Old Erie Canal State Historic Park

The New London Junction Lock connects the old Erie Canal and the newer canal between Rome and Lock E21.  It was converted to a dry dock and now is in disrepair.
The New London Junction Lock connects the old Erie Canal and the newer canal between Rome and Lock E21. It was converted to a dry dock and now is in disrepair.

The Old Erie Canal State Historic Park is a largely unaltered stretch of the original Erie Canal that runs from Rome to Dewitt (near Syracuse). This 36 mile stretch of the historic Erie Canal have been unused by boats for almost 100 years, but due to conservation efforts has been largely preserved for walking, biking, cross-country skiing, horseback riding, and snowmobiling. In addition to the towpath trail, there are many small parks which have historic information, benches, grills and other useful accommodations.

The canalway trail, which is part of the larger statewide canalway trail, lies adjacent to the old canal on the old towpath for most of the length.


The Canal

The Old Erie Canal has been largely unaltered along the 36 mile length of the state historic park. The remains of the enlarged Erie Canal which was finished in 1862 is what the park preserves. The original Erie Canal (Clinton's Ditch) run in the same area as well, mostly both on top of each other. Where they do not lie on top of each other, the other is dry and are barely noticeable.

The new enlarged canal was 70 feet wide at the surface, 52.5 feet wide at the bottom with a depth that was increased from 4 feet to 7 feet. Bridge clearances were 11 feet, but now most bridges lie only a few feet above the water or the canal was just filled in to allow for a roadway to pass. The maximum vessel length and width was defined by the lock size, though there were none on this stretch. An enlarged locks allowed boats up to about 110 feet by 16 feet. This stretch from Rome to Dewitt is part of a section of the canal called the 'long level' as it required no locks for an extraordinary amount of miles.

The Canalway Trail

The trail is a stone dust gravel path that starts at the Erie Canal Village in Rome and continues alongside the old canal bed for most of the way to Dewitt. The canal side trail lies on the old towpath for most of the length, which means that you always have a view of the water and surrounding country side. The trail is part of the statewide Canalway Trail System that runs from Albany to Buffalo which should hopefully be 100% completed within the next few years.

Erie Canal Village

Located on the eastern end of the park is the Erie Canal Village, an outdoor living history museum. Comprised of three museums, the Erie Canal Museum, which unfolds the story of the Erie Canal from the first proposals for an improved route to the West through the emergence of the Barge Canal System in 1918; The Harden museum which exhibits a collection of horse drawn vehicles that range from utilitarian farm equipment to an elegant Laundaulet. Third, The New York State Museum of Cheese building, which once housed the Merry and Weeks cheese factory in nearby Verona, NY. This building explores the history of cheese making and its relationship to the importance of the Erie Canal in New York State during the 19th century.

In addition to the museums, other typical structures found during the 19th century can be viewed such as Bennett's Tavern, Blacksmith Shop, Railroad Station, Ice House, Wood Creek School, Maynard Methodist Church, Shull Victorian House, Settler's House, Crosby House and Canal Store. For more information visit the Erie Canal Village Website.

Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum

Located in about the middle of the park is the Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum. During the 19th and 20th centuries, 96-foot long cargo boats were built and repaired on this site. The Museum tells of the construction of these boats, the workings of the restored dry docks and the social history of the canal area.

For more information visit the Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum Website.

Navigating the Canal and its Need for Restoration

While the Old Erie Canal State Historic Park is routinely referenced as a canoe and kayaking destination, it unfortunately have fallen into disarray. There are many sections of the canal that are no longer navigable; On the Rome end from Erie Canal Village to past the New London Junction Lock has been drained and is more a swamp than canal. On the Dewitt end, which still has plenty of water, has unfortunately suffered due to stagnant water. There are also many bridges, smaller aqueducts and other things that cross the canal and have stopped the water flow and the canal has become stagnant. Some canal sections smell by the end of the summer and are quite unpleasant. There are also debris in the canal such as old barges, trees, tires, human garbage and old bridge remains that needs to be cleaned out.

