Article Published in A’CCENT Magazine – September 2018, Utica, NY
BY WILL PHILLIPS
PHOTOS BY RICHARD BARRETT
Most people who grew up in the Mohawk Valley are at least “aware” of the Erie Canal. They recognize that there’s a body of water running parallel to the Thruway at least, and that it had something to do with building New York State into the formidable commercial entity it is today.
What they may not know is that much of the 100+ year-old technology that ran the canal in its heyday is still in use. And for just $20, that time-honored machinery is on full display during a one-of-a-kind, 90-minute Erie Canal cruise. You can also have a cocktail or two while you do it.
Now in its 18th season, Erie Canal Cruises is owned and operated by Captain Jerry Gertz. Originally from New Jersey, Gertz caught the sailing bug at an early age, spending his summers on a friend’s dad’s boat. He spent some time cruising Lakes Michigan and Huron before dabbling in California’s entertainment industry. His first commercial venture was leasing his boat to Universal Studios. When a movie or show filmed a scene that needed a boat, they’d give Captain Jerry a call.
“We did a lot of earlier TV series,” Gertz said. “It Takes a Thief” with Robert Wagner, “Police Woman” with Angie Dickinson. But the big one was “Rich Man, Poor Man” [with Peter Strauss and Nick Nolte]. I was the captain on that movie.”
After selling his company, Gertz and his wife retired to Florida. They were on a countrywide recreational voyage known as “The Great Loop” when they passed through Herkimer via the canal and saw the Mohawk Valley Visitors Center being built. That’s when the idea struck them.
“The wife said we’ve been slackers for too long,” Gertz said. “We better come out of retirement and go back to work. So we started this business.”
Suffice to say, the Erie Canal put cities like Utica, Syracuse and Rochester on the map, and its impact on the rest of the country cannot be overstated.
“We wouldn’t have America as we know it today without the Erie Canal,” Gertz said. “It opened up the Western lands for the first time. Up ‘til then, we were just 13 states east of the Appalachians. At the time, cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore were bigger and more powerful than New York. But within five years of the canal, New York became number one. And it’s never looked back.”
The size and scope of the project – to connect Lake Erie in Buffalo to the Hudson River in Albany via a 363-mile manmade waterway – was certainly ambitious for such a young country.
“Thomas Jefferson said that trying to build this canal would be like trying to go to the moon,” Gertz said.
As if the sheer distance wasn’t daunting enough, the topography of the state needed to be taken into consideration. New York is not flat; there are hills and valleys, swamps and mountains. And boats cannot freely go up and down hill. Luckily there was an invention by a man named Leonardo da Vinci that was utilized.
Known as “locks,” boats sail into a chamber that is closed on both ends with giant metal doors. If the boat needed to reach a higher elevation, water from the higher-up waterway would slowly flow into the chamber to lift the boat to that level. Doors on the higher-up level would then open, and the boat would go on its way. If a boat needed to go down, the process was reversed; water would be slowly let out of the chamber, until the vessel was even with the lower waterway. Classic da Vinci.
“That’s what locks do, they’re like stair steps,” Gertz said.
“Back then, this was unheard of. Everybody said it couldn’t be done.”
The Erie Canal had its fair share of detractors during the day. Originally referred to as “Clinton’s Ditch” after its main proponent, then-New York City Mayor DeWitt Clinton, it was built in small increments, with farmers being bought out by the government, plot-by-plot.
“Most people were against it,” Gertz said. “If it weren’t for Buffalo and New York, it wouldn’t have happened in the vote. But within a year, everyone was like, ‘Oh yeah, I knew this was gonna’ be a good idea!’ Monday morning quarterbacks, ya’ know?”
By the 1950s, the canal’s popularity as a way to ship freight gave way to faster and more practical means, like the railway and the new interstate highway system.
“The peak year had over 5 million tons of cargo. By comparison, last year we had only 23,000 tons,” Gertz said. “The only things we see now are too big to get on a truck or a railroad.”
The Erie Canal made a blip in the news last year when 12 beer tanks were shipped towards Rochester’s Genesee Brewery. While the occasional shipment does occur, these days it’s more of a recreational waterway. And if you’re fortunate enough to own property near the canal, you may be able to get in on the action.
“It’s amazing how many people don’t take advantage of this,” Gertz said, “but if your property abuts the state property, down on the canal, you can buy what’s called a ‘Beautification Permit.’ And you can build a dock and have a party barge out there.”
Those who don’t want to commit to such an endeavor can still get a taste of the canal’s history on Captain Jerry’s Erie Canal Cruise. From May through October, tours depart twice daily from Gems Along the Mohawk in Herkimer aboard the Lil’ Diamond II and the double-decked Lil’ Diamond III. Passengers sail past the historic Fort Herkimer Church and Cemetery, and experience “locking through,” a pass through a fully-functional, historically-accurate lock. A comfortable lounge and bar on the main deck offers snacks and cocktails, and the boat’s open design provides panoramic views from any seat on board. There are also extended historic cruises and “themed” party cruises every Friday, like disco night and ‘80s night.
“I’m surprised that after 18 years, I still get locals on the boat that say, ‘Y’know, I never knew this existed.’ Sixty-five percent of our visitors are from out of state,” he said.
