Chapter 10 - The Canals
Erie - Barge - Canal (1918 - 2005)
Longest Chain of Lakes in New York State
Over the years I've boated and fished many sections of the canal from Tonawanda to Rome, and I've fished, boated, canoed, hiked and explored every mile of the canal from Rome to Waterford. So with complete prejudice, I can say that the scenery in the Mohawk Valley is more beautiful, the history more fascinating, the wildlife more abundant and the fishing more exciting than on any other portion of the canal.
The Erie - Barge - Canal is the longest chain of lakes in New York State. This 340-mile long flooded ditch, connecting Tonawanda on Lake Erie to Waterford on the Hudson River, utilizes the waters and courses of several rivers and lakes, and is sectioned off by a series of locks plus moveable and permanent dams. All but 34 miles of the 115-mile stretch of the canal in the Mohawk Valley follows the course of the Mohawk River. In addition to the river and tributaries along the way, the water that fills the canal comes from two 4 1/2 square mile reservoirs: Lake Delta on the Mohawk River north of Rome and Hinckley Lake on West Canada Creek north of Herkimer.
The 350-mile long Canal is sectioned off by a series of locks, moveable dams and permanent dams.
An Erie By Any Other Name Is Still An Erie
The original Erie Canal was built in the 1820s. This cross-state canal was called the Erie because it connected Lake Erie to the Hudson River. The canal was enlarged a number of times over the years to make it wider and deeper, and so more and bigger boats could pass through the locks. By the 1900s it became apparent that it and some connecting canals needed major upgrades.
A cross-state canal deep enough to handle ocean-going vessels was out of the question. Its cost would empty State coffers, and the volume of water required would be enormous, necessitating the creation of reservoirs that would flood thousands of acres. So, it was decided to build a canal that could float huge barges. When the new canal was completed in 1918 it was called the New York State Barge Canal. For almost half a century tugboat and self-propelled barges ranging from 150-footers with a 650-ton carrying capacity, to 256-footers carrying 1600 tons, transported grain, oil, gasoline, cement, and a variety of other raw materials and products.
Although a number of connecting canals, like the Black River Canal and Chenango Canal, were abandoned, the canals running north to Lake Champlain and Oswego and south to Seneca Lake became part of the new canal system
By the 1960s barge traffic on the canals had diminished considerably. In addition to increased competition from trucks, trains and a cross-state petroleum pipeline, the new (1959) Saint Lawrence Seaway essentially bypassed the canal with a deepwater passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes.
In a relatively short time the once prosperous Barge Canal became an albatross, eating up millions of taxpayer dollars just to operate and maintain. There was little money to replace antiquated equipment and refurbish dams and locks. Management and funding of the canal system were passed from one government entity to another.
By the 1970s the recreational potential of the Barge Canal started spreading across New York State. For a time the old Barge Canal from Lake Erie to Waterford, plus the Oswego and Cayuga-Seneca Canals were called The Grand Canal. The New York State Parks and Recreation department published a "Cruise ‘N Chart," inviting boaters to cruise the canal and promising, “It is a trip that will mark a high point in the log of family cruises.”
In the 1990s a series of legislation created the New York State Canal System designating the cross-state canal the Erie Canal, and the others Champlain, Oswego and Cayuga-Seneca canals. The canals were restricted to recreational traffic and placed under the management of the New York State Canal Corporation, a subsidiary of the New York Thruway Authority.
Today the “New” Erie Canal is in a state of renaissance.
Renaissance Canal - A People Thing
The original Erie Canal created an unparalleled transportation system that promoted development of business and communities across New York State. Hundreds of boats, carrying goods and passengers, traveled the canal on a regular basis. The canal passed through hamlets, villages and cities. Warehouses, manufacturing centers, boarding houses, inns, taverns, mercantile stores and a variety of other residences and businesses fronted the canal. Consequently, thousands of people worked on and along the canal.
Frankfort Harbor is one of many "signs" of the Erie Canal Rennasiance.
The Barge Canal, on the other hand, passed through the outskirts of villages and at the edge of cities. Although the boats (tugs and barges) were bigger and carried more goods, they were relatively few in number, and except for locks, terminals and maintenance centers, the canal and the people who worked on it were isolated from the communities along the way.
