic at the five-corners intersection (there are only two traffic lights on the island and these are on the bridges; no parking meters, neon signs, or billboards either) becomes a dance and a test of neighborly good will.

I could definitely live here. I’d be right at home among all the writers, journalists, musicians, artists, political people – the diversity of their backgrounds is laudable:

There’s Gloria Swanson’s house given to her by Joseph Kennedy. At West Chop, she ticks off prominent people who lived here (I note the media people and writers); Mike Wallace, Walter Cronkite, Lillian Hellman, Carly Simon. She points to where Charles Lindbergh and wife came for respite after their baby was kidnapped and killed; where John Kerry just bought property; She clicks off names of people who live in the area: Diane Sawyer (“Chip Chop” house); Mia Farrow; Katherine Graham (Washington Post), Beverly Sills; here’s where Princess Diana stayed here while divorcing; here’s a horse farm that was owned by James Cagney (still in his family); and here’s Lambert’s Cove, where Carly Simon is a regular (she always stops to ask for directions).

Michael J Fox had a home in Aquinnah, even named his daughter Aquinnah; Jackie Kennedy Onassis bought 400-acre spread, now owned by Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and Obama, who had regularly vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard during his presidency, just bought a piece of it. Driving through Chilmark, Bob Villa (“This Old House); author David McCullough (“John Adams”), Judi Blum, Susan Bronck, Philip Craig, Tom Clancy, Geraldine Brooks, and Jim Belushi; in Oak Bluffs, Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. (PBS “Finding Your Roots”), Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett.

It’s the atmosphere, the vibe, the ingrained culture of this place that makes it so accepting, so comfortable. I see it, feel it myself as I walk about.

It starts with Martha’s Vineyard’s early European settlement – not the Puritans who settled Plymouth, but Quakers who were more tolerant and respectful of the Wampanoag Indians and later the Cape Verdeans who were recruited to whaling, and still later African Americans and Jews who were barred elsewhere.

Soldiers’ Memorial Fountain, Oak Bluffs, erected in 1891 by MV Herald newspaper editor Charles Strahan, an ex-Confederate soldier, to honor local Union veterans © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is most emblematic for me when I come upon the statue of a Union soldier in Ocean Park. Soldiers’ Memorial Fountain was dedicated in 1891 by Martha’s Vineyard Herald editor Charles Strahan, who had served in a Virginia regiment of the Confederate Army. He wanted to express gratitude and remorse in his adopted home and erected the statue in honor of local Union veterans. Then, in 1925, residents reciprocated by adding a tablet in recognition of Confederate soldiers. The statue, with a fountain-fed water trough for horses, originally stood at the foot of Circuit Avenue; it was restored in 2001 and rededicated at this site on its 110th anniversary. It is one of the few expressions of reconciliation after the Civil War that I have ever found.

Linda notes that Martha’s Vineyard has a rich African American history; a heritage trail through the island has 20 sites, including the Shearer Cottages, an inn to accommodate African American visitors, which was started by Charles Shearer, a freed slave who came to the Vineyard and started a laundry service, which is still run by his great granddaughter Doris Jackson. There is also Adam Clayton Powell Jr.’s  house. And, Linda later points out when we are in Aquinnah, “The first African American woman to own her own property. Rebecca Amos, was a former slave married to Wampanoag, and when her husband died, she acquired his home.”

Inkwell Beach, the town beach in Oak Bluffs, Linda notes, was the first beach to be integrated. Indeed, when I return on my own, as I look around at the gatherings of people, you see genuine integration, not just neighbors –as in the historic Methodist camp meeting grounds – but in gatherings of friends and multi-racial families along the beach, the promenade, the main street, sitting on a bench at the Union Chapel.

As we travel in the comfortable van, Linda relates the island’s history:

Martha’s Vineyard was visited by Scandinavians as long ago as 1000 AD, naming it Vineland. The Italian explorer Verrazano sighted the island in 1524. But the most significant explorer was Bartholomew Gosnold of Falmouth, England, who in 1602 sailed into the Elizabeth Islands (he named), naming Cape Cod, and Martha’s Vineyard (named for his mother-in-law who financed the voyage).

In October 1641 Thomas Mayhew, an English merchant and settler of Watertown, Massachusetts, bought Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and Elizabeth Islands for 40 pounds from Lord Stirling and Sir Ferdinando Gorges, who had been granted ownership by the English Crown. Mayhew, who made himself governor for life, sent his son, Thomas Jr. with a few families to settle the island; Thomas required that the settlers purchase their land from the natives and from all accounts, treated the Wampanoag fairly and with respect. (This is likely why Martha’s Vineyard did not suffer the same violence as Plymouth did in the bloody King Philip’s War, 1675–76, in which native Americans made a final stab at forcing English settlers out of New England). “The diverse peoples lived in peace and the island also became a haven for people of color, those of African and Cape Verdean descent.”

Mayhew sent his son, Thomas Mayhew Jr., a missionary, “to ‘take savage out of natives’ so they would be more forthcoming with land (to sell to settlers),” Linda relates. Mayhew learned to speak Algonquin from an Indian man named Hiacoomes. Mayhew was Quaker, who believed in the “inner light” and that it was not necessary to believe in Jesus (as I subsequently learn in Nantucket). The converted Indians settled in their own village, “Christiantown”, where could live separately. They had their own meeting house and cemetery where Christianized natives were buried.

“Many natives died of disease but not the Christian ones, so they were more amenable to conversion,” Linda says.

Still, their numbers suffered after European settlement: in 1642, there were 3,000 Wampanoag; by 1764, their numbers had dwindled to just 300.

We pass an indigenous great white oak tree simply called “The Oldest Tree”, which is 400 years old (Alfred Eisenstadt took a famous photo of the tree).

Linda points to a dirt road named Tea Lane, the oldest road to the ocean. “Martha’s Vineyard had its own Tea Party – smuggled tea, buried it. Later, during Prohibition, they smuggled rum, and in 1970s, smuggled marijuana.”

We drive into Menemsha, a working fishing village (scenes from “Jaws” were filmed here and the Harrison Ford movie version of “Sabrina” used a charming cottage. Linda, who mentions that she is the daughter of a lobsterman, says it is popular for people to buy a fresh fish dinner and watch the sunset.

As we come into Aquinnah, where the Wampanoag reservation still exists, and where most of the remaining native population live, Linda relates how the whaling captains, knowing of the natives’ prowess harpooning whales that got beached, would try to recruit them. Herman Melville spent a lot of time talking with Amos Smalley, the first Indian to harpoon a whale single-handedly, who was very likely the model for his Queequeg character in “Moby Dick.”

Indigenous Wampanoag (“people of the first light”) have lived on Martha’s Vineyard for millennia. Nearly 1,000 are still listed on tribal rolls and, of these, 150 live in the southwestern 3,400-acre peninsula of Aquinnah, designated a reservation, and another 150 live elsewhere on the island.

The town of Aquinnah ends in cliffs once called Gay Head (because of the ‘gay’ appearance given to it by stripes of variegated clay and sand of which it is composed) and now called Clay Cliffs at Aquinnah. The one mile of exposed cliffs rise dramatically 150 feet feet above sea level.

Gay Head Cliffs: the pre-glacial sedimentary formation shows a cross section of strata from the Cretaceous through Pleistocene Ages, documenting geologic phases on the continental shelf from 100 million years ago © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The pre-glacial sedimentary formation shows a cross section of strata from the Cretaceous through Pleistocene Ages, documenting geologic phases on the continental shelf from 100 million years ago. The cliffs are one of the Island’s biggest tourist attractions.  Erosion, though, has forced the island to move the lighthouse, at a cost of $2 million.

Linda stops here to let us explore for about a half hour – take in the stunning view that includes a lighthouse (that had to be moved further inland) and visit a small market that includes a shop operated by Wampanoag, the first permanent settlers of the island.

The stunning view of Gay Head Cliffs and lighthouse at Aquinnah © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The hiking sticks (versus a cane as an assist for those who have trouble walking) really come in handy here, to make it up even the short, but pebbly slope. I meet a woman who is also using hiking sticks instead of a cane, and she confirms my theory: they provide better balance, let you stand up erect and walk more naturally, and use the upper body, relieving some pressure on the legs; added benefit: you look more like an athlete. “And I’m a nurse,” she exclaims.

You can buy wampum jewelry in one of the shops at the cliffs, where there are also food stands, and restrooms.

There also is a trail to the lighthouse and you can climb up to the light, or (with more time), hike a steep path down to water. We opt to take the short path that takes us to a fabulous view of the cliffs and the lighthouse.

There is also a relatively new Aquinnah Wampanoag Indian Museum (in what was the Vanderhoop residence, a large Wampanoag family who run a fishing charter business).

Aquinnah Wampanoag Indian Museum at the Gay Head Cliffs © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

“Jackie [Onassis who purchased 400 acres of property in Aquinnah] had to negotiate with Wampanoags for beach access from her property.”

