The Erie Canal

I’ve been interested in the Erie Canal since grade school when we sang “Low bridge, everybody down. Low bridge, for we’re comin’ to a town”. The whole idea of mules and towpaths was intriguing. We got a taste of that when we did a narrowboat charter in the Midlands of England in 2005. There was a walking trail along the canal where the towpath used to be.

NOT the Erie Canal. It’s a canal in England, but it fits the song. Note the low bridge and the towpath!

Well, the Erie Canal is nothing like that these days. There is a cross-New York walk/bike trail near the canal, but it is not at all like a towpath. The Erie feels a lot more like you are cruising through a river. (Even sometimes like the jungle cruise at Disneyland.)

This is the eastern Erie Canal. Lots of wilderness and birds. And flotsam in the water.
Bald eagle which flew along in front of us and lit in this tree.

And here’s the reason why. The original boats on the canal were indeed pulled by mules. They had to make a special, narrow canal in order for the mules to be able to pull the boats. But eventually, engines came along and boats were self propelled. So when they made the Erie bigger, they used existing rivers and lakes…since the waterway didn’t have to be narrow enough for a mule team and harness. (I find that interesting. Logical and interesting.)

Portion of old canal in Waterford.
The picture on this sign is from back in the towpath days.
Guard gates used currently for flood control.

We entered the Erie at mile mark 160. Tonight we are at mile mark 23.5. If all goes well, we should be through the Erie tomorrow and ready to hit the Hudson River the day after.

The first lock we encountered on the Erie was lock 23 and tonight we’re at lock 8. We came in mid-way through the state from the Oswego Canal which runs from Lake Ontario down to the Erie.

One of the lovely things about the New York canals – Oswego, and Erie – is that you can stay the night next to the locks for free, which is great for the budget! In some towns, the city/village government has developed town docks for which they charge around $1 per foot (length of boat). That is not quite as nice as free, but is still very reasonable.

Lock wall.

For context, marinas run anywhere from ~$1.25/ft in Lake Superior to ~$7/ft in New York City. The lowest marina we’ve found is on the Erie Canal, Winter Harbor, where they charge $.90/ft (ninety cents per foot) and they make sure they have the lowest diesel price around, too.

Winter Harbor dock and fuel dock. At 90 cents per foot it is a great deal!

We stayed for two nights at Winter Harbor, our first stop after turning from the Oswego onto the Erie Canal. They had a courtesy car…an old beater…that they let boaters take for an hour and a half at a time to run to Walmart or other grocery store within a 7 mile boundary. We took advantage of the opportunity and did a huge grocery run. Otherwise, it is usually a long walk to a store, and then you have to haul it all back.

Many boats store at Winter Harbor over the winter. When we were there Sept 18-20, they were busy pulling boats out of the water and putting them in their large buildings.

Winter Harbor Marina with boat lined up for winter storage.

We had to stay two nights at Winter Harbor because the wind was up and there was a small craft advisory for Lake Oneida, which was next on our trip. We waited and the wind calmed down the next day for a nice trip across.

Nice morning to head out across Lake Oneida.

Sylvan Beach is on the eastern shore of Lake Oneida. It is a resort town with an amusement park and lots of beach lodgings and restaurants. It reminded me of a seaside town. The beach appeared to be real sand, rather than sand that was trucked in. We stayed on a town wall there for free.

Sylvan Beach free wall.
Sandy beach in Sylvan Beach. The wind came up after we arrived. Note the waves. Glad to be safely in port.
Definitely a tourist area!

The next day we stopped at Rome, NY at the free town dock. There is a reconstructed Revolutionary War fort there, Fort Stanwix, run by the National Park Service. There is also a Walmart in town and we took an Uber to pick up something we had forgotten to get in Winter Harbor. We had been advised that the free dock may not be the best to overnight at due to a number of homeless living in the bushes around there. So after our tour of the fort and the trek to Walmart, we continued down the canal to Lock 20.

Gateway with moat and log spikes to keep the enemy out.
Exterior of fort
Interior of fort. The various rooms were made up into example barracks for various types of people who would have been there: officers, doctor, trader, rank and file soldiers.
Free dock at Rome, NY.