Today, the concrete, stone and steel, water-filled ditch that crosses New York State is reaching back to its history of providing passage and accommodations for thousands of people. The Erie Canal has been reborn as the heart of a remarkable network of recreational opportunities that include cruising, touring, boating, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, biking, fishing, observing wildlife and discovering the rich history of New York State.
New York State and communities along the way are developing harbors, marinas, boat launches, piers, parks and trails that feature or provide easy access to picnic grounds, restaurants, motels, shops and historical sites. Like the original Erie Canal, the new Erie Canal is becoming up close and personal. Indeed, this Renaissance Canal is a people thing.
Discovery: Lock 18 is a Museum
December 27, 2004 20 degrees, cloudy and windy
While son, Paul was visiting during the Holidays, he said he would like to see some of the places in the Mohawk Valley I’ve been studying. At the time I was studying The Canal, so we drove down to Herkimer to look at the moveable dams. We discovered that the dam across the canal was closed and the one across the river was open, just the opposite arrangement from when the canal is open. Paul noted the concrete counterweights near the top of the towers on the canal dam, explaining that in Louisiana (where he lives), there are similar devices used to raise and lower dams and draw bridges on the many canals and rivers in the Mississippi Valley. When I realized he really was interested in the Canal, I suggested a stop at Lock 18 where he might get a chance to look at the antique electrical equipment that operates the lock. I told him it was like walking into a museum.
DC motors are cleaned, repaired and painted when the Lock is closed for the winter.
Dan Linton was on duty at the lock office, and as luck would have it, he was in the middle of tearing down, cleaning and repairing the electrical system. Motors, solenoids, relays, switches and circuit boards were in various stages of assembly. Dan had retired from the Air Force as an aircraft electrical systems specialist. Paul had worked on avionics systems when he was in the Air Force, so the two of them got off to a good start. As Dan and Paul looked over the “antiques” and discussed the workings of the canal, I listened and took notes.
The entire control system on this lock (and most others) operates on 230 volts DC. just as it did when it was built in the early1900s. Back then it was powered by on-site hydro DC generators. Today Niagara Mohawk provides AC. power to the site, but a converter changes it to the DC voltage required to operate the circuits and motors.
Four 3.5 hp motors operate the valves that let water into and out of the locks. Four 7 hp motors operate the huge lock doors. Levers and switches at the control panel apply power to a series of rotary and limit switches---that Dan called their “computer”---which in turn apply power to the motors that open and close the valves that fill or empty the lock, and then to the motors that open the doors at the appropriate end of the lock.
Museum quality swtiches and relays are mounted on slate circuit boards.
After the Canal is closed for the winter, the motors, circuit boards and other components are brought into the shop and disassembled. The brass and/or copper switches and connecting wires are removed from the slate circuit boards, cleaned, repaired if required and put back together. The big motors are taken apart, cleaned and/or painted, and then reassembled. If motor windings are defective, they are sent to a canal workshop to be rewound. There are no new components available, so replacements are either manufactured in a canal shop, or parts are scrounged from locks that have been upgraded to AC operation.
Dan Linton (left) explained the operation of the Lock's "computer."
I asked Dan if they ever used the hydro generators. He explained that the generators hadn’t been used for years, but we could look at them. A cold wind and blowing snow greeted us as we left the office and walked to the lower end of the lock to the powerhouse. Again, the generators and associated circuitry looked like museum pieces, which indeed they are. Both generators were mounted vertically. They were once attached to turbines that were powered by water running under the powerhouse. The water was still running.
Two of these vertical hydro generators
once provided DC power for the Lock.
Dan noted that he was relatively new to the Canal Corporation, but if I had any additional questions about
the canal system, I should talk to Lock Chief, Mark Winkleman. I told him I’d be back.
AC or DC That is the Question?
After our discovery trip to Lock 18 at which time I learned that some locks had been converted to AC operation, I contacted the New York State Canal Corporation and asked about the history of the DC to AC conversions. I learned the following:
The DC motors that have powered the locks from the early 1900s were traditional “mill type” motors of heavy weight in nature and size. They were typically used in steel mills where they were subjected to long hours of work and extreme temperature. They can run under constant load with little or no variance of speed or power, and they continue to prove themselves thru the years, capturing tens of thousands of hours of operation without failure.
