August 7, 2007

Ship's Log - Rochester


Richard Isenberg is a new member of the LCMM education staff. He is retired from a thirty year career in the public schools and has a life-time of experience on the water. He grew up near the C & O Canal and was happy to have an opportunity to learn more about the Erie. He was also pleased to write the Rochester log as this was his mother's home town and he made many visits to the area in his youth.

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Photo by Kerry Batdorf
Dredging Genesee River Near Rochester

I felt extremely fortunate to join the journey in Brockport. The reception there was warm and enthusiastic. However, never having been underway on the McClure, I was happy to finally have a chance to begin moving east, down the canal. We had a very appreciative send off from the mayor and other notables from our visit in Brockport. Nearly 100 town folks and families showed up to see us off. As we slipped away down the channel, a few familiar kids ran along the bank for several hundred yards. Other families moved ahead of us down the canal road and got out to wave good-bye as we caught up and passed by. We also found walkers and bikers on the tow path double take and wave as they noticed us passing. It was exhilarating to acknowledge the interest and appreciation of all the passersby.

I was personally surprised by the feeling of speed on the canal. It is not fast, but the sense of movement was much more than I expected. On the ships I have been on in the open sea there is much more power and motion, but little to reference in terms of distance traveled. The sun comes up and the sun goes down and you are still on the ocean. In the canal you are always passing something by. You look ahead and look behind and have a much stronger sense of having been somewhere and heading in the right direction.

One of the visitors in Brockport noted that canals, like railroads, are usually along everyone's backyards. As you pass you are looking at the world from behind rather than at the face we try to present to the public. This was most striking to me as we passed by bridges. The undersides of many of the bridges were pocked with rust, crumbling concrete and rotting wood. The recent reports about "deficient bridges" and "structural fatigue" came to mind as we passed under. Like the bridges, there was ample evidence of cultural deficiencies and social fatigue as well as we passed by the makeshift, abandoned encampments of folks who had obviously found the only shelter they could under those same rotting beams and abutments. The canal provides an enlightening opportunity to peek into all of our backyards.

Eric and Rodger skillfully made the turn around the dredging derrick and into the Genesee River. One of the first places along the bank was the University of Rochester. There was a bike path along the campus and several of the bikers and joggers began to notice us. One older gentleman was headed south, but saw us and stopped. He then turned around and began to follow us down the river. He sped ahead at one point to the midpoint of a pedestrian bridge that we had to pass underneath. I noticed that he took pictures of us approaching and then from behind as we passed by. He was then on his bike following us again all the way to our berth in the heart of the city of Rochester. He was standing on the wall as we docked and stayed around for half an hour or so to watch as we settled into our new port of call. I noticed that he showed up the next day to tour the boat. I have only been on the boat a few days, but in that time I have met and guided over 2000 people. I found it striking how we are able to notice and pick a single face out of such a crowd. Much like the parent who can recognize the cry of their own baby in the din of a busy market, there is something about the appearance or behavior of a stranger in the crowd that resonates with each of us in a way that captures our attention and interest.

The visit to Rochester began with the discovery that the bottom next to the Corn Hill landing was only three feet deep. This was fine for the Lois, but the Tug was sucking mud and needed to back out to a deeper birth a hundred yards down the wall. The Corn Hill area is one of the city's revitalization projects. The mayor and his staff seemed eager to use our presence as an opportunity to draw attention to the work that had been done there as well as to emphasize the possibilities in continuing to develop the waterfront. Art took part in the news conference with all the local dignitaries and there seemed to be great expectations for the visit.

Our Corn Hill berth was only two blocks from the city center and the old aqueduct of the original Erie Canal. Downtown buildings were located along the river and although many were quite modern, they appeared to be built on top of older foundations that still had water channels that drove the early mills pouring into the Genesee River. Rochester was known as the "Flour Capital" of the country for the fine quality of products from its grain mills. The river was nearly dry and you could still see the remnants of abandoned machinery from an earlier industrial age along the river wall.

