Barge trip on the Erie Canal

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(Host) Commentator Will Curtis recently took a trip that followed – or you might say floated – along the same route once taken by his great, great grandfather.

(Curtis) Our Encyclopedia Britannica tells me that the word “barge” was originally used for a small sailing vessel that came to mean a flat-bottomed cargo boat on inland waterways. So what were Jane and I doing on a barge in September in the middle of New York State?

It came about when a catalogue arrived in our mailbox listing a trip on the Erie Canal from Troy to Lake Oneida. Suddenly I remembered my mother, from an upper New York state family, telling how her great grandfather used to travel on the canal from New York City to his home in Seneca Falls. We signed up at once; how often can one travel in the same manner as one’s ancestor?

Joining fifteen fellow Vermonters singing, “l’ve got a mule and her name is Sal, fifteen miles on the Erie Canal,” we were bussed down to Troy, New York, the canal’s eastern end. There our barge, Emita II” awaited us, our home for the next three days. We didn’t sleep on board, we were put up at canal-side inns.

Troy, just upstream on the Hudson River from Albany, is where the Erie Canal turns westward and the Champlain Canal proceeds north. It was here, when we looked at a map, that we realized just how extensive America’s inland waterways are. We could, if we wanted, go by water all the way to New Orleans or up to Quebec.

The Hudson is a tidal river as far as Troy but from there on you go up and downhill by means of locks. During our three days on the canal we went through twenty-five locks and never did we tire of the process. Lock coming up!” we would call, and with cameras at the ready, we watched the crew as they handled the ropes tying Emita securely to the side of the lock. The gates in front of us closed tightly, while gates slowly shut behind us. An ingenious system of tunnels carried the water from above us into the lock so that Emita slowly rose. The forward gate opened and out we floated into another section of our watery road.

As the Emita glided smoothly along the blue highway we fell into sort of a dreamlike trance, until we came to a stretch where trains went thundering by on one side and cars sped by on the NY Thruway. We couldn’t but feel sorry for those drivers whose hands were gripped on steering wheels, their eyes fastened straight ahead. They would get to their destination a lot sooner, but we were the ones really seeing the country.

I’m Will Curtis of Woodstock, Vermont.

Will Curtis is an author and naturalist.

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