Category Archives: Erie Canal

Thursday, July 30 update: In Old America

In other nations across the world that have passed a certain age — where there are ruined castles and temples dotting the landscape, and other monuments of mighty kings and despots are stacked on each other as just part of the historical scenery — there has also been more than one apocalypse. People take this for granted. Tourists come to take pictures of it. There is no big project going on in these countries any more. Any ones that used to hold sway, have been wiped away by (mostly) war and conquest, migrations and treaties. Now there are just ordinary people pursuing an ordinary existence according to whatever native culture they have practiced for a very long time. We envy them because they seem somehow more relaxed and in touch with the timeless essentials of life.

The ruins of the Great Wall of China, the Appian Way and other Roman roads, the monument fields of Burma dotted with old temples — these are major tourist attractions. And yet New York State’s own ancient ruins are barely noticed even by its own tourism department. The Erie Canal is still sold to the public as an aggressively recreational destination where you can bike, kayak, jog — the new Empire State Trail. But the hundreds of miles of canal remnants — the ingenious, beautifully constructed, highly practical and now half-hidden and romantic ruins of Empire — are marketed to travelers almost not at all. This is a sure sign that the future has not yet arrived.

Someday, some of us who know well where the most obscure stones and ditches can be found, and what purpose they served, might be in a bit of demand as field guides to the curious. But it seems like we have a long hard road to travel before we become anyone’s authentic Old America, even our own. First we have to reach what I call the “Yeltsin on the Tank Moment,” but American-style. (The role of Yeltsin has not yet been cast.) This is a moment described somewhat in one of Dmitry Orlov’s books as a visible manifestation of a previous unseen moment when an empire actually does lose all legitimacy — unseen, but felt as surely as a needle feels the north just before it swings.

During the Soviet establishment’s fast slide toward dissolution, Gorbachev’s glasnost campaign unleashed a torrent of words. In a sort of nation-wide talking cure, many previously taboo subjects could be broached in public, and many important problems could suddenly be discussed. An important caveat still applied: the problems always had to be cast as “specific difficulties,” or “singular problems” and never as a small piece within the larger mosaic of obvious system-wide failure. The spell was really only broken by Yeltsin, when, in the aftermath of the failed putsch, he forcefully affixed the prefix “former” to the term “Soviet Union.” At that point, old, pro-Soviet, now irrelevant standards of patriotic thought and behavior suddenly became ridiculous — the domain of half-crazed, destitute pensioners, parading with portraits of Lenin and Stalin.

Meanwhile, the Northeastern states — the “cradle of 400-year-old American local government,” and the earliest seat of Empire — are still holding their own most virtuously against the nation’s COVID enemy. Well, we’re in for some chop. Real ‘Muricans in the heartland, of course, are trying to fend off the “fascist” mask cult, while many Northeastern communities are growing scared to death of what happens when school and college starts — so many of them being built around college life, if not actually “college towns.” There’s a distinct chill in the air when you go to work and read stern official memos that sound like wartime orders.

And so we continue to grow apart. Political colors will not fill these lengthening cracks, when so much of what is at stake is dependent on the not the sanctity of lofty ideals, but raw physical space — the Northeast, the Empire State, the city, the community, the hospital, the body. So there isn’t going to be some weird half-and-half “two Americas” composed of a central clot of red states and a bunch of geographically separated blue states, like some secular East and West Pakistan. And I’m not sure how a national government can survive such local conditions, even if it wasn’t already a massive looting operation and wanted to survive.

There probably isn’t going to be any revolution. (As Orlov adds, “It took years for people’s thinking to catch up with the new, post-imperial reality. It was not an easy transition, and many remained embittered for life.”) Then again, nations and empires shattering is a very ordinary thing, historically speaking. It gave us great nations like France and Germany, and it also gave us the Turkmenbashi — father of all Turkmen, and lover of art and literature. (Like a certain strongman we all know — the one we all love to hate, and hate to love.) But the road from ex-Gaul to the Fifth Republic wasn’t an easy one, and it led through fear and violence — including wars — and was paved with (and actually, by) petty dictators who made the trains run on time, drained the marshes, and maybe also kept the viruses down.

In Old (Upstate) America, we’re just waiting for a change of season, and maybe a glimpse of the future in the still waters.

NYT visits Erie Canal

Is this thing on? Testing, 1, 2, 3…

Just a quick note that the New York Times has a nice article in its Sunday magazine about canoeing through the ruins of the Erie Canal in the Mohawk Valley. I don’t consider the Beech-Nut factory in Canajoharie a “ruin” – it’s still too recently the workplace of a bunch of people – but the article is respectful and appreciative of the area.

