Building an empire. - Two Far 2018 - Trailing through the Rust Belt - CycleBlaze

Building an empire.

Today was our first full day following the Erie Canal trail. The canal is credited with making New York into the Empire State, and driving the westward expansion of the country. What we witnessed today was a peaceful recreational waterway and a string of modest, sleepy towns along the canal.

The canal today hardly seems like the transportation backbone of the country.
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The closest thing we saw to hustle and bustle was a group of dog walkers.
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Why the disconnect between the canal's reputation as an empire builder and the reality we saw? Well, there's not really a disconnect. You just need to picture the context of the 1820s when the canal was being built.

In the 1820 census, the total population of the United States was 9.6 million people. Only 7.2% of the population was urban. Albany was the 11th largest city in the country, with a population of only 12,630 people.

Think about a town of 12 thousand people near you. Now imagine that town as the 11th largest city in the country. Astonishing.

The canal created a string of towns all across New York state. Any town was a big deal back then. The population boomed as immigrants poured in to dig the canal and then stayed on in the towns that got created. So much labor was needed that working on the canal served as a get out of jail free card. Prisoners were released from NY State jails if they agreed to work on the canal.

The canal lowered shipping costs to Buffalo and the Great Lakes region by a factor of 10. It was a privately funded project that paid for itself through shippung tolls in just a few years.

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The western part of the canal that we have been touring goes through flat terrain, with one minor exception: the Niagara escarpment. Crossing the escarpment required two engineering feats.

The first feat was to lift boats high enough to reach the escarpment. This was accomplished with a stair step arrangement of 5 consecutive locks (actually two parallel sets of locks for eastbound and westbound traffic) in the aptly named town of Lockport.

Looking up the stair step locks in Lockport.
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Recreation of locking through a 19th century boat.
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The gates were closed manually.
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The valves to let water into the locks were also manual.
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The second feat was to dig and blast a 7 mile "deep cut" through the solid rock of the escarpment so that water from Lake Erie could reach Lockport.

The canal was opened in stages. Crossing the escarpment was so challenging that this was the last section to be completed.

The canal changed over time, and this is reflected in the Lockport locks.

1825: the original canal is 4' deep, locks are 15' x 90'. Lockport has 2 sets of 5 step locks.

1862: the canal is expanded to 7' deep, locks are 19' x 110'. The Lockport locks are replaced with 2 sets of larger 5 step locks.

1918: the canal is expanded to 12' deep, locks are 44.5' x 300'. One of the sets of Lockport locks is replaced by a 2 stair step arrangement of larger locks that handle traffic in both directions. The other set of 5 step locks are kept for historical purposes, but are no longer operational.

The lower of the 2 Lockport locks in use today.
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The new locks had massive steel gates instead of small oak gates. The new gates were far too large for manual operation. Electric motors were needed to operate the lovks. But not every section of the canal had access to the electric grid. So water powered turbines were used to generate electricity on site at the locks.

DC generator to power the lock gates.
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This is a control lock, not a lift lock. It's used to control water flow in the canal.
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This control lock was in a half open position, for reasons that are far beyond my comprehension.
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In the early days, the canal carried both freight and passengers. There was some competition between the packets (carrying passengers) and the freighters. The packets had priority at locks. Jealous freighter crews had to wait while passenger traffic got first dibs on the locks.

Another source of friction was that the price of tolls was based in the weight of the ships. The freighters weighed more than the packets, so they paid more despite having to wait behind the packets.

Over time the nature of the freight carried on the canal changed. Initially almost all the eastbound traffic was agricultural, with manufactured goods heading west. By the mid 1900s, petroleum products made up most of the freight. Eventually, competition from trains and then from trucks brought an end to freight traffic on the canal. Today the canal traffic is all recreational.

There are lots of lift bridges crossing the canal. When a boat needs to pass, the bridge deck lifts straight up, rather than opening like a draw bridge. When we got to Medina, our final destination for the day, we were alarmed to find the lift bridge that would take us into town was permanently in the up position (or at least for a few months while repairs to the bridge are being made). Cars can't cross the bridge. The only way for bikes to cross is by going up a steep staircase and then down a staircase on the other side. No fun at all for loaded tandems.

The bridge leading to our hotel is stuck in the up position! We don't want to take our bikes over those stairs.
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Not to worry. Around the bend, another bridge provided access to the town.

Speaking of not worrying, tomorrow is a rest day. We'll be hanging out in Medina doing as little as possible.

There is still some competition on the canal. Cyclists would enjoy a paved bike path along the canal (at least I would). Lots of runners prefer the softer crushed limestone surface that covers most of the trail. I feel like the freighter captains of old. Not only do the runners get their preferred trail surface, the bikers are doing the heavy economic lifting. No runners are staying at our hotel, but it looks like most of the people staying here are cyclists.

The hotel hallway is filling up with bikes.
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DAVID FAULKNERReally enjoyed your stories around the Erie Canal..very informative and interesting.
Enjoy your rest day in Medina
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