16 August 2014

Erie Canal Museum Syracuse New York

Cargo carried on the Canal.

I took a class at Quilting by the Lake this summer; DH tagged along and arranged a business meeting nearby. As much as I enjoyed the class, I "skipped school" one day early so we could indulge our interest in American history and visit the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse, New York. Back in the Pleistocene era, when I was in school, we learned the Erie Canal song in elementary chorus:
I've got an old mule and 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 every inch of the way we know
From Albany to Buffalo

Low bridge, everybody down
Low bridge for we're coming to a town
And you'll always know your neighbor
And you'll always  know your pal
If you've ever navigated on the Erie Canal
There are several more verses to this popular song, written by Thomas Allen in 1905. Why don't we celebrate feats of civil engineering or modes of commercial transportation in songs today?

Source: http://eriecanalmuseum.org/

This 363-mile long waterway, begun in 1817 and opened in 1825, made possible expansion into the Northwest Territories by connecting the Hudson River to the Great Lakes. The lending institutions established to help finance the canal construction became the banks that enabled New York to become the financial capital of the US, eclipsing Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston as a trade center.

As you can see, where there was once a canal directly in front of the building there is now a highway; the original canal was replaced, and largely rerouted, in 1918. In fact, where I stood to take the picture would have been water or towpath. After the 1918 reconstruction the old canal sections were mostly filled in - what a lost opportunity.

Weighlock Building, now the Erie Canal Museum.

The canal's 36 original locks addressed the elevation differential of about 565 feet as the waterway climbed from the Hudson River to Lake Erie.  A lock is a section of waterway that can be made watertight by closing gates at both ends; water is then pumped into the section to raise the watercraft waiting inside the lock. Shippers paid duties based on the tonnage of their cargo, and the canal boats were weighed at weighlocks, only one of which survives (anywhere in the US) and now houses the Museum.

Left: model of the weighing mechanism. Right: model of the weighlock.

The highlight of the museum is an actual canal boat, now in permanent drydock, as it were, which visitors can investigate. Many canal boats were family-owned, so, in addition to carrying cargo and passengers, these vessels served as houseboats. Young children wore harnesses so they could be pulled up out of the water quickly in case of falling overboard.

Canal boat, stern.

"Time to Dream" sculpture on the roof.

Passengers and crew stood or sat on the upper deck, but in case of a low bridge had to lie prone or go below; hence the song line "Low bridge everybody down." Life-size casts provide a human presence on the boat and elsewhere in the museum. My own Scots-Irish ancestor, David Logan, probably took a canal boat when he emigrated to Rochester, New York, in 1833, and then again when he journeyed further to Buffalo, en route to his final destination in Michigan, around 1850.

Canal boat.

Female passenger with her precious possessions.

Heating and cooking onboard.

Can you guess what this little seat, with a curtain, is for?

At the tiller.

Keeping organized.

The museum also recreated the weighmaster's office, with its desk-with-a-thousand-cubbies, and all-important stove, and has exhibits depicting a period tavern and general store and lots of info on the construction and planning of "Governor Clinton's Ditch," as the project was derisively labelled when first envisioned.

The original canal was replaced in 1918 by the larger New York State Barge Canal, but the 1959 opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, as well as the growth of railroads and highways, made the canal system obsolete in the second half of the 20th century. There is still some shipping on the canal as well as recreational travel.

The weighmaster.

Sandstone facade.

On the recommendation of the museum desk, we walked over to Armory Square for a satisfying dinner at an Irish-themed gastro-pub, Kitty Hoynes.

Syracuse is struggling economically, but has many beautiful buildings from its hey-day that escaped the urban renewal impulses of the 1960's.  Fortunately, some far-sighted Syracuse women challenged the planners of Interstate 81, which had been slated to go right over the weighlock building; their efforts saved this irreplaceable piece of our history.

Graffiti carved by 19th mule drivers on a mule barn wall.

For more images and information on life on the canal, this book can be ordered from the museum gift shop.  No ISBN number, but many historic photos and brief but concise explanatory text.