“Anybody that wants to know how America became America should take one of these tours,” Gertz added. “It’s going to explain what the canal did for this country.
Plus, I really like the people. I love being able to impart what I know and see them appreciate it.”
For more information on booking an Erie Canal Cruise, visit eriecanalcruises.com.
Sightseeing cruises and historical attractions spotlight a legendary transportation artery that shaped the nation
No man-made waterway had a greater effect on the growth of the United States than the Erie Canal, an engineering marvel that transformed the wilderness of Upstate New York and opened up the American frontier for development.
Following an east-west route through the heart of New York State, the canal extends 340 miles from the Hudson River near Albany to Lake Erie at Buffalo. When completed in 1825, it was the second longest canal in the world after the Grand Canal in China.
In the beginning, the ambitious project spearheaded by New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton was decried as “Clinton’s Folly” or “Clinton’s Ditch.” But the artificial artery, carrying both settlers and cargo, eventually made it possible to travel from New York City on the Atlantic to the Great Lakes and beyond. The canal circumvented the Appalachian Mountains, a major transportation barrier between the East and Midwest.
The Erie Canal observed its peak year in 1855, when 33,000 shipments of agricultural and industrial goods took place. Though the canal still has some commercial traffic, it is now used mainly by recreational watercraft. Competition from railroads starting in the mid-1800s reduced its economic importance, which eroded further with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway a century later.
Of prime interest to group tour planners, the towns along the historic canal abound with tourist attractions and activities. Waterfronts in the Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor (eriecanalway.org) lead to charming Main Streets filled with historic buildings and one-of-a-kind shops. Canalside parks—many of them at lock sites—offer hiking and biking paths, and there are kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards to rent. Many popular sites are on towpaths where teams of mules and horses once pulled the canal barges.
Several tour boat companies offer Erie Canal excursions from May to October. From the marina at Herkimer, for example, Erie Canal Cruises operates 90-minute narrated trips on the 48-passenger Lil’ Diamond II and 100-passenger Lil’ Diamond III. The cruise includes a lock through experience in which water levels raise and lower the boat 20 feet at Lock 18, one of the last remaining locks operating with all of the original equipment. Designed for groups, the six-hour “Two Lock Living History Cruise to Historic Herkimer Home” starts with a tour of the home of Revolutionary War hero General Nicholas Herkimer, a BBQ feast under a tent on the grounds and an 18th century chocolate-making demonstration by costumed docents.
Canal excursions also are available in the Greater Rochester area. From Pittsford, Corn Hill Navigation’s Sam Patch, a 40-passenger packet boat replica, passes through a lock on 90-minute cruises. Lunch can be arranged on the noon cruise, and there are evening wine-tasting outings. The 149-passenger Colonial Belle, the largest tour boat on the Erie Canal, includes a lock passage on its twoor three-hour sightseeing, lunch and dinner trips from Fairport to Pittsford and back.
From an 1840s stone warehouse in Lockport (20 miles east of Niagara Falls), Lockport Locks & Erie Canal Cruises operates the 48-passenger Lockview IV, 125-passenger Lockview V and 150-passenger Lockview VI, the latter a Mississippistyle sternwheeler. At the only double set of locks on the Erie Canal, the boat is raised 50 feet as three million gallons of water fill locks 34 and 35. Boats pass under Lockport’s Upside Down Bridge and its 399-foot-wide Big Bridge, the widest bridge in North America.
Lockport Cave & Underground Boat Ride, a 70-minute tour, involves a walk and boat ride through a limestone tunnel that once channeled hydropower from the historic Flight of Five (locks 67-71) to a waterwheel that supplied three industries. Tour members see cave formations and remnants of artifacts left behind by miners in the 1850s.
Inside an 1843 stone building, next to the Flight of Five and Locks 34 & 35, is the Erie Canal Discovery Center. The 15-minute movie Gateways East & West discusses the building of the canal and the Flight of Five and Deep Cutting – the massive project at Lockport. Part-way through the movie, museum-goers board a “packet boat” for a simulated nighttime ride through one of the 1820s locks. Interactive displays let visitors try their hand at moving a boat through these “liquid elevators,” hear from people who worked on the canal, explore the task of cutting through the bedrock and test their knowledge of the canal.
Old Erie Canal State Historic Park, which covers a 36-mile section of the old canal, is home to both the Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum in Chittenango and Canasota Canal Town Museum in Canasota. The former emphasizes boats, while the latter explains how the canal shaped the small towns along its banks.
The Sims Museum at Camillus Erie Canal Park in Camillus is housed in the original Sims canal store and has authentic displays of items that would have been for sale. Four vessels offer 45-minute cruises, including dinner trips on the Iroquois on Wednesdays in summer.
In downtown Syracuse, the Erie Canal Museum occupies an 1850 building where boats were weighed and tolls assessed. The former weigh station for boats is the only remaining weighlock building in the country. Exhibits chronicle the canal’s history and life in canal towns. Visitors can see a 65-foot-long reconstructed canal boat and an introductory film on the city. The Locktender’s Garden is a recreation of a Victorian-era canalside garden with plants authentic to the period.
Going through the locks, walking along towpaths and perusing museum exhibits, travelers exploring the Erie Canal corridor can’t help being swept up in nostalgia. It’s a big swath of New York worth including in your next group tour.