It would be an interesting project to see what would be necessary to clean up the canal and make it navigable by non-powered vessels such as canoes and kayaks, and perhaps even powered vessels, similar to the diesel narrow boats in England. There are about 45 objects crossing (bridges, visible pipes, railroads, etc.) the current canal from the New London Junction Lock to the broken aqueducts in Dewitt. Many of these offer sufficient clearance to not inhibit the use of the canal for kayaks, but any larger vessels would be restricted by most of these crossings. In Canastota there is a long filled in section where three roads cross the canal. Just north of the Thruway is a pipe that crosses the canal relatively low. Most of the modern bridges are far too low and narrow to allow anything even a small rowboat to pass easily. There are also other places that needs further investigation.

The other project would be to clean the canal bed of debris and dredge any areas that have been filled in over time. Cleaning the canal would be necessary to allow for sufficient draft for a boat's passage and also allow the water to flow easily to prevent any stagnation.

There seems to be a few stages of redevelopment

  1. Document the current state of the waterway.
  2. Clean what is currently present.
  3. Reconstruct the major limiting passages to allow navigation (such as in Canastota).
  4. Reopen the drained portions of the canal (New London Junction Lock to the west & New London to Rome).

I plan on taking a detailed account of the current situation over the summer 2009 and creating an on-line guide to paddling the canal which will include where there are required portages and possible camping areas for those that are interested in paddling the canal.

Also I am interested in what would be necessary to resurrect this historic canal into a navigable waterway. One of the positive parts of this canal is that the hard work was done many years ago, and the absence of locks (besides where the Old Erie Canal crosses with the Current Erie Canal), means that the maintenance costs should be quite low. Resurrecting this section of the canal would add to the historic nature of the area as well as create a destination for kayak and canoe enthusiasts, similar to how the Canalway Trail draws bikers from all around.

If this section of the canal is brought to the level that boats are allowed to travel (probably 5 MPH/NO WAKE speeds) like those of England, there would be tremendous tourism opportunities possible. Its unfortunate that a historic and practically free waterway has been allowed to fall into such condition.

Erie Canal: Rome to New London Junction Lock

The canal from Rome to the New London Junction Lock (Current Canal Intersection) has been drained and no longer is meant to hold water, other than the stretch at Erie Canal Village. That said, the canal bed is in very good condition and would require relatively little work to make it navigable again. There are currently three main 'bridges' over the canal bed; one at the west end of Erie Canal Village (perhaps grant access from Selfert Road?), Selfert Road, and Zingerline Road (not needed as Selfert Road bridge is very close?). All three of these 'bridges' would need to be addressed in order to have a navigable waterway from Rome to the current Erie Canal.

Furthermore the canal bed on the western end has filled in significantly over the years (perhaps it was used as a place to put silt from the the current Erie Canal during dredging?) and would need to be re-dug to an acceptable depth. Last but not least, there is no lock (~8' difference) that would connect it with the current Erie Canal, but a historically accurate and relatively cheap stone lock with wooden doors would be fitting. Nearly all the land is public, which would make land issues minor, though cooperation with the owner of the privately held Erie Canal Village would be essential. One thing that could inhibit ever having a project like this work would be lack of water flow through the canal to ensure adequate water levels from late May to September/October. Wood Creek is currently the only major inlet into the canal, though perhaps an ingenious method could be derived to get water from the western part of the canal (New London Junction Lock to Dewitt).

If this type of project were to be undertaken and successful, it would need to be closely worked into a larger plan incorporating the significance of the Old Erie Canal, Erie Canal Village, Fort Stanwix, Wood Creek and other things in Rome. There are also many historic features still present such as stone work and culverts. This type of project could hold significant tourist value to Rome, especially if a canal side park were to be built and perhaps a canal side campground.

Long Term Plan

Perhaps a long term plan should be developed for the park which would include its use in navigation. The lock is in disuse in New London, and the two aqueducts appear to be sound for navigation. Bridges (originally over 75 years ago and currently) have spelled the demise of this canal; Even the 11 foot bridge clearance of the early 1900s would be a great start and it would bring many more paddlers and rowers.

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