Despite all of the above, in the 1960s and 70s, when funds became available to begin improving the lock system, “Engineering Consultants” who considered DC a dinosaur, suggested a smaller AC motor to replace the DC mill type motors. Modern AC motors and enclosed transfer gearboxes were installed at a dozen locks. Several years after the conversions, the AC systems started failing. Subsequently, it was decided the old way was the best way, and that all future lock rehabs will stay with the original DC motors and gear configurations.
What it Takes to Rehab a Lock
In addition to work on the electrical system and motors, a lock rehab contract consists of resurfacing the lock walls with precast panels; resurfacing the valve pits, breast wall and miter sills; installing new lock gates, pivots, sockets and hollow quoins. Canal personnel do the rehab of valves, rewiring and building a new operator’s shelter and/or a new lock house.
It Costs a Bundle To Rehab a Lock or Dam
Maintaining the Canal is not cheap. In addition to the millions of dollars required each year to pay state employees to operate the locks, dredge the channels, put out and take up buoys; keep work boats, barges and trucks running, plus a myriad of other "in-house" activities, it costs millions more to hire contractors to refurbish locks and dams. For instance, today a major lock rehabilitation costs $11- $13 million. That’s just one lock. A single dam---depending on size and complexity---can cost from $4 - $20 million.
Just for the record, in the 1980s the following structures were rehabbed: Lock 7, Crescent Dam. Lock 8 & Dam, Rocky Rift Dam near Lock 16, and Delta Lake Dam. In the 1990s the Lock 9 Dam; Locks 3, 4 & 5; Lock 18 & Dam, and the Lock 15 Dam were brought up to snuff. The Dam at Lock 12 got its upgrade in 2000; Lock 2 was refurbished in 2001, and right now (2005) the Lock 10 Dam is being rehabbed.
Future rehabs are scheduled for the Lock 14 Dam in 2006; Lock 13 Dam and Lock 6 in 2008; Utica Lock Dam and Gates in 2009, and the Lock 11 Dam in 2010.
The Mohawk River and The Canal
In the Mohawk Valley the canal is 115 miles long and follows the course of the Mohawk River except for the 23.5-mile stretch from Rome to Frankfort, a 4-mile stretch from Herkimer to Lock 18 at Jacksonburg, a 4-mile stretch from Five Mile Dam to Lock 16, and 2.5 miles from Crescent Dam to Waterford. The width of the canal is 75 feet in earth sections, 94 feet in solid rock and up to a half-mile in beds of the river. Canal depth is maintained at 15 feet in-season, but drops several feet during the winter. So, when the canal is open (May to November) there is plenty of water for even the biggest powerboats.
Guy Park Manor was built beside the Mohawk River in 1763. Today it's part of the
Lock 11 complex and the home of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce.
Locks Are Unique in Their Own Right
There are 20 locks in the Mohawk Valley. Nineteen are in the main canal and one leads to Utica Harbor. They number east to west from Lock 2 at Waterford to Lock 20 at Marcy. (Lock 1 is not in the Mohawk Valley; it’s at Troy in the Hudson Valley.) Each lock is 300 feet long, 44.5 feet wide with a minimum water depth at 12 feet. Lock lift varies from 6 to 40.5 feet, with a total lift of 420 feet between Waterford and Rome.
Despite their many similarities, each lock site is unique in its own right, and is open to the general public. Most feature parks and picnic areas. Some are smack dab in the middle of geologic or historic sites. A couple created wildlife areas and/or are the site of power plants. A few provide boat or hand launches, and the public access to one lock is a walk-through tunnel under the NYS Thruway.
Every lock is a good place to see the big boats and yachts of the rich and famous, the latest innovations of bass-boat fishermen, and of course, the blue and yellow tugs and barges used by the folks who maintain the canal. At a few locations it’s possible to see boats, cars, trucks and trains running side by side through the valley.
Locks are good places to see the big boats and yachts of the rich and famous.
How Does a Lock Work Anyway?