As we drive through Chilmark, known for its sheep, Linda relates how, in September 1778, a British fleet of 40 ships sailed into Vineyard Haven harbor,  after having burned New Bedford and Fairhaven. Soldiers burned and pillaged vessels and farms.

“The British said there wouldn’t be bloodshed in Martha’s Vineyard if the settlers delivered 10,000 sheep and cattle in five days.” They had no choice but to comply, but one, where we pass the Alan Sheep Farm, hid six sheep in the basement (we see descendants of those sheep in the fields today). But the economy was decimated.

Quitsa Pound, 1877, an animal jail where stray animals would be confined until the owner paid a fine © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Linda relates one of the most interesting aspects that go to the heart of Martha’s Vineyard culture: Some early Vineyard settlers carried a gene for deafness (the first known deaf one was Jonathan Lambert, 1694), and over years of marriage, generation after generation was born with hearing loss. At one point, one in four children was born deaf. There were so many deaf people on the Vineyard (the greatest concentration in Chilmark) that they developed a sign language, Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL), which was later incorporated with mainland signs to form American Sign Language.

Sign language was so accepted on the Vineyard that a newspaper marveled in 1895 at the way the spoken and signed languages were used by both deaf and hearing residents. People moving to Chilmark actually had to learn sign language in order to live in the community. Deafness was so common, it was never considered to be a handicap. “The intermarriages persisted and the deaf population of Chilmark and the rest of the Vineyard continued to propagate. It would have kept growing if not for the growth of deaf education on the mainland. As deaf Vineyard children attended schools off-island, they tended to settle off-island, married mainland mates, and gradually the deaf Vineyard population died out. The last deaf Vineyard native passed away in the 1950s.”

There are other aspects of Chilmark: Chilmark Chocolates, which attained national renown after Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen presented a box to Ellen DeGeneres, is notable because the couple that own the chocolate company had a disabled son who enjoyed working in the store; now they only hire disabled.

The island also has Camp Jaberwocky. Founded in 1950 by the Lemb family it was the first overnight camp for children with cerebral palsy. “We see the kids every year. It still costs same as in 1950.” (Later I see the red bus carrying children to the camp.)

John Belushi’s grave on Martha’s Vineyard: “I may be gone, but/Rock and Roll lives on.” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Linda stops at John Belushi’s grave where people often leave bottles of Jack Daniels and rocks – not because of the Jewish tradition, but a reference to his chosen epitaph: “I may be gone, but/Rock and Roll lives on.”

“He had said, ‘Martha’s Vineyard is the only place I can get good rest’.”

Several of the sights she points out were used in making the movie “Jaws,” (despite the setting supposedly being Nantucket). One of them is a bridge where there is a prominent sign, “No jumping,” that everyone jumps off.

Beginning in 1765, Vineyard men became engaged in whaling, but when the numbers of whales near the island were exhausted, the ships sailed further and further away, with voyages lasting three to five years. By 1850, Vineyard whaling ships were found on every ocean; there would have been 50 ships out of Edgartown at any one time.

“No jumping.” Jumping off the “Jaws” bridge on Martha’s Vineyard © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Edgartown reflects the Vineyard’s whaling tradition the most – in the many captain’s houses; the Old Whaling Church (now a performance venue); the lighthouse. There is a uniformity in Edgartown that is mandated by town code: the houses have to be white or shingled, the trim can only be black, green or navy blue.

Even Duke’s County Jail and House of Correction, conforms to Edgartown’s architectural regimen © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But in the 1860s whaling collapsed – the ships had to travel further and further away, petroleum was discovered in Pennsylvania in 1859, the Civil War came and ships were blockaded – and the Vineyard had to look again for a new industry. It turned out to be tourism. For Martha’s Vineyard, that began in Oak Bluffs.

Perhaps one of the quaintest institutions on the Vineyard is the Martha’s Vineyard Camp-Meeting Association, which held its first camp-meeting in August 1835 in the Wesleyan Grove, in what is today Oak Bluffs where the Tabernacle stands.

Founded by the Methodist church, the campground began with pitched tents, then canvas on wood platforms, and then cottages that were gorgeously decorated in gingerbread patterns (like family crests, the patterns usually make a statement) and gay colors. These homes have been in their families for generations (they own the cottage, but not the land).

A row of charming cottages of the Camp Ground in Oak Bluffs © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

It was, in its way, the beginning of tourism, and when whaling fell apart for Edgartown, Linda says, Edgartown wanted in on Oak Bluffs’ good fortune. A railroad was built in 1874 between Oak Bluffs wharf to Edgartown, then to Katama and on to South Beach (still the best beach on the island). The railroad operated until 1897; eventually, a rail line was linked to New York (discontinued in 1917 and the rails sold to the government for iron). (Today, Martha’s Vineyard has an excellent public bus system.)

We arrive back into Oak Bluffs. Linda points out Inkwell Beach – one of the first integrated beaches in the country. “There is no discrimination here.”

Oak Bluffs, she says, is where Martin Luther King Jr. wrote some of his speeches.

Linda’s tour finishes at the Martha’s Vineyard Campmeeting Association’s Cottage Museum.

Oak Bluffs Wharf & Land Company, 9 Circuit Avenue Ext. Oak Bluffs, MA, 508-684-8595, http://vineyardhistory.com/.

The Cottage Museum, Oak Bluffs © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A Free Day

Grand Caribe’s Captain Patrick Moynihan has reshuffled our New England Islands voyage because of a storm which would make reaching Nantucket, 30 miles out to sea, too uncomfortable (10 foot seas) if not outright dangerous. But by staying over in Martha’s Vineyard for an extra day, he expects the weather to improve so we can sail there on Friday, as our last port of call.

The unexpected second day in Martha’s Vineyard is a gift, as if you had been given all these extra hours to do anything you want.

After two active days and anticipating another active day in Nantucket, Marty opts to spend the day relaxing on the ship.

The Cinderella Cottage, one of the points on the self-guided walking tour of Oak Bluffs © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I opt to return to one of my favorite places on the planet: Oak Bluffs. I love the color, the whimsy, the vibe. I have never seen a more open, welcoming place anywhere – it isn’t a coincidence that this is where Valerie Jarrett had her summer home, or that President Obama would summer on the Vineyard here every year during his presidency, or that there are so many media stars and celebrities (many who happen to be Jewish) who had vacation homes here.

Gorgeous detail of the Victorian cottages in the Camp Ground in Oak Bluffs © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I cross the street from the marina where we are tied up at the pier, and hop the #13 bus to Oak Bluffs (it makes a loop to Edgartown).

I pick up the “Historic Walking Tour of Oak Bluffs” brochure from the information center at the bottom of Circuit Avenue, and find myself on what seems a scavenger hunt to find all the places.

I tour of the famous Campground, with all those gorgeous gingerbread cottages with names like Respite, Time Remembered, Alice’s Wonderland, and the Tabernacle, which can seat 2000 for a service.

Inkwell Beach, Oak Bluffs © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I make most of the 20 sites on the map, enjoying the notes about history, architecture and people.

I enjoy wandering along the Oak Bluffs Harbor promenade, and Inkwell Beach and take in the lovely shops along Circuit Avenue.

I stop in at the Flying Horses Carousel, the nation’s oldest platform carousel (a national landmark), that was constructed in 1876 by Charles Dare, and today is one of only two Dare carousels still in existence. Originally operated as a Coney Island, NY amusement, it was moved to its red barn in Oak Bluffs in 1884, delighting generations ever since. The carousel was acquired by the Preservation Trust in 1986 to prevent it from being dismantled and sold piecemeal to collectors of antique carved horses. The Trust undertook an extensive restoration to return the carousel to its original appearance, complete with the historic panel paintings that were done by a Dare factory artist. The horses were individually restored and feature real horsehair manes and tails, and distinctive objects in their glass eyes. The 1923 Wurlitzer Band Organ plays old-timey tunes on original paper rolls. The highlight of every ride is the chance to grab the lucky Brass Ring to win a free ride.

Grab for the brass ring on the Flying Horses Carousel, Oak Bluffs, the nation’s oldest platform carousel © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Flying Horses Carousel is one of 20 historic properties owned and managed by The Vineyard Trust. Among them: Alleys and The Grange in West Tisbury; The Old Whaling Church and Daniel Fisher House in Edgartown; and Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs.

I take the bus back to Vineyard Haven, getting off opposite the ferry terminal, and walk up to the village’s main street which has many charming boutiques. The local movie theater has a poster of “Jaws.”

It’s a short walk back to the ship – I pass the Benjamin & Gannon ship building and repair company – actually a small shack, but Linda had mentioned that they are very welcoming to visitors, and sure enough, am invited to look inside.

