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NSG Visit May 10, 2003

Camillus Erie Canal Park

A Day on the First Enlargement
of the Erie Canal


Donovan A. Shilling

History buffs, eighteen members of the New Society of the Genesee, enjoyed warm breezes and a near-perfect Saturday visiting the Camillus Erie Canal Park located at 5760 Devoe Road, about a mile northeast of Camillus, New York. The park contains 7 miles of navigable canal, and bordering towpaths and trails.

Once again arrangements had been made by David Minor who is an avid canal researcher and member of the New York Canal Society. We were greeted by his good friend, Dave Beebe, who as soon as the crowd was complete ushered us aboard the Ontario II a 38-foot, steel-hulled excursion launch that had been lengthened and refitted by volunteers of the Camillus Canal Society. We were accompanied on the trip by two other Society officers, Fenton Hanchett and Hank Miller, who ran the boat which is powered from batteries, the type used in golf carts. The non-polluting electric power carried us smoothly along a re-watered section of the First Enlargement of the Erie Canal completed about 10 years after the original opening in 1825. The dimensions of the canal were increased from a 40 foot width and 4 foot depth to a 70' by 7' prism. This allowed larger boats which could carry heavier cargos. In places the canal was relocated and shortened.

As we traveled along, Dr. Beebe pointed out the feeder canal from Nine Mile Creek that supplied water for the canal to replace the water that drained into lower levels of the canal at the locks. He told us that the canal was lined with a foot-thick layer of clay that prevented seepage loss. The clay remains in excellent condition. He pointed out where the original Erie Canal had run about parallel here, but 9 feet higher. He told us that many short sections of the first canal had been dug by local people; this was before the great influx of immigrants who later worked on the canals. Dave told us that it was a mule-powered canal and he explained the traffic rules and how barges traveling in opposite directions passed each other by one dropping its towline and the other gliding over it.

In about a mile we came to an embankment that closed off the canal from the ravine of Nine Mile Creek. From this embankment we could look down at the creek flowing around stone piers spaced across the creek bed. These piers had supported a 141-foot-long wooden trough which carried the canal above the creek. The four-arch stone bridge for the towpath remains and is in very good condition. It rests on the same stone footings, and did brace a wood side wall of the aqueduct. At the opposite end of each footing is a stone bulwark that reinforced the other wall of the aqueduct trough. The stone work has already been repaired by Camillus Canal Society volunteers. Vegetation roots that had entered cracks between the large cut stone blocks have been removed, the stones positioned correctly, and the joints mortared in preparation to replace the wood trough of the aqueduct which, filled with water, will then connect the sections of the canal on both sides of the creek.

This is the only aqueduct of the 32 original ones that is repairable. The complete plans and the construction reports were found in Albany so the restorers know the specifications and exactly how the original was built. Our guides told us about the construction of the aqueduct at this site. There is no bedrock here so wood pilings were driven deep into the soil, actually the construction was completed before the stream was diverted to flow here. On top of the pilings is a wooden crib on which the stone work rests. The wooden underpinnings have been examined and found to be in excellent condition after all these years. Because the wood is always below water it has not decomposed. The exposed original trough deteriorated in about 20 years and a replacement one can't be expected to last much longer. An exact wooden replica will cost about a million dollars; a concrete trough will cost less. The original cost of the aqueduct was $52,800.

The stone work is all of well-dressed Onondaga limestone. All of the capstones that protected the joints of the railing wall along the towpath walkway are missing; supposedly they had been tipped off into the stream below. All that were found in the creek have been brought back up, and will be replaced.

After we had heard the story of the aqueduct and had admired the work, we climbed back into the launch and rode back to the landing at the Sim's Store Museum. The store is a reconstruction of the 1856 store that was located about 2 miles east, closer to Gere Lock where it was more convenient for the boats to stop because they often had to wait to enter the lock.