Whether you visit a lock by boat, bike or car, the highlight of the experience is watching a boat or boats go through the lock. Although this water-powered elevator---with doors at both ends--- seems to work like magic, its operation is quite simple and incredibly efficient. Gravity does most of the work.
Consider a boat coming into the water-filled lock from the west. In the Mohawk Valley west is upstream. When it’s time to lower the boat, two electric motors close the western doors, sealing both ends of the lock. Soon after, two electric motors open valves at the bottom of the eastern end of the lock. Water pours out of the lock, lowering the water level and the boat. When the water reaches the level of the canal at the east end, the valves close, the doors open and the boat exits the lock.
With the lock at the lower level, a boat enters the lock from the east. The doors close, again sealing the lock at both ends. Soon after, valves open at the western end, and the lock fills with water, raising the boat. When the water reaches the level of the canal at the west end, the valves close, the doors open and the boat exits the lock.
Damn Good Idea to Know About Dams
There are literally hundreds of dams in and along the New Erie Canal. Many of them are in the Mohawk Valley. For a variety of reasons it’s a good idea to know what they are and where they are. Fish congregate near dams. Some dams create habitat and provide access to places where fish and wildlife abound. Depending on the season and water levels, some dams can be dangerous places to boat, canoe and kayak. And if you’re mechanically inclined, just studying dams, especially moveable dams, can be fascinating.
This moveable (Guard Gate) dam in the canal at Herkimer (left) is down during the winter,
but the dam on the right is up allowing water to flow into the riverbed.
Moveable Dams, Fixed Dams, Crossover Dams and Trib Dams
When I first read about moveable dams, I envisioned a steel and concrete structure moving up and down the Canal to strategic locations to control water flow. (I have a vivid imagination.) I discovered, however, that moveable dams are steel and concrete structures that haven’t moved---other than up and down---since the Canal was built. They are permanently located at some of the locks and at other strategic locations, and control water flow in the Canal and the Mohawk River. When the Canal is open, the strategically placed moveable dams are up and boats pass under them, but the moveable dams at the locks are down, as are those leading to the river, maintaining water level in the Canal, and significantly reducing the flow of water to the river.
Most moveable dams are at lock locations, but some are Guard Gates that control the flow of water into the Canal and/or the Mohawk River. For instance at Rome---just west and 3 miles east of where the Mohawk River enters the Canal---are Guard Gates. They are both up when the Canal is in use, allowing water from the Mohawk to flow in both directions into the Canal. In the winter the dams are down, directing water flow to a crossover dam and into the old river channel. At Herkimer there are two dams sitting side by side. The one across the Canal is up when the Canal is open and the one across the Mohawk River is down. During the off-season the opposite is true.
Five miles east of Little Falls is Five Mile Dam. It restricts the flow of water to the old riverbed when the Canal is open, but during the off-season it’s open, allowing water to flow into the old riverbed. A mile or so east on the Canal is Guard Gate 3. It's up when the Canal is in use, but down in the off-season, at which time it directs the outflow of Nowadaga Creek toward Five Mile Dam and the old river channel. Confusing huh? It helps to look at a topo or navigation map of the area.
It helps to understand the purpose and operation of the dams on the
Canal by studying a topographic or navigation map. This topo map of
the area where the Canal and Mohawk River part company shows the
two dams ---Five Mile Dam and Guard Gate 3--- that control waterflow
in the Canal and the Mohawk River.
There are only two fixed---no visible moving parts---dams in the Canal in the Mohawk Valley. One is located at Lock 7 and the other is Crescent Dam. They back up the Mohawk River to provide a flat run through what was once a deep gorge between Schenectady and Cohoes. They create the biggest and deepest Canal “lakes” in the Mohawk Valley, and provide excellent habitat for fish and wildlife.
Crossover dams are fixed dams or spillways located along the sides of the Canal. They allow Canal water to crossover to the old riverbed. As noted previously, there is a crossover dam three miles east of Rome. When the Canal is open, excess water flows over this dam to the old riverbed. Ninemile Creek enters the Barge Canal six miles east of Rome. Almost opposite the mouth of the creek, is a crossover dam where overflow waters return to the old creekbed and on to the Mohawk River. Other crossover dams are located across from the mouth of Crane Creek in Marcy, just west of the bridge in Schuyler and at Little Falls. I’ve caught or seen fish caught below every one of these crossover dams.