Sunset at Vineyard Haven, Martha’s Vineyard © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

There’s so much to do on Martha’s Vineyard: with more time, I would bike (the island has 44 miles of bike and multi-user paths; several of our passengers took advantage of the rental bikes on board); 19 named beaches, 125 miles of coastline, fishing piers, kayaking, canoeing, windsurfing; horseback riding; guided cycling, natural, ecological, birding, historical, ghost and aerial tours; dozens of art galleries and boutiques, potters and artisans workshops and bookstores; visit an alpaca farm; wildlife and nature preserves, reptile and bird park, sanctuaries, arboretums, reservations; take the On-Time ferry to Chappaquiddick Island to explore Cape Poge and Wasque Reservations; visit Mytoi Japanese garden; the Vineyard’s Native American Wampanoag people at the Aquinnah Cultural Center, explore the Wampanoag Way, an Aquinnah Cultural Trail; follow the African American Heritage Trail; take in a performance at Vineyard Playhouse in Vineyard Haven or at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown; take a cooking, dance, yoga, pilates,  landscape painting class; circumnavigate the island or its surrounding waters aboard a sailboat, schooner, catamaran or motorboat; take a charter fishing or sailing excursion or lesson; attend a film, food & wine, artisans or other festival.

Blount Small Ship Adventures’ Grand Caribe tied to the pier at Tisbury Marina, Vineyard Haven © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

For more information, and to help plan a visit, contact Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, 24 Beach Road, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568, 508-693-0085, 800-505-4815, info@mvy.com, www.mvy.com.

The Grande Caribe sails on to Nantucket. Blount Small Ship Adventures, 461 Water Street, Warren, Rhode Island 02885, 800-556-7450 or 401-247-0955, info@blountsmallshipadventures.com, www.blountsmallshipadventures.com). 

See also:

A Spectacle in Motion: Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World is Once-in-a-Lifetime Must-See at New Bedford Whaling Museum

Blount Small Ship Adventures’ Grande Caribe Voyage to New England Islands Proves Ideal for Babyboomers Who Still Crave Thrill of Travel, Albeit at Slower Pace

Endlessly Fascinating, Newport RI, Playground for the Rich, Makes its Attractions Accessible

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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

Endlessly Fascinating, Newport RI, Playground for the Rich, Makes its Attractions Accessible

 

The Gold Room at Alva Vanderbilt’s Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island, epitomizes the Gilded Age © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

by Karen Rubin & Martin D. Rubin

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

Each time I visit Newport, Rhode Island, the guided tours of these Gilded Age mansions get better and better, more immersive into the lives upstairs and downstairs, more intriguing, and the relevance to society today more apparent. The gap between rich and poor hasn’t been this great since Cornelius Vanderbilt II built his palatial summer “cottage,” The Breakers.

Newport is still a playground for the rich – it is the reason it is the home to the International Tennis Hall of Fame and considered the sailing capital of the country, why it is so associated with classic cars – but the interesting thing is you don’t have to be rich to play, too.

This most recent visit to Newport comes as a port of call on the second day of Blount Small Ship Adventures’ week-long voyage to New England islands. We have a full day to explore, and sailing in gives a very different perspective.

We also are able to experience Newport from the perspective of how well the destination accommodates visitors with mobility issues.

Our ship, Grand Caribe, docks at Fort Adams State Park, “America’s largest coastal fortification,” a short stroll to a launch or a water taxi to the “downtown”.

Many of our fellow passengers are taking the island tour that the ship offers, which will include a stop at The Breakers, and the cruiseline had also arranged a 2-hour sail aboard an America’s Cup classic yacht (which had to be canceled because of weather). But I have some particular goals for our day in Newport.

We are met by Andrea McHugh from Discover Newport who has organized an itinerary to maximize our time gives us our own island tour (as well as the gossip of which tech billionaire has just bought which house, and how Jay Leno, who visited and attended events at the new Audrain Automobile Museum (which we will visit), passed an oceanfront mansion he liked and bought it on the spot, and now is seen regularly tooling around).

The gorgeous coastal views along Newport’s 10-mile Ocean Drive © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We drive along the magnificent 10-mile long Ocean Drive with its scenic views and rocky shore, and pass the driveway into Hammersmith Farm, the Auchincloss estate where Jackie married John Kennedy. It used to be open to the public with a fantastic exhibit of the Kennedys but was acquired by Peter Kiernan (notable for the Robin Hood Foundation, funded by John Jr.), and is no longer open.

We pass Beechwood, a mansion once owned by the Astors and for many years, where actors played their parts in period dress. It is now owned by Larry Elllison (Oracle), who, we are told, is planning to open part of the mansion as an art museum.

We pass Belcourt, once owned by Oliver H. P. Belmont (who became the second husband of Alva Vanderbilt), which was purchased in 2012, by Carolyn Rafaelian, who has spent a considerable sum on a multi-year restoration and has reopened it for public tours.

The Breakers

The Breakers, the 70-room summer “cottage” built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II in 1895 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We arrive at The Breakers, probably the most famous (and emblematic) of the Newport Gilded Age mansions that line Bellevue Avenue. It has a new visitor center which is really well done – barely visible from the street, it blends in wonderfully architecturally while affording a very comfortable (air conditioned) place to pick up tickets (take advantage of the multi-ticket options offered by The Preservation Society, which operates 10 of these glittering Newport Mansions, each with special exhibitions and presentations (see NewportMansions.org), refresh at a delightful café (sandwiches, $9.95), and utilize accessible restrooms (before, it was difficult for people with mobility issues to access a bathroom on property).

The new visitors center at The Breakers has a lovely café and sitting areas and is particularly helpful for visitors with mobility issues © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Each time I visit, I find new things to appreciate and understand– audio-guides, for example, which replace the scheduled docent-led tours so let you tour at your own pace, are endlessly fascinating with opportunities to click on specialized topics. (A free app, Newport Mansions, let you download the commentary on a smart phone even when you aren’t touring the property.)

(The audio-guide lets you know that people who can’t climb the stairs can ask a docent to escort them upstairs in an elevator.)

Built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II (the grandson of “The Commodore,” the founder of the fortune, who turned a ferry boat into a shipping empire into a railroad empire), this breathtakingly grand, eye-popping, 70-room Italian Renaissance “cottage,” designed by Richard Morris Hunt, replaced a wooden structure that burned down. This was 1895, and the United States was jockeying for a position as an industrial power on the global stage. Hunt, the commentary relates, had a vision for an architecture expressing an American Renaissance, one that was classic, grand in scale, but that which reflected the hope and optimism of America.

Eye-popping grandeur at The Breakers, Newport © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is mind-boggling to recall when you see the gilding, the carefully carved wood, the marble, the artwork, that this palace (they called it a “cottage”) was only used about eight weeks of the year, during “the season.” The Breakers would have had 40 staff in summer (Newport had 2,000 servants, mostly immigrants).

The Breakers is as much an architectural and artistic treasure as a touchstone to social, cultural and political currents of the Gilded Age.

We learn about the family and the social structure of Newport: Mrs. Alice Claypoole Gwynne Vanderbilt’s bedroom, for example, also functioned as an office from which she ran the home.

Newport was actually run by women, we learn. These grand homes were designed to present their wealthy daughters (heiresses) to be snapped up for a favorable marriage.

Dressing was important. Women would have to change something like seven times a day (a riding habit, tea gown, bathing outfit, tennis, golf, sailing). Newport was the first place women played outdoor sports; whole new fashions were created.

The Breakers had 15 bedrooms and 20 bathrooms (we see one bathtub, carved from a single block of marble that was so cold, it had to be fully filled and drained several times before it would be warm enough to bathe in.)

We see the servants corridors, hidden closets and back stairs. “Female servants were invisible.”

When we arrive in daughter Gertrude Vanderbilt’s bedroom, we learn that she was upset to learn she was an heiress. She preferred to be an artist, and became a sculptor, an art collector and patron and, in 1931, founded the Whitney Museum. (Here, I click the audio guide for more detail on specific things: Gertrude was on the forefront of the New Woman, an educated girl. The idea to become an artist came to her in a dream.)

We come to the mezzanine overlooking the grand staircase. (People who cannot climb stairs can ask to be escorted to an elevator.) “Gilded Age Newport was built, managed, and maintained by women. It was the backdrop for the presentation of women” at a time when a woman’s fortune depended upon making a favorable marriage.

The Breakers’ Grand Staircase – the steps were made two inches shorter so the debutantes would not trip on their gowns © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We learn that the grand staircase stairs were built (and even rebuilt) to be two inches shorter, so the young debutantes could be presented in their gowns without fear of tripping.

At this portion of the tour, you can click on the audio guide to hear more detail about how the Vanderbilt’s attained such wealth and privilege (but it is really, really hard to keep the players straight without a scorecard – so many have the same name like British royalty).

The Commodore left the vast majority of his enormous fortune to his eldest son, William Henry Vanderbilt (“Any fool can make a fortune; it takes a man of brains to hold onto it,” Cornelius Vanderbilt said.) Though he outlived his father by just eight years, in that time William doubled the Vanderbilt wealth from $100 million to $200 million.