Lock 20 was a typical lock wall, with no electricity available. With our batteries, we are good for about four days of anchoring or lock walls. After that, it is nice to find some electricity to plug into.

Next up was Little Falls, NY on a $1/ft town wall. The cruising guide said many people consider Little Falls to be their favorite stop, so we thought we better check it out. It is quite a walk into town, but you can get what you need plus ice cream and a bakery. The falls are very picturesque.

Little Falls sunset
Old canal building made into office, lounge, showers, washrooms, laundry. Also some kayak storage and meeting rooms. The Little Falls Rotary Club was who had the idea for a marina and got the city and canal officials on board.
The little falls for which the town is named. The historic building are a part of town called “Canal Place” and house specialty shops and a brewery.

We stayed an extra night to be able to attend church on Sunday. There was an Assembly of God church on our side of the river, so we went there.

Allison, an assistant dock master, was kind to offer us a ride to church Sunday morning.
First Assembly of God building from the canal as we headed out of town.
Lock 17 outside Little Falls has a guillotine style gate.

After church, we got going again and ended up at Lock 15 near Fort Plain, NY. This was the first of three locks that had power pedestals (which is a pretty big deal). Fort Plain is just upriver from Canajoharie and Palatine Bridge, an area some of my Palatine German ancestors lived in for a while.

Fort Plain lock 15.

We stayed a second day to wait out some rain and were able to take a walk to a nearby museum on the site where Fort Plain had been. The museum was extremely well done and there are ongoing archeological digs at the site of the old fort, which was instrumental in the Revolutionary War.

Museum building. Fort Plain was at top of hill where the flags are.
Really beautiful staircase and well done professional exhibits in the museum.
It’s Amish country, can you tell? 🐴 There is a “Dutch Country Market” in Fort Plain with Amish baked goods and produce.

It is really quite interesting to hear about the history of the Mohawk River valley…how instrumental it was from Indian days, to the wars between Britain and France and between Britain and the colonists. The frontier was a very tough place to be. Having had ancestors in the area just added a bit of interest to it all.

They are very proud to have had George Washington there.

Yesterday we ended the day at Lock 11 and today at Lock 8. Tomorrow, we should make it all the way to Lock 2 which is the end of the Erie at Waterford, NY.

Lock 11 near Amsterdam NY
Russo’s Grill has been near Lock 11 since 1920 when Grandpa Russo came from Sicily to bring a bit of Italy to Amsterdam, NY. It is still run by the family. Big portions and a killer triple chocolate cake!
Lock 8 with a power pedestal. 110 outlet so you have to use an adapter and manage your electrical usage.

A word about the locks. There are no action shots because our hands are busy managing the lock ropes! (OK, I managed a couple with an old phone I wouldn’t mind losing over the edge )

As you pull into the lock there are ropes hanging every 20 feet or so. The way we do it is Brenda goes to the back of the boat while Lance pulls alongside the rope that we’ve decided on. Like “third rope from the back” or “first rope after the ladder”.

Brenda grabs the rope with the boat hook, brings enough of the rope aboard to loop around the cleat and then goes forward. She grabs a rope further forward and puts it loosely around either the front or midship cleat. At this point Lance turns off the motors and goes to tend the line at the stern.

Waterlogged rope around stern cleat.
Line wrapped in an “S” around forward cleat. (Dripping dirty water the whole time!)

As the lock goes up or down, each tends their rope to make sure it keeps sliding through the cleat. When the ride up or down finishes and the front gates start to open, Lance lets go his rope and goes up to the fly bridge to start the motors. Once the motors and bow thruster are on, Brenda lets go her rope and we start out of the lock. It’s not nearly as intimidating or physically taxing as we expected.

Line snaking through cleat as the lock lowers the water.

The ropes are saturated with green canal water which gets in your gloves and on the side of the boat. The fenders slide up and down the slimy lock walls, get filthy, and transfer the dirtiness to the boat. So it is a never ending battle to clean the outside of the boat.

Who knows whether this fender cover will ever come clean!

Next we head down the Hudson, past New York City, keeping an eye on the weather for going out into the Atlantic past New Jersey on the way to the Chesapeake!