I was afraid this was going to turn into an overeating trip and this concern was well founded. Besides Kathleen's orchestration of our regular meals, we have received many gifts and donations of treats. So, meals and snacks have bordered on the extravagant at times. Although I was personally happy to volunteer to cook, each time I was scheduled, a chicken dinner was donated or a meal was made of our many leftovers before they spoiled. An interesting aspect of these shared duties is that certain crew members' hidden talents began to emerge. It turned out that Mike was especially skillful with our aging grill. Not only did he spend an afternoon cleaning and fixing it, he coaxed it into producing succulent pork and steak barbeques. Ralph enjoyed doing the dishes and was especially skillful at making friends who were willing to take our trash. We are, to a large degree, a collection of strangers, but our shared purpose aboard the Lois enables us to emerge as a crew of comrades.

Like the man on the bicycle, certain individuals seem to stand out from the crowd and resonate with each of us. Early on Tuesday a little girl showed up at the boat dressed in a period costume. As soon as we saw her we commented that we needed her to join the crew to be the daughter of the ship's captain. She toured the ship and it turned out that she was there to perform with one of the folk groups that the city had engaged as part of their city wide music program. She had a wonderful, strong voice. While touring the family cabin another little girl asked why there was no glass in the windows. I explained that it was taken out to keep the cabin cool since they would not have had air conditioning like many folks today. She said that she didn't like air conditioning either. She also was fascinated by knots and enjoyed discussing the details of the boats rigging and gear; definitely, a potential future sailor. A group from a school day camp was wide-eyed and attentive as we had them try to pull up the anchor and use the windlass. While visiting the cabin, a woman told me about how similar it was to her visits to her grandmother's house on a small farm in Georgia. On our last morning at the dock an older gentleman began telling us his life story boating down the ICW and career working in his family's restaurants. All were memorable characters for me; they telling their stories and we told ours.

Unfortunately, many forces seemed to work against us and the many kind people we did meet in Rochester. First the weather closed in with a sudden and violent squall line passing through followed by an afternoon of rain. Although we were preparing for the rain as the storm gathered in the southwestern sky, its violence caught us by surprise as it hit with tremendous gusts of wind. The Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor tent immediately lifted off the ground and was flipped up and on top of our larger ships store tent. Our crew rushed to their aid and began to rescue their tent before it was torn to shreds. Reminiscent of sailors reefing their sails we hauled in the fabric of the tent, took off the side panels and wrestled the frame to the ground. Heavy rain accompanied the gusting winds and we also had to lift or cover every item in the Ships Store as it blew through the flaps or dripped through the grommets. Many hands rushed to do what needed to be done and it was really quite impressive how quickly and confidently the crew worked with a minimum of confusion and a large degree of good humor despite the howling of the wind and the pounding rain.

The rain did not make for a pleasant afternoon. Visitors were few, but enthusiastic. I suspect this was true for the historical canal men. There are touching accounts of how families would meet up with acquaintances all along their way to visit and renew old friendships. The small towns seem to capture more of this sense of community that is so engaging. Just as Vermont is a collection of small towns, the canal must have been similar when it was in operation; a long, narrow community connected by the water of the canal.

Not surprisingly, our closing view of Rochester was the man on the bicycle. He again followed us down the Genesee River bike path all the way to the junction with the canal. Our final farewell was taking a picture of him taking a picture of us heading east toward home.

Generosity Abounds!

Thank You!

Mark Holbrook, Corn Hill Landing Harbor Master and owner of the Corn Hill Creamery, for shower and bath facilities and for providing ice.

Victoria Schmitt of Corn Hill Navigation for the compfortable rooms at the Crowne Plaza Hotel Rochester

Robert Duffy, Mayor of the City of Rochester

Greg Marshall of the Greater Rochester Visitors Association

And Eric Sanders for the donation of an converted old oil bow lamp (red/green running light).

Phone: 802-475-2022