In the oddest quote on the audio-guide, William Henry Vanderbilt explains why he sold controlling stock of the Vanderbilt empire to a syndicate headed by JP Morgan: “The care of $200 million is too great a load for any brain or back to bear. It is enough to kill a man. I have no son whom I am willing to afflict with the terrible burden.” The commentary adds, “Without a single visionary leader like the Commodore, there was no one to invest in the next new technology. Automobiles and airplanes replaced the railroads, the once vast fortune was split and shared among generations of descendants.”

When we visit the kitchen, we get to appreciate some of the modern innovations of the house. The first Breakers burned down so when Cornelius II rebuilt it, he had the kitchen separated from house and no burners. Zinc, the stainless steel of its day, covered the worktable. There was a separate, smaller room which could be kept cool, for preparing pastry.

The Music Room at The Breakers, Newport © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is worthwhile to appreciate that as we see the trappings of obscene wealth, privilege and power, we also get to appreciate that the servants – who were mainly immigrants – saw their position in these mansions as improvements, and many were able to embrace the American Dream and move up in station and class.  The Breakers’ chef, we learn, started as a kitchen boy and became known as the Omelette King.

The Butler’s pantry, a two-story affair, had a safe for the butler to lock the silver away. The butler, we are told, was like the captain of ship.

Leaving The Breakers, we walk down to the Cliff Walk, the most visited attraction in Rhode Island, and for good reason. This is a delightful walkway along the cliffs (mostly paved and accessible for someone who uses a cane or, as I urge instead, hiking sticks), behind the grand mansions such as The Breakers, and free to enjoy. It extends 3.5 miles all the way to Doris Duke’s Rough Point (where the walkway becomes more scrappy). Today, we only get a taste of it, in order to conserve time and energy.

The 3.5 mile Cliff Walk goes behind many of the magnificent Newport mansions and provides stunning views of the ocean © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Marble House

If The Breakers is about patriarchal wealth, power and privilege, Marble House, built before The Breakers by Cornelius II’s sister-in-law, Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt, tells the story of burgeoning feminism and what happens when a smart, ambitious woman has few outlets for her vast talents beyond making an advantageous marriage.

Of the $11 million spent to build Marble House was built for Alva Vanderbilt, $7 million was spent on 500,000 cubic feet of marble © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Marble House (which we reach by hopping Newport’s delightful trolley-style bus) was designed by the architect Richard Morris Hunt (who also designed The Breakers). Inspired by the Petit Trianon at Versailles, Marble House was built between 1888-1892 at a cost of $11 million of which $7 million was spent on 500,000 cubic feet of marble. When it was finished, William Kissam Vanderbilt, the Commodore’s grandson, gave the house to his wife as a 39th birthday present.

Alva built Marble House to be “a cottage like nothing Newport had ever seen.” As it turns out, Alva Vanderbilt was also like nothing Newport had never seen.

At a time before there were public museums, The Gothic Room at Marble House, which Alva Vanderbilt purchased “en bloc” in Europe, became a private museum © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Gothic Room featured an important Gothic collection from Europe, which Alva purchased “en bloc” – the whole caboodle. “She considered herself equal to European collectors but didn’t want to collect over generations.” The room was designed and executed in Paris – then reassembled here piece by piece.

At a time before there were public museums, this room became a private museum.

The most revealing room into Alva’s soul is the library (the “morning room”), where you see photos of Alva’s children and a portrait of Harold, born when her oldest, Consuelo was 7, who came back one day to find she had a baby brother and was told “God had sent him to us.”

The room is Alva’s feminist declaration, decorated with images of goddesses representing beauty, wealth and power. She wove into the frame and the fabric of the room images of women’s accomplishment – women holding a quill pen, Cleo, the Greek muse of history, female images of learning and the arts – the four corners showing (mythical) women in chemistry, botany, astronomy.

Part of the ceiling decoration in the Marble House Morning Room, depicting women in intellectual roles, part of Alva Vanderbilt’s declaration of women’s rights. She later was a leader and benefactor of the Women’s Suffrage movement, holding rallies at Marble House © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“In education, women have made tremendous strides,” she said. “It is not so long since women freed themselves from their man-made belief that it was unwomanly for a woman to have an idea of her own.”

She also said, “A man’s brain is not half a brain and we are the other half. Blending of the two will make a better whole.”

Her bedroom also was a display of the power she coveted – a bed on a throne-like platform, and images of Athena – goddess of wisdom and war.In this period, though, she saw social standing – that is, marriage to wealth – as a woman’s only means to power and independence. She applied this to her daughter, Consuelo, and raised the child to marry royalty.

Alva Vanderbilt’s throne-like bedroom in Marble House © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Consuelo seems to have been Alva’s obsessive focus. You hear how she was groomed to be married off to European royalty – from childhood forced to wear a steel rod from her neck to waist with a strap around her shoulders, to force her to sit up straight.

From her quotes, Consuelo seems to be fully aware of how she was being dominated by her mother, yet was a dutiful daughter, very close to her mother and understanding. We visit her  austere room decorated by her mother which, she says, “reflected in my mother’s love of me.”

Consuelo Vanderbilt’s bedroom at Marble House © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We see the guest room – the only one in this fabulous mansion – decorated in rose silk, with an 18th century bed. The most famous guest was, of course, the 9th Duke of Marlborough, Consuelo’s intended. We learn there is only one guest room in the house because people who would visit the house either had their own “cottage,” rented for the season or stayed in a hotel. “Marble House is built for the family.”

Consuelo “reluctantly accepted a proposal from the Duke of Marlborough.” She was one of the “Dollar Princesses,” American heiresses who married foreign royalty.”Consuelo Vanderbilt not the first or the last, but she was the best known.”

These marriages, “were a melding of the old world and the new world. They enabled royalty to maintain property and palaces for another generation.”

Indeed, the Gilded Salon – literally painted in 22 carat gold, the very epitome of Gilded Age – had a featured role in Duke’s marriage proposal.

But after Consuelo was married off to British royalty, Alva acted for herself, divorcing William K in 1895.

My favorite quote from the audio guide, “I was the first of my set to marry a Vanderbilt and the first to get divorced – but not the last.” Alva Erskine Smith of Alabama felt herself a pioneer for her class, a female knight reassuring others. “Mine was the first, but the first of many.”

She ditched William K. Vanderbilt to marry her husband’s best friend, Oliver H.P. Belmont, moving down the street to Belcourt.

After her second husband’s death, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont reopened Marble House and had a Chinese Tea House built on the seaside cliffs, and held Women’s Suffrage rallies © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After Belmont’s death, Alva reopened Marble House and had a Chinese Tea House built on the seaside cliffs. She became active and a major donor to the Women’s Suffrage Movement, holding rallies in 1909 at Marble House.

She raised money for the cause by opening Marble House to the public: “Shop girls could mingle with socialites” for the price of a $5 ticket (which would have been equivalent to $500 in today’s money).

Alva insisted, “Women shouldn’t marry until we get vote,” a pronouncement considered hypocritical for a twice-married woman.

Following her mother’s example, after 26 years as Duchess of Marlborough living in Blenheim Palace, Consuelo ended her loveless marriage in 1921, giving him $2.5 million a year, and married “for love” a French aviator, Jacques Balsan. (More about these personal relationships in a fantastic photo gallery in the basement.)

In stark contrast to the grand (albeit austere) bedroom that Consuelo occupied, her brothers’ rooms were tiny and spartan; Willy K Jr.’s room was occupied by Marble House superintendent, William Gilmour, who joined the household when he was 16 to be Willy K’s companion.

We visit a trophy room (that had been converted from two dressing rooms that were between Alva’s bedroom and Consuelo’s), that recognizes sons William K., Jr.’s role in pioneering the sport of auto racing in America (he created the Vanderbilt Cup auto races and built the Vanderbilt Parkway which starts across from where he had a home in Lake Success); and Harold Stirling, one of the finest yachtsmen of his era who successfully defended the America’s Cup three times and invented the game of contract bridge.  Notably, as chairman of the board of Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Harold supported integration.”He wanted to be associated with positive, progressive thinking.”

In the basement kitchen (capable of feeding 100), we see yet another side of Alva in a quoted segment complaining “how the rich are exploited. When a shopkeeper learned my address, he said he made mistake of the price and added 50%.” This at a time when she paid a French chef (after all, you had to have a French chef), the massive sum of $10,000 (equivalent to $250,000 today).

We see in the cupboard silver trays etched with the children’s names and china made with “Vote for Women.”

In Marble House, too, people who have difficulty climbing stairs can ask to use an elevator, and the docents will find a place to sit and rest, as necessary.

In summer, the Preservation Society has 10 properties open, all with distinctive presentations and exhibits.

Rosecliff, the 1902 “fantasy in terra-cotta”, is presenting “Bohemian Beauty” celebrating the ideals of the Aesthetic Movement, personified by Oscar Wilde who visited Newport twice, with furniture, ceramics, wallpaper, glass, silver, paintings and clothing (thru Nov 4).

