Something New on the Erie Canal

The Erie Canal was a wonder for its time.  It could move stuff many miles at very low cost.  Water was much more reliable than roads of those times.  But it moved only as fast as a mule could walk.  The golden age of canals was cut short by the advent or railroads. There were a few dead ends, such as plank roads.  They were roads made of boards (planks) that elevated the traveler above the mud.  They were very good for swampy areas.   One of the first plank roads in the U.S. was build right here in North Syracuse.   Lots of them were built and they were all the rage.  But they cost a lot to construct and wore our faster than their proponent projected.  If you included maintenance they were a really bad, if picturesque,  idea.  Their memory survives in place names.

Those days were not really that different from ours.  That was also a time of great changes in technology, relationships and in their case geography.  Let’s make a comparison using technological milestones.  The first Apple personal computer came out in 1976 – thirty-three years ago.  The Erie Canal was completed in 1825.  Thirty-three years later half the U.S. had gone from wilderness to settlement.  Railroads had spread.  The telegraph had been invented and lines were being strung across the county, so messaged that had taken days or weeks now arrived in secondss.  A dozen new states had entered the Union but the Union itself was looking shaky.  A lifetime in the second quarter of the 19th Century was at least as eventful as ours. BTW, the canal had to pass over rivers with a kind of water bridge or aqueduct.  Below is what they look like.

Great fortunes were made and lost betting on which technologies would come out on top.  Like today, the best didn’t always win out.  Sometimes you just had to jump on the one that had the most users.   

I went down to part of the old Erie Canal that was left near Syracuse.  Through town most of it is now filled in and forms the middle of Erie Boulevard, BTW.  There is a park along much of what is left of the old canal and it is very calm and pleasant.  The tow path is paved with gravel and it would make a beautiful running trail.  I didn’t have time to try it out myself. I can imagine it was not so nice when it was in use.  Picture the mud, mule crap, sewage and garbage.   This is how it often is.  We get nostalgic for the old facilities and they get better looking with time.  Think of all those Civil War battlefields or medieval castles.  They were once factories of war.  Now they are just pretty and interesting.

A closer look at the area around the canal shows that not everything is as it was.  Humans have totally remade the landscape and that goes way beyond digging the ditch that became the canal.  look at my pictures above and below.  The plants you see in the foreground above are phragmites, an invasive species of reed.  There are acres of them in the wetlands nearby.  Had you come to this place a generation ago you would have found native American cattails.  The phragmites are ecosystem changing species. Look across the pond on the picture below and you see Norway spruce.  They too are immigrants.  We tend not to call them invasive because they are not as prolific and they are pretty. Not in the pictures but in back of me were Norway maples, which look a lot like sugar maples and are replacing them in some places.  A 19th Century naturalist familiar with the fauna along the canal would be very surprised by the unfamiliar plants.  I couldn’t get a good picture that showed the ruts on the hills a little farther away.  Chrissy’s father explained that to me a long time ago.  The cows walk around the hills in habitual ways. Over the years, they create ridges and indicate that the hill was long part of a cow pasture. Of course, the cows and even the grass is not native.  Some people consider fescue invasive. Even the earthworms living in the soil were imported from Europe.

We had a weather anomaly.  In Pennsylvania and much of western New York it snowed. Parts of PA got SIC inches.  This is the earliest significant snow on record.   A woman who drove up from nearby Ithaca said there were inches of snow there.  But Syracuse was like a donut hole.  It was rain or snow all around.  Here it was cold, but clear, so I got a good impression of the town.  It seems a nice place and Syracuse University is very charming. 

We had a good symposium at SU, BTW.  I will write about my impressions tomorrow.