There are dozens of dams, concrete lips and culverts that attract fish and wildlife.
Practically every tributary that enters the Canal does so over a dam, concrete lip or through a culvert. Like the crossover dams, they can be great places to catch fish, and would you believe, see wildlife, especially wildlife that eats fish. One of the most visible tributary dams is the two-step dam at the mouth of Reall Creek at Utica. When the Canal waters are down during the winter, the lower step in the dam is visible, and explains why this spot is so fishy during the warmer months. Another popular, but not as visible, fishing spot is below the dam where Sterling Creek enters the Canal just west of Lock 19 in Schuyler. Perhaps the best “fishing hole” on the Canal is below the dam where the Mohawk River re-enters the Canal at Frankfort Harbor. Although the aforementioned dams are popular and productive, there are dozens of dams, lips and culverts along the Canal that provide fish and wildlife hotspots .
Discovering the New Erie Canal By Boat
There are many ways to discover the New Erie Canal by boat. You can let someone else do the work by taking one of the big tour boats and travel the entire length of the canal, or one of the smaller regional craft and explore shorter sections. If you prefer to do it all yourself, and have lots of time and energy, a canoe or kayak will suffice. But if you prefer not to paddle, one of the best ways to see the canal up close and personal is in a powerboat. By utilizing the many boat launches along the canal, you can explore most sections without going through a lock, however, because “locking-through” is a unique experience and because some locks provide easy access to some areas, we’ll go through most of them.
Incidentally, if you don’t know how to take your boat through a lock, tie up well away from the lock, walk up to the Lock House and talk to the operator. He will help make locking-through safe and fun.
For more information and maps on boating on the canal, write or call the NYS Canal Corporation, 200 Southern Blvd., P.O. Box 189, Albany, NY 12201-0189 –(1-800-4CANAL4) Or give a click at http://www.nycanal.com/nycanalfacts.html#Locking
A Three-Season Adventure
Boating the canal is a three-season adventure. There is no better time to see stuff than in the spring. If you have traveled the canal during the summer, you won’t believe how much more interesting it is in May and June. You will see more wildflowers, more wildlife, and more landmarks, historic sites and buildings than at any other time of year. Fishing is better too. Bass season doesn’t open until the third Saturday in June, but walleye, pike, tiger muskie and panfish are open for most of that period. A major drawback for a spring outing is the weather. Can be cold and wet.
Summer, on the other hand, offers more opportunities for fair weather boating, but the leaves block much of the shoreline scenery. No problem, there is still plenty to see and do, as you will soon discover.
Fall is my favorite time of year to explore the canal. An amazing variety of softwoods and hardwoods, plus grapevines, reeds and brush provide a collage of fall colors that is spectacular. Fishing can be spectacular too. Of course the weather can be down right nasty, turning from warm and sunny to cloudy and snowy overnight.
From Rome to Crescent and Beyond by Boat
Future of the Canal
The future of the Erie Canal looks very promising. Recognition for its potential is spreading across the state, and I am pleased to report, throughout the Mohawk Valley. Regions, counties, communities, and State and Federal governments have committed millions of dollars and countless man-hours to development. Presently this development is geared to recreational opportunities, events and celebrations that will attract both locals and tourists. However---despite recent controversy---residential and commercial development along some areas of the Canal will blossom.
Festivals and Events
Specific dates not provided but available via the Internet.
July – Honor American Days
Sept – Taste of the Arts Festival
Sept - Head of the Erie
June - Frankfort Days
July – Annual Ilion Days
August – Canal Celebration
Sept - Garlic Festival
October – October Fest
July - Schoharie Crossing Days
Scotia / Schenectady
May-Sept - Maybee Farm Historic Site
June - August Summer Concert Series – Freedom Park
June - Towpath Canoe Regatta
July - August Water Ski Shows
Sept - Stockade Walkabout and Waterfront Faire
May - Canal Fest
July - Steamboat Rally
Sept - Tug Boat Roundup
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