(Plan your visit in advance at The Preservation Society of Newport County, 424 Bellevue Avenue, Newport, RI 02840,  401-847-1000, info@newportmansions.org, www.newportmansions.org.)

In addition, there are the homes and heritage sites operated by Newport Restoration Foundation including Rough Point and Whitehorne Museum (51 Touro St., Newport, RI 02840, 401–849–7300, newportrestoration.org).

Tennis, Classic Cars

Between The Breakers and Marble House, we take in some of Newport’s other distinctive attractions:

The grass tennis court at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, where the first US Open tournaments were played. The hall of fame honors tennis champions © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The International Tennis Hall of Fame, which features the original grass court where American tennis began. The museum features 2,000 artifacts spanning hundreds of years of tennis history (such as the patent for the game of tennis signed by Queen Victoria in 1874), displayed in redesigned galleries with some interactive exhibits. One of the newest, most novel exhibits features a hologram of tennis legend Roger Federer who offers the top 10 reason why he loves tennis. The Hall of Fame honors hundreds of the most accomplished champions, inducted since 1954. After touring the museum, you can explore the seven-acre historic grounds of what the Vanderbilts’ would have known as the Newport Casino (the Tiffany clocktower and Shingle style building was originally developed by architects McKim, Mead & White in 1880), grass courts of the Bill Talbert Stadium and newly built indoor courts (you can even rent time to play on its grass courts). Here, too, we are able to request the use of an elevator to get up to the exhibits on the second floor. (194 Bellevue Avenue, www.tennisfame.com).

Audrain Automobile Museum offers regularly changing exhibits based on its private collection of 250 cars (every one in working condition), from 1899 to modern day, as well as special events. Ever changing exhibits display 15 to 20 cars at a time around a theme. We had just missed the “Muscle Car Madness” exhibit featuring cars of the 1950s and 1970s, accompanied with surf boards and original art.) On view now are some intriguing cars I had never seen before: Messerschmidt, which after World War II when Germans were no longer allowed to build airplanes, used airplane parts to create a micro-car that basically looks like a cockpit with wheels. A French version is also on view. “They aren’t great to drive,” says the young docent who drove it and says all the cars on display have to be in working condition.  (Audrain Automobile Museum, 222 Bellevue Avenue, 401-856-4420, audrainautomuseum.org)

Audrain Automobile Museum offers regularly changing exhibits based on its private collection of 250 cars; here some of the micro cars produced after World War II that are more like an airplane cockpit (and made from airplane parts) © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We enjoy a marvelous lunch at Annie’s bistro café (176 Bellevue Ave., anniesnewport.com) – elegant dining in a casual atmosphere and the best New England clam chowder anywhere –before hopping a trolley-style bus for a short ride to Marble House (you can see the schedule on googlemaps.com on your smartphone).

Andrea returns us to the Grande Caribe, where it is too late to explore inside the fort, but I walk along the Bay Walk (a 2.5 mile  loop with gorgeous views of Narrangansett Bay and Newport Harbor) before returning to the ship for the cocktail hour and dinner.  (Blount Small Ship Adventures, 800-556-7450,  www.blountsmallshipadventures.com).

This was what you could do with one full day in Newport. There is so much more to do, and so deserving of a return multi-day visit. Top on my list: Doris Duke’s Rough Point (newportrestoration.org); Touro Synagogue and Loeb Visitors Center (tourosynagogue.org), Redwood Library and Athenaeum (opened in 1750 and has a collection of more than 200,000 titles, www.redwoodlibrary.org), and The National Museum of American Illustration (americanillustration.org), to list but a few.

See more and plan your visit: Discover Newport, 23 America’s Cup Avenue, Newport, RI 02840, 800-326-6030, 401-849-8048, www.discovernewport.org.

Blount’s Small Ship Adventures’ Grande Caribe © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Grande Caribe will next sail to New Bedford (see A Spectacle in Motion: Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World is Once-in-a-Lifetime Must-See at New Bedford Whaling Museum) and on to Martha’s Vineyard.

Blount Small Ship Adventures, 461 Water Street, Warren, Rhode Island 02885, 800-556-7450 or 401-247-0955,  info@blountsmallshipadventures.com, www.blountsmallshipadventures.com). 

See also:

Blount Small Ship Adventures’ Grande Caribe Voyage to New England Islands Proves Ideal for Babyboomers Who Still Crave Thrill of Travel, Albeit at Slower Pace

_____________________________

© 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

 

Blount Small Ship Adventures’ Grande Caribe Voyage to New England Islands Proves Ideal for Babyboomers Who Still Crave Thrill of Travel, Albeit at Slower Pace

Sunset in the port at Vineyard Haven, on Martha’s Vineyard, from the top deck of Blount’s Grande Caribe © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin & Martin D. Rubin

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

We belong to the backpack generation that bought a Eurail pass and traveled around the continent with “Europe on $5 A Day” as our Bible. No once-in-a-lifetime, “If it’s Tuesday it must be Belgium” grand tour for us, travel has been integral part of our lifestyle, forming a worldview that bursts the borders of our own provincial anchors.

But we are reaching a point where one or both have limitations. Travel can be physically challenging. Still, we crave the excitement of discovery, the adventure of new experiences, serendipitous encounters, that mental and physical exhilaration of travel.

A perfect prescription is small-ship cruising. There are now several cruise companies operating a score of small-ships that ply rivers, canals, seaways and some designed to tackle the pounding waves of oceans have arisen, and carry us directly into ports, minimizing the hassle of travel and maximizing the enjoyment. And an ideal destination to explore is America itself – the port cities, towns and islands that harbor fascinating history, natural wonders and cultural charms. What is more, the cruises are easy to access, avoid many of the hassles of foreign travel and long airplane flights, and allay any concern about getting timely medical attention if necessary.

Blount’s Grande Caribe docked in New Bedford. © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We are just back from Blount Small Ship Adventures’ week-long cruise of New England islands – a trip that could only be accomplished with a ship that enabled visits to places you might normally visit individually but woven together in one fantastic itinerary: Newport, New Bedford, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket – destinations that offer wonder and interest and importance to the discovery, exploration and development of America as the towns you visit along the Danube.

The voyage proves ideal for accommodating people who have physical limitations (not recommended for wheelchair-bound, though), ideal for a three-generation reunion of 13 family members coming together from Dallas and Nashville to share this Yankee adventure; ideal for a couple where one is blind; ideal for a daughter traveling with her mother who walks with a cane; ideal for me and my brother who also has somewhat limited mobility. Indeed, the passengers  come from as far as California, and as close as Boston; one couple had taken Blount’s cruise to Guatemala and Belize, another is on their third New England Islands cruise with Blount.

The Grande Caribe is very accommodating for people with somewhat limited mobility (there are even stair lifts for those who cannot do stairs) – and an itinerary that gives maximum amount of time to enjoy each port with minimal hassle, while allowing for passengers to be as active or as sedentary as they liked. It is unpretentious and comfortable, having everything you would need.

Each of the New England destinations in this itinerary is a jewel, but can only be visited in this compressed amount of time by cruiseship – cutting out the point-to-point driving (traffic!), ferries, parking, packing/repacking, checking in/out. Rather, every minute of this trip is part of our voyage, our vacation experience. Significantly, all the sights we visit – the grand mansions, museums, historical sites – are accommodating for people who have difficulty climbing steps. (I’m seeing many more people using hiking sticks in place of canes or walkers to get around.)

Taking the launch from Blount’s Grande Caribe anchored in Nantucket’s harbor © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We sail in before breakfast, and in each port but Nantucket (where we use a launch service), we are at a dock so we can come and go as we please all day long. We depart in the night, so we have a full day to explore.

The cruise line offers various shore excursions (island tours and such offered at very reasonable cost), and on some itineraries, has bikes or kayaks to rent.

Our strategy is to take an island tour, then visit a couple of attractions. When one of us has enough and wants to relax, it is easy to return to the ship while the other continues to explore.

Because of bad storms at sea, Captain Patrick Moynihan makes a command decision to change around the itinerary, which otherwise would have gone first to Nantucket, which is 30 miles out to sea where there are 10-foot swells. He warns that it is possible we won’t be able to visit Nantucket at all. But we hold out hope.

No one second-guesses his decision when safety of the ship is concerned and sits in rapt attention during the safety video before we depart that shows us what would happen in an emergency. (Also, each day the ship is “sanitized” and there are hand-sanitizing stations as well.)

In the end, we spend an extra full day in Martha’s Vineyard (sensational) and make it to Nantucket on our last full day, but bypass Block Island.

Blount’s specially designed small ships make this itinerary possible; these ships are nimble, even have a patented bow ramp (this is used in places like Belize and Guatemala) and a retractable pilot house (so they can go under bridges on the Erie Canal), both inventions of Luther Blount, who founded the company and was one of the innovators of “small ship cruising” more than 50 years ago, and can come close to shore.

