To get one of the best views while the Lois McClure and her entourage are under way, try lying on your back on a couple of wooden crates in the hold, looking up through the hatch. At about the speed of a horse canter, the willows, towering cottonwoods, and basswoods drift by in a wonderfully gentle flow. The ride is so smooth because the rumbling engine is aboard the Tug Churchill, which is lashed at our side, freeing us from the noise usually accompanying "motoring" along.
At this pace and in the hold of an accurate replica sailing canal schooner, it becomes relatively easy to transport yourself to another time when the canals were bustling with commerce, families spent weeks and months on end plying their trade on the water, and when lock keepers had to be on their toes constantly to deal with burgeoning canal traffic.
On June 26, 1867, canal boat Captain Theodore Bartley wrote in his journal: "We started this morn about half past three. Towed through the 16-mile level in the forenoon. Did not have to wait at lock. Found a crowd in the next level and as far as we went, but the largest one today about 3 miles long, level about 3 and 3/4 miles."
So, unlike us, Bartley was in a canal-era traffic jam exactly 130 years ago, and counted his blessings when he did not have to wait for a lock to open, much as we might cheer nowadays when we breeze through a green light in our car when late for an appointment. For him, in the short section of canal before Waterford, 3 miles of the 3 and 3/4-mile section was clogged with canal boats! No, we get a green light at every lock, and the miles between locks are only rarely punctuated by the sight of other vessels. There is an occasional fishing boat, cruiser, or New York State Canal Corporation tug or work barge.
The time of the busy canal is passed, so what we see is an almost Amazon-like jungle river that is removed from the hustle and bustle going on just outside of view and earshot. The canal is beautiful and teeming with waterfowl and the songs of many birds chattering in the trees.
On our 26th of June, 2007, the importance of this transportation corridor is only too painfully apparent to us. The night before (when I hopped on the boat for my rotation) we "slept" in Herkimer, where the New York State Thruway (also Interstate 90), state highway 5, and 4-lane state highway 5S are packed tightly around the canal, the river, and the railway. I made the mistake of trying to staying cool on the deck that night, but had to suffer the endless roaring, booming, and hurtling of tractor trailers shuttling goods at 70 miles per hour. Not my best sleep ever. Art Cohn is not kidding when he says the canalboats were the tractor trailers of their time. The mode of transportation has changed, but here it is a short stone's throw from the canal. New vehicles, same corridor, a corridor that dates back millenia.
One becomes quickly attuned to the daily routine. First, grab a coffee or tea and go up on deck for a quick morning meeting where Captain Roger Taylor reminds us of the three top prioritiesfor the day: safety, safety, and safety. Then, the Oocher crew deploys, climbing over the rail to the little inflatable small boat with an outboard engine, the lines are readied to cast off, and our three captains go to their positions. Art is on the tug, and Erick Tichonuk and Roger alternate at the Lois's helm. Because the Lois has no engine of her own, she must be propelled and pushed and pulled about by her little entourage. It is quite study in motion to watch the three vessels work in concert, thanks to communications via radio. Commands come from the helm of the Lois, and Oocher or Churchill repeat the commands as they are carried out to make sure that all is understood. Slowly but surely the Lois is escorted off the dock. Once safely clear, the tug increases its speed and Oocher comes back to being towed. Someone on bow watch reports any obstacles or traffic coming up. More or less the same procedure is repeated at locks, where, again, the Lois needs special help getting around. In the stretches of water - mostly canal, but sometimes river or lake - in between, the crew cleans, cooks, and attends to the needs of the boats such as polishing brass, installing a new toilet, and painting.
The locks operate much as they always have. When climbing in elevation, the lock towers above us, and is foaming and roiling at its base, emptying its load of water to meet our lower level. When we enter, the gate closes behind us, and the lock operator begins to open the valves to bring in water. First the water level rises slowly, then picks up speed. When descending in elevation, we enter a less imposing lock, and after it empties, as the gate cracks open, we get an increasing view of a seemingly secret garden beyond.
Now and then along the way we get a glimpse of old locks. Today in the Oneida river and canal, we saw a dry-laid, tight-fitted and flawless stone wall that clearly had been part of a lock chamber at one time. Yesterday near Rome we also saw another remnant of the 1820s canal, jutting off to the side of the current "barge canal", and also sporting an intact derrick from the early 1900s. Amy O'Shea, lock operator at Waterford, helped fill in some of the history of the canal. We had the luck of having her crew with us for 2 days, from Herkimer to Oneida Lake. She gave us the inside scoop on how lock keepers do their job, and also on how the current canal intertwines with past iterations of the canal system.
For example, according to Amy, in 1802, the "Western Inland Waterway" canal was built farther north than its current location in the Rome section of the canal. After the town of Rome grew up around the canal, in the 1817-1820 or so "Clinton's Ditch" was contructed farther away from the river and the town. When the villagers complained bitterly, however, the canal was moved back through town in the 1840s. Later, when the current barge canal was built, it came back out of town even farther than before! All we see of Rome is another one of the long, wooden maintenance building and some people fishing.
The Rome section is also where the Clinton Ditch construction was begun, probably to be able to show the most progress in an area of fairly level elevation and where the digging was therefore less challenging. It is also the famous "Oneida Carry," where for thousands of years the Iroquois Nation portaged the 6-mile overland between the Mohawk River and Wood Creek, which runs down to Oneida Lake. This one portage connected waterways all the way from current Duluth to Manhattan (home of the Manhatto Indians). Here we saw the Mohawk River feeding into the canal, streaming over a low dam.