I was on the Thruway passing next to the Beech-Nut factory just yesterday, after a quick trip downstate. I keep forgetting how “real” the I-90 portion of the Thruway is compared to many other interstates in New York, which have been carved through convenient corridors of nothing. Lots of trees and rocky outcrops with drill bit traces to look at — evidence of human habitation, not so much. But as the NYT article notes, the I-90 Thruway is just another overlay on two centuries’ worth of travel. As dead as it may be economically, at least you can be sure there are still some people around.

Camillus aqueduct restoration


The long-anticipated $2 million restoration of the Nine Mile Creek Aqueduct at Camillus Erie Canal Park is a “go.” This was what it looked like on Saturday. They are now just starting to place the watertight layer of boards on the floor. When it’s finished in October, it will be the only fully navigable canal aqueduct in New York (there are two others, in Pennsylvania and Delaware). The Camillus aqueduct was exceptionally made even by the standards of the day (1844) and had relatively few structural problems since it fell out of use early in the 20th century, making it a good candidate for this kind of project. The book Camillus, Halfway There by David Beebe, mastermind of the Camillus Erie Canal Park, describes some of the long road to restoration since the park’s establishment in 1972. There probably hasn’t been a moment since then when some sort of preparatory work wasn’t being done (by volunteers) to make the aqueduct and the park ready for this project.

I’ll miss the picturesque view of the aqueduct in its derelict state — where history was left up to the imagination — but the smell of the fresh lumber at the construction site is no less delightful. There is not the sense of pointlessness I get when I see them building DestiNY USA. For one thing, the benefits of the aqueduct project are clear. It will immediately double the size of the canal usable for boats and kayakers, which will attract more people to the park. It will also bring more people to the less-used eastern half of the towpath, which leads to Route 173 (Warners Road) and the Allied waste beds beyond, where the canal once ran. If this proximity to sad reality inspires some kayaker, biker or jogger to say I wish this trail went even farther…, and gets them dreaming about how to un-do the mistakes of the past, that will be a great service to the Syracuse area.

DestiNY USA, with its promise of jobs and greenery, is still in the end all about consumption. The aqueduct project is all about restoring connections.

Dreaming in three dimensions

I don’t intend for this to become a transportation blog, but seriously, even such a modest uptick in commercial shipping on the Erie Canal becomes vastly more interesting when you throw Oswego’s future container port into the mix, and then Fault Lines adds Griffiss Park to the vision:

Griffiss IS a port, with the potential to be a very good one. . . . for cargo. It has not only rail and highway connections, but it’s on the Erie canal. Dropping “air” from “airport” allows for the intermodal nature of Griffiss: it can be a rail port, highway port, and canal port all at once. Calling it a “port” also suggests its importance for cargo (which I think is the only niche this airport will successfully fit into) without limiting it to cargo. Anyway, that’s my 2 cents: Griffiss Port. Simple, honest, and a name that can be grown into. . . and bought into by all of Central New York.

The gathering economic clouds don’t have too many silver linings, but one of them may be this: We might start paying a little less attention to Richard Florida-type schemes, which presuppose the existence of easy leisure-spending cash that it’s now clear that most Americans don’t have, and in which college students and others on top of the creative career food chain ride in and save the day while the “uneducated” classes serve them coffee. And we might start paying a little more attention on economic fundamentals, like dignified jobs with living wages that high school graduates might get (and can’t get right now). Granted, that too is a pipe dream (especially the “living wage” part). But as long as we’re pipe-dreaming, we might as well dream comprehensively.

Erie Canal revival?

This relatively brief story in the NYT about the uptick in commercial shipping on ye olde Erie has aroused a good deal of interest around the blogosphere. You can see some blogger reactions listed here, with a particularly informative post here. It’s part of a realization that you don’t necessarily need to build up a brand-new green-industrial complex in order to improve things and live more sustainably — nor does sustainable living mean “going primitive.” The modern Erie Canal is certainly not primitive, and needs no expensive reconstruction or reconfiguration (although it does need maintenance).

New York was shortsighted in throwing all of its effort into developing the Erie as a recreational waterway, although the two purposes don’t exclude each other. It’s terrible that the state does not have any budget to advertise the Canal’s commercial opportunities in a time when it’s five times cheaper to ship by canal than by truck.

Another missed opportunity: the state could do more to promote the recreational boating (that is, paddling) opportunities of the Old Erie Canal… the especially peaceful and historic abandoned sections running throughout Central New York. You can paddle in Dewitt and Kirkville and Camillus, but my sense is that it isn’t as emphasized as much as biking and walking.

So it’s wonderful to read that Camillus Erie Canal Park (aka the Best Damn Canal Park in the State) is now proceeding with its long-delayed aqueduct project. By next year at this time, you will be able to paddle at least four miles along the tranquil Old Erie, crossing Nine Mile Creek on a fully and accurately restored aqueduct.

Updated: And the Erie Canal shipping continues – a local story about turbines on their way to Pakistan via the Inner Harbor and Albany.