Friday, 3 June 2011

Syracuse, New York State - The canal that shaped history

Who says there’s no old stuff in America? Our cycle journey along the Erie Canal abounds with history and a colourful set of characters to share it with us!

A couple of days ago, under a blistering sun and sky-high humidity (it’s not normally this hot until August, we’re told), we cycled across the area known as the Oneida Carrying Place – a short portage area once operated by the Oneida Indians that linked Wood Creek and the Mohawk River, key trading routes in the 18th century. Given its importance it was inevitably fought over by the French and British colonists. When the British gained control they built Fort Stanwix on the Carrying Place, faithfully recreated today on its original site in the modern town of Rome. We’d arrived at Rome, cycling right into the old fort, via the Oriskany Battlefield, site of a key victory for the American Revolutionists in 1777 that halted progress of British troops. Today it’s marked by a tall monolith of rock.

Then take the Erie Canal itself whose 360-mile route we are following west across New York State. When it was completed in 1825 it linked the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers to the Great Lakes, opening up the interior of North America to trade and settlement, and establishing New York City as a key centre of commerce. Prior to the opening of the Erie Canal, most of America’s trade and wealth was weighted in the southern states along the Mississippi. But such was the impact and success of the Erie Canal that it shifted the balance of trade and influence to the northern states. This created discontent in the south and was a key factor in instigating the American Civil War. Then, at a time when the western states were contemplating a split from the rest of the country, the canal provided enhanced communications, trade and travel that cemented the country together. Without the Erie Canal, America may have been a very different place!

Our cycle journey along the canal has been absolutely idyllic as we pootle along towpaths bordered by woodlands and wildfowers and quiet back roads that meander through rural towns and pleasant countryside. At times we are alongside busy, noisy freeways but mostly we are in a different world accompanied by beavers and brightly-coloured birds and a gentle breeze rustling the trees. Today the canal is used solely for recreational purposes and we enjoy pulling over at picnic spots to watch boats come and go. We’ve been enjoying some free camping along the canal at little informal campsites beside some of the locks and even scored a shower from one of the lock-keepers! It was at one such place that we met Nelson who lives on the boat that he built himself, Lost Navigator, which he sails around America’s vast waterways. Nelson told us he didn’t want life to pass him by without having adventures and realising his dreams. We related to that!

Further along we pulled into Fort Hunter on the Schoharie River to see an original cut of the canal called Clinton’s Ditch. While we were here, Bill, a Fort Hunter resident, filled us in on the local history and stories from his Huckleberry Finn childhood. He also told us that the Schoharie River is one of a very small number of rivers that flow from south to north! Cycling on we visited Fort Stanwix in Rome. Next morning we were enjoying a chat with the local characters over coffee in McDonalds when we met Doug who kindly offered us free use of an empty house that he rents out. We accepted gladly as this allowed to dump all our kit and spend a whole day visiting something that we’d really been looking forward to – the Erie Canal Village.

I’m not big on “visitor attractions” but my day at the Erie Canal Village was one of the most fun and fascinating days I have ever spent! The village is a recreation of a typical canal village in the 19th century but all the elements – the steam train, church, school house, canal boat, store, blacksmith, settlers’ houses – are absolutely genuine, collected from across the state and carefully re-built on site. The village is brought to life by Dale the songstress, Mike the blacksmith and Steve the train driver. I even got a ride on a horse-drawn wagon!

The arrival of the railways sent the Erie Canal into decline until it was revitalised in modern times as a recreational resource. The railway lines run adjacent to the canal and today carry Amtrak services and huge freight trains that fill your entire field of view as they trundle by. To date it’s not been bears that have given Graham sleepless nights but the nocturnal whistles of the passing trains!

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