Sailing into Martha’s Vineyard © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Jumping from island to island, port to port, we experience these places as they were intended – the sea is what made these destinations and made them powerhouses in the national and global economy. Tiny Nantucket, with a population in the thousands, was known the world over (I love the wall showing distance markers to points around the world); New Bedford sent out hundreds of whaling ships, half of all that sailed the globe, and had 10,000 men at sea at any one time.

We embark in Warren, Rhode Island, which is home base for Blount and where they have been building ships and ferries since 1947. With the change in itinerary because of the weather, our voyage starts in Bristol, then Newport, New Bedford, Martha’s Vineyard (2 days), Nantucket, before sailing back to Warren RI. I have visited all these places in the past, but on this trip, I see them from such a different perspective, it is as if seeing them for the first time.

An evenings entertainment aboard Blount’s Grande Caribe: Martha’s Vineyard native, folksinger Mark Alan Lovewell, plays a 164-year old concertina and sings sea chanties, “the work songs of the whalers.” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The days pass so pleasantly: there is an early bird breakfast put out at 6:30 am (coffee and freshly baked goods), breakfast at 8 am. Touring and exploring. Lunch at 12:30 pm (if you want to return to the ship). 5:30 cocktails (it’s BYOB except for welcome and farewell cocktail parties with an open bar and delicious hors d’oeurves); 6:30 dinner; then an evening activity at 8:30 pm– a movie, live performance (we had a trio on one night and a Martha’s Vineyard native, folksinger Mark Alan Lovewell, doing sea chanties before we came to Nantucket), and one night when we played a rollicking game of “LCR” (everyone puts up three $1 bills, rolls dice, and at the end, whoever still has a bill, wins the pot).

To be candid, many of the large cruise ships have such busy schedules that it always seems you are rushing here to there; but on this ship, it feels much more relaxed, not hurried, but with enough to do (or as little as you wanted) that it is never boring. There are always interesting conversations going on, I hardly have any time to read my book. (There is a ship’s library and board games available.). Some itineraries also have guest lecturers and some offer photography workshops.

A classic New England dinner of fresh lobster, clams and mussels © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The food on board is excellent and the menus, which reflect the region and use locally sourced comestibles, feature New England classics: a lobster bake with clams & mussels was a definite highlight; New England clam chowder; lobster bisque). The baked goods including fresh breads and scones, are outstanding.  Three meals are provided daily. There are beverages and snacks available all day. Dietary restrictions are accommodated.

We are encouraged to Bring Your Own Beverages aboard which we can put in a cooler or at a bar, and each evening there is a 5:30 cocktail hour when all the fixings are provided (house wine and beer are provided at no charge at lunch and dinner), but there is also a welcome aboard and farewell cocktail party with an open bar and delectable hors d’oeurves.

Blount’s Grande Caribe cook prepares omelettes to order for breakfast during our stop in Martha’s Vineyard © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The ship is modest, unpretentious, but is very comfortable, very clean and well maintained (it was refurbished in 2009), and has everything you need. There is a pleasant lounge ringed with windows; an expansive dining room (also with windows along the walls on both sides) an open sitting area (with fitness machines) on the back deck, and an open air top deck with lounge chairs and a canvas cover for rain and sun.

The ship offers four categories of smoke-free cabins, all with individual climate-controlled air-conditioning systems, private bathroom and adequate storage. Our cabin (56B) on the upper deck literally down the hallway from the lounge, had a large picture window which we could open for fresh air; air conditioning which we could set; a toilet and sink in a cabinet and a separate shower, two outlets for plugging in.

The Captain lets us know when to expect rocking and rolling and for how long, and to suggest for those so inclined to take advantage of ship’s supply of Bonine or Dramamine. But even though I have been prone to motion sickness, the worst of rocking (one night it was five or six foot seas for about a hour) feels to me like being aggressively rocked in a cradle.

We can follow the ship’s progress on a navigational map on a big screen TV, like watching your plane’s route.

Tossing out the line to dock at Martha’s Vineyard © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The ship, with a capacity for 84 passengers, has Interesting people from all over the country – as far as California and Texas, Midwest (Illinois, Tennessee) and North Carolina, as well as New Jersey, Long Island, Boston. But this style of small-ship cruising, and this itinerary in particular is ideal for travelers from abroad to really see America in a compressed timeframe.

The intimacy means you not only get immersed in the destination (versus the floating resort-style cruiseships where the ports are almost an afterthought), but with fellow passengers.

Each evening we are told about the next day’s itinerary – when we sail, where we dock, how to get into town, when and where to go for the shore excursions. There are guides, maps, and various tourist literature laid out. The day’s schedule is posted. Much of this is repeated at breakfast, and Jasmine, the spry cruise director, is very accessible to ask additional questions.There are shore excursions offered at each port – island tours that are conveniently arranged for a pick up at the boat, lasting about 1 ½ hours, at reasonable cost.

Blount’s Grande Caribe tied up at the Tisbury Marina at Vineyard Haven on Martha’s Vineyard © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is remarkable to me how they not only had to switch around the itinerary, but organize dockage or mooring, shuttles, switch around the shore excursions, and do it so that it all seems seamless to us.

Our original itinerary from Warren, Rhode Island, the home base of Blount Cruises, to Cuttyhunk, MA, to New Bedford, to Nantucket, to Martha’s Vineyard, to Block Island, to Bristol, RI, to Newport and back to Warren – is completely revamped because of the 10 foot seas we would have to sail through to reach Nantucket.

Instead, we sail from Warren RI to Bristol to Newport, New Bedford, Martha’s Vineyard (where we stay two full days instead of one), to Nantucket and back to Warren RI.

Sailing into Bristol

On Sunday, after departing Warren, after a short sail we pull into Bristol, Rhode Island (coming this way, I didn’t recognize this town which is at the end of the East Bay Bike Path from Providence that I have biked several times in the past). Just across from where we dock, there is a fascinating boat museum, the Herreshoff Marine Museum and America’s Cup Hall of Fame. It is a shrine to yacht racing and where eight consecutive America’s Cup defenders were built.

An America’s Cup defender, on display at the Herreshoff Marine Museum and America’s Cup Hall of Fame, Bristol, RI © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The museum houses dozens of sailing yachts, some that you can climb aboard. A local on the dock walking his dogs tells me that this boatyard is where many of the America’s Cup sailboats were designed and built in the 1930s by John Brown Herreshoff, who was blind, but would create these models based on feel.

According to the museum,  “In 1878, John Brown Herreshoff, a blind boatbuilder from Bristol, Rhode Island, who had been in business since 1863, went into partnership with his younger brother, Nathanael Greene Herreshoff, a naval architect and steam engineer.

“Between 1893 and 1914, for the defense of the America’s Cup, Captain Nat designed and built seven of the largest, most complex and powerful racing sloops the world has ever known. Of these, five were selected to sail as defenders, and all five were victorious. The firm also launched many hundreds of custom designs, both large and small, and a number of one-design classes (among them Herreshoff J12’1/2- and 15-Footers, S boats, and New York 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s) that have never been bettered for all-around sailing excitement and pleasure.” (http://www.herreshoff.org)

He also encourages me to visit Linden Place Museum, an 1810 Federal-style mansion with a stunning spiral staircase and  Hollywood connections: stage and screen star Ethel Barrymore summered here (her movie memorabilia is on display), plus scenes from the 1974 version of “The Great Gatsby” were shot here, with the exterior used as Daisy Buchanan’s parents home. (Alas, it is closed by the time I get there.)

Linden Place Museum in Bristol was where Ethel Barrymore summered and which was one of the locations for the 1974 “Great Gatsby” film © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.comI walk into the town with the most marvelous homes dating back to the early 1700s.

There is also Blithewold Mansion, Gardens and Arboretum, located just outside of downtown, but I don’t make it that far when it starts to rain.

I note the red-white-blue stripe down the center line of the main street: Bristol boasts the oldest Fourth of July celebration in the United States, held continuously since 1785, and it displays its patriotism year-round with the painted traffic lines, as well as flags and such on many of the houses.

Luther’s Legacy 

The Blounts were in the oyster business for generations until the 1938 hurricane destroyed Rhode Island’s oyster beds. Luther Blount was in college at the time studying engineering, and realized he had to set a different course for his future. He moved back to Rhode Island, and promptly invented a way to steam clams that was so efficient, his brother Nelson’s company became the supplier for Campbell’s Soup’s Clam Chowder.

By 1947, Luther had become the Vice President of E.B. Blount and Sons, and began building boats, beginning with an oyster boat.  By 1964, he had built over 100 vessels (including Circle Line boats that take tourists around the Statue of Liberty, and the ferries that one of our passengers from Long Island uses for his Fire Island ferry business). He even had a few patents to his name — patents that would one day become the signature of Blount Cruise ships.