Liz Beebe was in the store to show us the exhibits of items a canal-side store would have displayed on counters and shelves, and in barrels and boxes—all sorts of everyday utensils, dry goods, kerosene for lamps, coal for cooking, oats, hay and straw for the horses and mules, and supplies such as rope, that canal people would ask for. Nearby, a detailed, 1:87 scale model of a canal lock offered visitors a better understanding of a canal lock's operation. On the second floor was an impressive model of the ingenious stump puller used in clearing a pathway for the canal. Other displays held artifacts and vintage photographs documenting the canal's course through the Camillus area. Camillus was at the midpoint of the 363-mile-long Erie Canal.

Nearby the store is a replica of a lock tender's shanty. There are several sheds for tools and for preparing exhibits. We learned that all the work—clearing the canal bed, building paths, bridges and boat docks, reconstructing Sim's Store, creating an operating water-filled lock that demonstrates how boats were moved from one canal level to another—has been done by volunteers. You can keep up with the Camillus Canal Society activites at their website, Society members also produce a newsletter called "The Mule."

In 1971 the Town of Camillus purchased the original 164 acres of the park from New York and Dave Beebe became the director. The park is open during daylight hours, all year. Sims Museum is open 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Saturdays all year, and on Sundays from 1:00 - 5:00, May - October. On Sundays tour boat rides leave every half hour: fare is $3.00 for adults, $1.50 for 5 -12 years.

Following the canal and museum tour, the group gathered in the picnic area to hear David Minor, the founder of Eagles Byte, a popular service for those doing period research, present a witty and delightful travel account of a group of early "canalnauts" who journeyed from Schenectady to Little Falls along the route of the first Erie Canal. The expedition was led by Amos Eaton and Asa Fitch along with "John W.," son of DeWitt Clinton. David's presentation of their experiences, geological discoveries and accounts of the sites they visited, gave us listeners a unique, verbal picture of the canal's route and its development. David also included passages he'd gathered dealing with the extraordinary, triumphal flotilla that floated along the waterway from Buffalo to Sandy Hook, Long Island, to officially open the grand Erie Canal in 1826. (Below are web sites, maps, and books listed on a handout prepared by David Minor.)

At lunch time we drove back through Camillus and on east about a mile to the Plainville Farm's restaurant that features turkey dinners. After a pleasant lunch and conversation we returned to the Camillus Erie Canal Park and visited the building across Devoe Road that houses a 450-horsepower Corliss stationary steam engine. This engine was saved from the L. C. Smith typewriter plant in Syracuse where it powered a generator that provided electric power for all of the machines operating on three floors. The flywheel is eleven feet in diameter and at normal operating speed revolved 3 times a second. The Sargent-patent governor on the machine was sensitive enough to maintain the speed to a one percent tolerance. All of the restoration work has been done by volunteers. This is another project of the Camillus Canal Society. Volunteers salvaged the engine and designed and constructed the building that houses it. The engine is getting close to being operable. The group is selling shares in their project to purchase a one-hundred horsepower package boiler to run the engine for display. Our members chipped in for a $20 share. It was another great day.

© 2003, Donovan A. Shilling
Area Museum Schedules

David Minor's list of websites, maps and books
about the Erie Canal from Schenectady to Little Falls

as of 03/08/03
Bridging the Mohawk River
Erie Canal Bibliography
Guide to Canal Records in the New York State Archives
Memoir of De Witt Clinton
New York's Oldest Canal
Heading West: 200 Years Ago: Inland Navigation in the 1790s
State Education Department, Albany, NY
New York State Maps
Andersdon, Fred, Crucible of War (French and Indian War), Vintage, 2001
Benton, Nathaniel Soley, A History of Herkimer County, Albany, J. Munsell, 1856
Canal Society of New York State Guidebook
Erie Canal: Little Falls to Mindenville
, Sept., 2002
Eckert, Allan W., The Wilderness War (American Revolution), Bantam, 1978
Hislop, Codman, Rivers of America: The Mohawk, Rinehart & Company, 1948
Olenick & Reisem, Landmark Society of Western New York: Erie Canal Legacy, 2000
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