The Erie Canal and Me

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“I’ve got a mule and her name is Sal, 

Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal.

She’s a good old worker and a good old pal,

Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal.”

(click here to hear Bruce Springsteens version of this old song)

Age 5 1948

A long, long time ago:  I was an elementary school kid, living in Syracuse, New York, in the 1940’s and 50’s.  Syracuse was one of the stops on the original, the first, Erie Canal built in the early 1800’s.  Every school kid in that town learned to sing the song about Sal and her fifteen miles on the Erie Canal.

The Erie Canal, which as a boy I knew as the Barge Canal, had always fascinated me.  I spent most of my summers as a kid on Oneida Lake, a lake that sits almost in the middle of the East to West canal, between Albany and Buffalo.  The canal passes down the center of the twenty-three mile long lake, entering at Sylvan Beach and exiting at Brewerton.  In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s I could watch barges, some self propelled, but most pushed or towed by tug boats, slowly passing, miles out on the lake. 

In 1955 when I was twelve years old, my Dad bought a retail boat business, ACE Boat Works, located in Mattydale, New York.  With the store came a piece of property on the Oneida River, just east of an area known as Three Rivers.  At Three Rivers the Oneida turns northwest, flowing toward Lake Ontario, eventually becoming the Oswego Canal, while the Barge Canal continues southwest following the Seneca River.  By 1956, Dad had begun to develop the river property into a small marina he named Holiday Harbor.  

In the years that followed I spent summers working at the marina, watching in awe as heavily laden barges were pushed slowly through the canal in front of our property.  They seemed immense. I would watch the shore as the passing of the behemoth first pushed water up on the river bank, only to see it rush back out to fill the hole left as the vessel passed.  I had access to an array of power boats in those days.  They allowed me to traverse the canal from our camp on Oneida Lake, through the locks at Brewerton, to reach the marina, Three Rivers, and Onondaga and Cross lakes beyond.  Dad lost the business in the early 1960’s. 

I went to college, got married and moved from my childhood home in Syracuse to Rochester, New York in 1965.   Remnants of the canal were all around Rochester, the most spectacular piece being the abandoned aqueduct over the Genesee River.  But in my twenty-eight years there, I was never back on the canal, mostly because I had become a sailor, leaving powerboats behind.  In 1993 I relocated to Albany, New York, settling in Troy.  Troy sits above the mighty Hudson River at the entrance to the Barge and Champlain Canals.  I also made another move from sailing to kayaking.  That got me back on the canal, where I had the awesome experience of paddling through a nineteen foot deep lock on the Champlain.  

Today:  So how does that get me to today, an old guy in his seventies living in Florida, talking about the old Barge Canal, renamed for its ancestor, the Erie Canal, now the Erie Canal System?  Well, last summer I visited my paddling buddy, Bruce Romanchak who still lives in the Albany area.  I happened to mention the Canal, Three Rivers and the marina, and in minutes Bruce had a plan laid out for a two day trip on the canal from Brewerton, through lock 23 to follow the Oneida River to the old marina, now called Pirate’s Cove, past Three Rivers with a detour onto Onondaga Lake, then onto Baldwinsville and a takeout just before the Baldwinsville Lock.  I have known Bruce as a great planner for years, but his speed in putting this together even surprised  me. 

On our first day we drove from Albany, New York to Three Rivers Park where we left a car, then drove back to launch from Lighthouse Park in Brewerton, just above Lock 23.  The paddling distance on that first day was only seven miles or so because of the travel time to get there.  

It is always an exciting experience to pass through a big lock in a Kayak, that is relatively small by comparison.  Once the lock keeper gave us the green light, we entered through the massive doors and each found a spot along the wall where a stout rope had been dropped.  We each grabbed a rope and waited.  Soon we heard the metallic sound of massive gears closing the lock doors behind us.  Then we waited.  In this case we were being lowered to the level of the Oneida River between Lock 23 and Lock 24.  Soon, there was turbulence in the center of the lock as water was drained out, lowering our little boats as we clung to the ropes.  After another period of silence, the metallic clatter of the giant gears signaled the opening of the big doors in front of us, and we paddled out onto the Oneida River.

The Oneida River between Lock 23 and Three Rivers Park is developed, but not over developed.  It’s always fun to look at the fishing camps and houses that dot the river bank, but what I was most interested in was seeing what had become of my dad’s old business, Holiday Harbor.  It was still there in 1985 when I visited by land, renamed Pirate”s Cove, but hadn’t grown much.  

As I passed a prominent group of trees, the river widened and fell away to the south.  There in the distance was Pirate’s Cove.  It was enormous and looked very prosperous.  Excited, I paddled closer till I came to the boat ramp.  I was nudging my bow onto the ramp when an attractive middle aged woman came out of the nearby building, asking if she could help us.  I told her that my dad had first developed this place, where upon she excitedly invited Bruce and me in to meet her husband, Paul White, the owner and proprietor of Pirate’s Cove Marina.  (Click here to see my letter to  Captain Paul White.)

Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal

  (Click here to see my letter to  Captain Paul White.)

 © Don Yackel 2020