The 1812 privateer, Lynx, operated by the Lynx Educational Foundation, sails past Nantucket’s lighthouse.

Over the course of 20 years, Blount would personally sail the globe to the ships he built. In 1966, Luther decided that he wanted to show his friends and family the places he had been exploring and began building passenger boats. Soon he was offering these trips for others, coining the expression “small ship cruising”.

“He created itineraries for explorers, for those who wanted to tread lightly, going beyond the usual tourist meccas finding experiences you can only have when you get to know a place through its people.”

Meanwhile, Luther, who passed away in 2006, worked to bring the oysters back to Rhode Island, starting with Narragansett Bay. He donated to a local university, charging them with cultivating new oyster beds.  He bought Prudence Island to be used as an oyster regeneration project funded by his foundation.

Today, Luther’s daughter Nancy is at the helm as president of Blount Small Ship Adventures; daughters Marcia and Julie are president and vice president of Blount Boats.

Captain Patrick Moynihan brings the Grande Caribe back to the Blount Small ship Adventures’ homeport in Warren, Rhode Island. Luther Blount invented a retractable pilot house so the ship could go under bridges © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The design of the Grande Caribe and its sister ship, Grande Mariner, enables Blount to bring travelers to places that larger ships simply cannot go. They explore remote islands and traverse scenic waterways like the Erie Canal and St. Lawrence Seaway. They dock where private yachts dock (in fact, our ship is about the same size as the more extravagant yachts).

This style of  cruising appeals to people who are curious, casual, adventurous, who appreciate the ship as transportation for the purpose of exploring destinations, learning about cultures and heritage and communities. The atmosphere is very casual, laid-back, unpretentious, welcoming – as if you were sailing on a friend’s yacht.

Interestingly, even though we visit places that are literally overrun by tourists this season, we dock away from the crowds, and simply slip into the everyday pattern – hopping a local bus, for example at Vineyard Haven to Oak Bluffs or a local beach. The three-generations family of 13 split off for different activities – cousins going one direction – pooling photos on an online album.

Blount Small Ship Adventures offers overnight small ship cruises in the United States, Canada, Central America, Caribbean and Cuba, with itineraries ranging from 7 to 16 days. (View complete schedule on www.blountsmallshipadventures.com).

Blount Small Ship Adventures, 461 Water Street, Warren, Rhode Island 02885, 800-556-7450 or 401-247-0955,  info@blountsmallshipadventures.com, www.blountsmallshipadventures.com.

Next: A Day in Newport

See also:

A Spectacle in Motion: Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World is Once-in-a-Lifetime Must-See at New Bedford Whaling Museum

_____________________________

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

 

A Spectacle in Motion: Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World is Once-in-a-Lifetime Must-See at New Bedford Whaling Museum

“The Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World” is the longest painting in America, as long as the Empire State Building is tall © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

The New Bedford Whaling Museum calls its special exhibition a “A Spectacle in Motion” – a title that proves to be anything but hyperbole. Imagine before documentary, before moving pictures, before photography, where the only way people could see images of places beyond their own experience was through painting, etched drawings in newspapers, or scrimshaw. Now imagine a whaling voyage that starts in New Bedford and travels thousands of miles to Fiji, painted on one mural, nearly one-quarter mile long – the longest painting in America. I can only imagine the sensation “The Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World,” caused when it was first exhibited in 1849.

“Purrington & Russell’s Original Panorama: Whaling Voyage Round the World. Three Miles of Canvas” a poster from the Boston showing in 1849 proclaims. “Tickets 25 cents, half-price for children” (at a time when the sailors themselves earned $1 a day).

“A Spectacle in Motion,” a special exhibit of the New Bedford Whaling Museum featuring an extraordinary quarter-mile long mural painted in 1848 (longest painting in America) depicting “The Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World”  was the Virtual Reality of its day © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The mural, which is only rarely displayed in its entirety, has not been seen since the 1960s and is only on public view through October 8 by the New Bedford Whaling Museum, in New Bedford, Massachusetts (and very possibly never again), is a documentary of the whaling voyage, and while it stays still, it is you that gives it motion as you walk down the long, long stretch of each of the four panels – altogether nearly one-quarter mile long. But in its day, it was designed to be rolled so that it did in fact create a moving picture.

Coming upon this spectacle was one of the highlights of the Blount Small Ship Adventure cruise of New England Islands, all the more thrilling because it was completely unexpected, as most highlights and adventures are. As I was leaving the New Bedford Whaling Museum, I spotted a flyer saying that there was a free shuttle to “the mural.” I took a leap of faith and within moments, was traveling in the van for the five-minute, two-mile drive to the historic Kilburn Mills,as the van driver (a 47-year veteran of the museum who had a hand in moving it and laying it out to be photographed for the digitized exhibit) explained. Even after he gave me some sense of what the mural was about and why it needed to be housed in such a sprawling building, I was completely unprepared for what I would encounter. Indeed, seeing the Grand Panorama proved to be a thrilling experience and not a mere ‘viewing”. But as I climbed the flights of stairs to the fourth floor and got my first glimpse, it was, OMG. It took my breath away. Titling the exhibit “A Spectacle in Motion” was not over-selling.

 “The Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World” starts with the departure from New Bedford in scenes that are mimicked today. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The mural, in four panels each that stretches the entire length of the mill, is as long as the Empire State Building is tall; it is the longest painting in America.

Painted in 1848 by two New Bedford artists, Caleb Purrington and Benjamin Russell based on Russell’s actual around-the-world whaling journey, the mural documents every aspect of the places visited as well as key events. You see Pitcairn, settled by the Mutineers of the Bounty wound up; the scene as the whale rammed the Essex, the 1820 event that inspired Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”; the island of Juan Fernandez off Chile, the temporary home of castaway Alexander Selkirk who was the model for Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe.” It shows in gory detail the harpooning of a whale, blood spewing into the water; the danger as whalers are thrown into the churning sea; the 1847 eruption of the volcano at Fogo, Cape Verde, spewing its orange-red lava; sailing through a dark furious storm.

“The Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World” by New Bedford artists Caleb Purrington and Benjamin Russell, depicts important scenes like the whale that rammed the whaler, Essex, the event Herman Melville used in his novel, “Moby Dick.” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The voyage starts in New Bedford, with the first section looking so much as it does from the water as we have seen, coming into port on Blount Small Ship Adventures’ Grande Caribe.

The last scene is in Fiji and the last panel is curious: it seems to depict two women, one giving birth and the other a midwife.

I can only imagine the sensation that The Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World caused when it was first exhibited in 1849 – before documentary, before moving pictures, before photography, when the only way to get a visual impression of some place beyond your own experience was through painted or drawn images. But this goes so far beyond. Over the course of 1,275 feet, the mural documents the entire whaling voyage, from its departure from New Bedford, to Fiji Islands. Along the way, it shows the blood, gore, the dangers and hardships of whaling. And because you move, it is the closest thing to a “moving” picture documentary they would have had.

The final panel of “The Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World” is set in Fiji where there is a curious scene that seems to depict a woman giving birth and a midwife © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But where the mural transported these 19th century viewers to places on the globe they had never been – it was the 3D Imax, the Virtual Reality of its day- it transports us back in time. And in its day, it was designed to actually move. Before moving pictures, the scrolls were cranked on either side like reels of film, and displayed on a theater stage.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum calls the exhibit “Spectacle: A Voyage in Motion” in appropriate typeface that shouts its excitement. It is astonishing, captivating, awesome – on so many levels – the sheer size and ambition, the quality of the art – the delicacy and fine line of scrimshaw, stunning use of colors – the insights into the events – the importance of the subject, and on top of that, the achievement of restoring the painting – and finally, the enormity and rarity of the work being displayed at all – just the process of unrolling it and hanging it for display damages the painting.

Reproduction of a poster announcing “The Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World” at Amory Hall, Boston. The mural was first exhibited in 1849. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The museum spent two years restoring the mural, which originally was shown by rolling it so that the images actually did move – and important details of that conservation process, along with historical notes, are provided that are fascinating.

The mural is displayed in four sections that each cover the entire length of an historic textile mill (textile manufacturing displaced whaling when that industry collapsed, and then was replaced itself in the 1950s when climate controls made it possible to manufacture more cheaply in the South, which was then replaced by tourism).

Given the extraordinary length, the fragility of the painting, the sheer cost of moving it, setting it up, and finding a room big enough to display it, this is the first time in generations that the entire Panorama can be seen by the public.

Like a true documentary, “The Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World” by New Bedford artists Caleb Purrington and Benjamin Russell, depicts the blood and gore, the danger and risk of a whaling voyage © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

From where it is unfurled in the building two miles from the Whaling Museum, you travel around the world and back in time with the whalers without ever leaving the city. The exhibition’s interpretive panels and kiosks are fascinating to enrich the context and content of the Panorama, as well as to give a fuller appreciation of what went into the two-year restoration project.

