Biking the Erie Canal
Our sixth grade music teacher led our changing voices through a series of folk songs one school year. Even at that age, I had a jones for history. I joined my classmates in belting out “Froggy Went A-Courting” and “Oh Shenandoah” and imagined what it was like to be a pioneer “across the wide Missouri.” One of my all-time favorite ballads was “Fifteen Years on the Erie Canal.”
I’ve got a mule, her name is Sal
Fifteen years on the Erie Canal
She’s a good old worker and a good old pal
Fifteen years on the Erie Canal
We’ve hauled some barges in our day
Filled with lumber, coal, and hay
And we know every inch of the way
From Albany to Buffalo
Since sixth grade music class, I’ve wondered what it was like to travel on the Erie Canal. On our recent Velo Vacay, it was an easy thing to find New York’s Canalway Trail while heading east from Niagara Falls on Highway 31. We quickly came upon the first old canal town–Lockport– where we walked around the local museum and saw an original lock in the fading daylight.
Built in the early to mid-1800s, the Erie Canal was a huge public works project connecting the Great Lakes (via Lake Erie) and New York City (via the Hudson River). Engineers carefully plotted its course for several hundred miles between Buffalo and Albany. Many lift locks were necessary because Lake Erie is 570 feet higher than the Hudson River. The canal took eight years to complete and immediately opened up the western settlements, allowing comparatively easy movement of people and agricultural products. Railroads eventually superseded the Erie Canal for commerce, but portions of the waterway remain open for small recreational boats today. Parts of the Canalway Trail are built on top of the original towpath on which horses, mules and crewmen walked as they pulled boats with towlines. The notion of cycling on this historic path thrilled me while I studied brochures and websites in a New York hotel room, trying to select the best spot to “put in” on the trail.
The following morning, Mr. Spoked and I drove to the tiny town of Palmyra, New York, and parked in a grassy lot where the trail crossed the road. We headed west through a wooded city park displaying an original (but relocated) arched canal bridge. Somehow we lost the trail’s scent and ended up at a modern lock, where the lockkeeper directed us back to the historic trail. We continued west toward Macedon, another old canal town.
The trail was in good condition and easy to ride. Riders were sparse, it being a weekday morning. Our biggest problem was dodging the Canada geese waddling across the path. We rode quickly for a few miles and arrived at the Macedon locks where we dismounted and watched a small boat chugging towards us on the canal.
I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I was really, really excited to see a boat approaching the Macedon lock. I’d read in grade school how locks operate, but never really understood until I parked my bike at Lock #30. The boat puttered past the giant doors and stopped inside the big, boxy lock where it tied up to heavy metal rings. The lock doors swung shut behind the boat and sealed the lock. The water began to churn and roil as the pumps drained the lock. When the water level was even with that on the lower side of the canal, the opposing doors of the lock swung open and the boat untied and puttered on its way. It’s so simple when you see it with your own eyes on the Erie Canal.
We stood at the Macedon lock for about half an hour and watched several boats go through the lock. Each time it was magical. Once, a group of school children pushed their bikes across the top of the lock doors to pick up the trail on our side of the canal. I might still be standing there if Mr. Spoked hadn’t urged us along. We continued our ride almost to the town of Fairport before turning around and returning to our car, a total trip of about 20 miles. The Erie Canal was always within sight, and what a sight it was!
There are many other historic and beautiful spots on the Erie Canalway Trail. Eventually, all 350 miles will be opened to cyclists, creating the nation’s longest multi-use trail. For now, if you can’t spare the time to bicycle all the open sections, you can choose the most interesting spots by browsing the Canalway Trail website maintained by New York Parks & Trails.
Other posts in the Velo Vacay series:
- Niagara Falls (Bike New York)
- Covered Bridges in Vermont (Bike Vermont)
- Champlain Islands (Bike Vermont)
- Montreal (Bike Quebec)
- On the Burlington Bike Path (Bike Vermont)
- Great Allegheny Passage (Pennsylvania Bike Trails)