The notes from the museum describe the Panorama as “a maritime artwork of national historical importance, authentically depicting a whaling voyage originating from the port of New Bedford in the mid-19th century. It was painted in 1848, by New Bedford artists Caleb Purrington and Benjamin Russell, who traveled it around the country as a commercial enterprise.”

The panorama as a form of public entertainment was developed in Europe in the late 18th century and subsequently made its way to the United States after demonstrating its commercial potential to an armchair traveler audience. Robert Barker, who patented this exhibition style, defined a “panorama” as “all view.”

He felt that spectators should feel like they were “really on the very spot,” that they should feel as if they were part of the scene in a surrogate reality, an imaginary “Grand Tour” of the world.

This is precisely what visitors will experience. It was the Virtual Reality of its day.

In the late 1840’s and early 1850’s, well before the age of cinema, the Panorama was designed and performed as a moving panorama, a form of entertainment where multiple scrolls moved across a stage similar to how a reel-to-reel film would later be shown.

The Grand Panorama depicts the island of Juan Fernandez off Chile, the temporary home of castaway Alexander Selkirk who was the model for Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe.” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But, “after years on display, the wear and tear on the 170-year old painting was so extensive that it was deemed worthless and impossible to conserve. After decades of conservation planning and method strategy research, the Museum brought this national treasure back to life and is proud to share it with the public. However, due to the extensive conservation efforts that have been invested into the painting, it will no longer be shown in its original format – as a moving panorama – as this would undo the extensive work recently completed.”

The Panorama drew crowds in the era of public entertainment before moving pictures and films. To celebrate this origin, the exhibition is coupled with dynamic and engaging programming all summer long. Live performances, contemporary artistic presentations, and other unique interpretations accompany educational programs and cultural celebrations.

Plan on being dazzled for at least one to two hours.

The exhibit is billed as a “once-in-a-lifetime experience” and is free and open to the public, through Columbus Day, October 8, 9 am to 5 pm at Kilburn Mill (the museum provides a free shuttle service every half hour from 10 am to 5 pm through Labor Day).

The Grand Panorama: The Experience 

As the Panorama was being conserved, it was photographed at high resolution to produce this fully digitized recreation of the entire painting for the first time, allowing the Museum to create a exhibition of The Grand Panorama it calls “The Experience” – recreating the same experience the 19th century audiences had of seeing the original Panorama on a theatrical stage, with music and narration.

You stand on the bow of the world’s largest model whaleship, the Lagoda, and watch the Panorama scroll by in a life-sized digital format projected in a full theatrical setting, and experience what Benjamin Russell and other whalers saw as they left the port of New Bedford and traveled the sea in search of whales. This re-creates the experience that the 19th century viewers would have had, since the mural was originally rolled.

Visitors can stand on the bow of the world’s largest model whaleship, the Lagoda, in the New Bedford Whaling Museum and watch the Panorama scroll by in a life-sized digital format projected in a full theatrical setting, and experience what Benjamin Russell and other whalers saw as they left the port of New Bedford and traveled the sea in search of whales. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The stage set is based on drawings and prints from the period and is installed off the Lagoda’s bow so visitors can experience the performance from the deck, from theater seating on the floor level, or from vantage points to the port and starboard of the iconic whaleship.

Since the original score and narrative have been lost over time, they have been recreated and remastered for the new installation, and includes new research and points of interest.

Visitors are able to dive deeper into the specifics of the Panorama story on a large, touch-screen, interactive kiosk. The kiosk will have thematic tabs on various subjects, including a map of the voyage, related Museum artifacts and paintings, and the Panorama’s conservation history. You will be able to zoom in close to any scene or detail that interests you and get rich context for each section.

Enhancing the experience, artifacts from the Museum’s permanent collections further illustrate Russell’s own global travels and connect locations represented in the Panorama with relevant ethnographic material and objects. Exhibitions that tell the stories of Yankee Whaling, the connections with the Azores and Cabo Verde, as well as the many stories told in the existing Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World exhibition help amplify the content of the Panorama. The Panorama in the context of its own time – the era of the “public spectacle” is explored in the exhibition, and includes complementing pieces from the Museum’s permanent Collection.

While I strongly recommend the incomparable experience of seeing the mural first-hand and this Virtual Reality experience, the museum will also have an online digital version, an interactive designed to expand access to the Panorama and to supplement both the Spectacle in Motion exhibitions, the Original at the Kilburn Mill and The Experience at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. While it will work on a phone or tablet it has been optimized for desktop viewing.

At the New Bedford Whaling Museum, you can look through etched glass to see the exact port where our ship, Blount’s Grande Caribe, is docked today and yesterday © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The quality of the collection at New Bedford Whaling Museum – consisting of the merger of two private collections of whaling artifacts – is not to be believed, including what is claimed to be the largest collection of scrimshaw. I love the way the gallery rooms are like a warren – you come upon them.

I love the theming of the rooms: From Pursuit to Preservation: The History of Human Interaction with Whales;  Energy and Enterprise: Industry an d the City of New Bedford; Enlightened Counters: the Two Nations of Manjiro Nakahama  (about a 16-year old Japanese sailor who was rescued and spent eight years in New Bedford, the first Japanese person to live here, then went back to become a major counselor to the Emperor negotiating with the US and England) and The East Unlocks its Gates: American Whalers and Trade in Asia.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum, in New Bedford, MA, a private non-profit museum, has one of the largest collections of scrimshaw in the world © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is (of course) a Herman Melville room (while Melville never actually visited Nantucket before writing “Moby Dick,” he sailed from New Bedford on his whaling voyage), artifacts collected from around the world brought back by the whalers and opened the New Bedford people to the cultures of the world. There are sections dedicated to the Portuguese from the Azores and the sailors recruited from Costa Verde and how they impacted the diverse community in New Bedford. I am introduced for the first time to Captain Joshua Slocum, the first to solo circumnavigate the world.

An astonishing sight is the skeleton of a whale that is suspended from the ceiling as you enter the Museum, its bones with oily brown patches. It turns out that the bones still have oil which drips out and is collected in a jar below.

Whale skeleton still drips oil from its bones at the New Bedford Whaling Museum © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is the world’s largest model whaleship, the Lagoda, at half-scale that takes up the entirety of the Bourne building, that you can climb aboard. In addition, there is the Mariner’s Home that is used for exhibit, and the Seaman’s Bethel which offers a superb video about whaling.

It drives home the theme that is so pressing today: “Trade: Expand American Ideas” (but also bring ideas back).

New Bedford Whaling Museum, 16 Johnny Cake Hill, New Bedford MA 02740, 508-997-0046, www.whalingmuseum.org. 

They are contained within the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, a 13-block historic district of cobblestone streets, historic, stately buildings now juxtaposed with contemporary art galleries and funky restaurants and shops (my favorite: Sanctum – Folklorica: Apothecary and Witchwares, Tarot Reading). At the visitors Center, you can watch a 20-minute orientation movie and take in exhibits about whaling and New Bedford, “The City That Lit the World.” (www.nps.gov/nebe/planyourvisit).

Blount Small Ship Adventures’ Grand Caribe docked at the State Pier in New Bedford, Massachusetts, just steps away from the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This was one of the incredible highlights of our own voyage aboard Blount Small Ship Adventures’ Grande Caribe, on the third day of a seven-day New England Islands cruise. We docked in the port along with the largest fishing fleet on the East Coast, and could look through etched glass of the same port in 1914 of our ship. Arriving by ship – we had come from Warren, Rhode Island to Bristol and had come this morning from Newport and will be going on to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket – made this experience even more tangible.

Blount Small Ship Adventures, 461 Water Street Warren, RI 02885, 800-556-7450, www.blountsmallshipadventures.com.

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

Cycle the Erie: Heritage of Erie Canal Preserved in Murals Along the Erie Canalway

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

One of the many delights of Parks & Trails NY’s 8-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie bike tour from Buffalo to Albany across New York State, is coming up beautiful murals that describe the history and cultural heritage of the Erie Canal and the canaltowns that were spawned.  Through the course of the ride, you travel 400 miles but also 400 years through history, and see the whole story of how America came to be unfold in front of you.

Here are some of our favorites, as we bike along the Erie Canalway, on brick, on barns, on bridges, on benches, on fences:

Gasport © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Middleport © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Medina © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Albion © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Albion © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Spencerport © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Spencerport © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Palmyra © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Palmyra © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Palmyra © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Newark © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Newark © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Newark © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Newark © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Newark © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Lyons © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Lyons © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Lyons © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Sims General Store, Camillus © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

Syracuse Canal Museum © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Outside of 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.   

See also:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mabee Farm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mabee family cemetery © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

During our visit, a country fair is underway.

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

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

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

We ride a newly paved bike path into Schenectady.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 8, Schenectady to Albany, 31 Miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Day 6: Rome to Canajoharie, 63 Miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 7: Canajoharie to Schenectady, 46 Miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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: 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