Discovering the Architectural, Historical Treasures of Albion-Medina-Brockport
by Karen Rubin
We awake Wednesday morning on our Lockmaster canalboat, docked at the port of Albion.
I have a chance to explore Albion on foot and find it the most interesting and the most indicative of a city which has not quite caught up to the economic transition.
The Village of Albion here in upstate New York was home to George Pullman, the inventor of the railroad sleeping car! The story goes that he got the idea from watching passengers travel by canal packet boats.
Albion, another town that owes its existence to the Erie Canal, has some of the most majestic buildings but also bears the scars of decline. It does not take much to imagine the city in its more prosperous days.
Here you see pawn shops and storefront churches.
The architecture in Albion is more than beautiful, it is magnificent. Most impressive is the silver domed County Courthouse, a Greek Revival structure built in 1858 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Historic Courthouse District includes 34 buildings, from private homes to seven churches.
Albion is still the county seat but there is not even a coffee shop open in the morning as lawyers gather on the porch of the courthouse. I find it odd that a Liberty Tree was planted on the lawn in 1979 for the Bicentennial (1776-1976).
Most impressive of all are the churches – at least eight of them that go back to the Victorian/Gilded Age. On one corner (called Church Square), you see Universalist Church, Christ Church, a Catholic church and Presbyterian Church with a 175-foot spire, built 1874.
And that’s not all: there is the First Baptist Church (South Main Street) and the Christ Episcopal Church (erected 1830, it is the oldest church building in Orleans County still being used for worship).
And just a block away there is the Free Methodist Church across from the First United Methodist Church (get a glimpse of magnificent, stained glass windows. Built in 1861, the First United Methodist Church part of a Courthouse Square cluster of churches and government buildings named to the National Register of Historic Places; it recently needed $420,000 worth of repairs; about 70 people still attend.
There is a reason for this, I discover:
The Free Methodist Church was organized nearby at Pekin, New York, August 23, 1860 in the apple orchard of I. M. Chesbrough. The first Bishop of the new church was Benjamin Titus Roberts. He was a champion for equal rights, especially for women. He was also a writer, publisher, Christian educator, and holiness preacher.
Loren Stiles — who defended Roberts at his trial at the Methodist Genesee Annual Conference in 1858 — founded Albion FMC. Stiles was expelled from the Methodist Episcopal denomination in 1859 and proceeded to form a new church, the Congregational Free Methodist Church, across the street from the in 1859, a year before the Free Methodist denomination was formed in 1860. The Albion FMC currently is the largest Protestant church in Orleans County, N.Y.
The Albion FMC was the first Free Methodist congregation. The building’s grand, white exterior is impressive, and the interior was originally constructed to seat 1,000.
meet a man who reminds me that the opulent buildings that were constructed around Church Square, away from the canal, was where the more affluent managers and owners used to live. The common people lived closer to the canal. When the Erie Canal was finished, the masons were put to work on these buildings.
Another impressive building is the Swan Library, established by William G. Swan, benefactor, Dec. 21, 1899, and opened March 17, 1906, the oldest Orleans Co. library. Lillian Achilles was the 1st Librarian. This was the former R. S. Burrows mansion until 1851. (The library is moving from the building).
The furthest west we will be able to travel is Medina (which conveniently is the westernmost town in the “100 Must See Miles” brochure. But rather than boat to Medina, which would add four hours, round-trip (at least) to our travel, I realize we bike twice as fast as we boat, and since we adore biking this 12-mile trip (24 miles roundtrip) will be our major bikeride.
It also turns out to be the most scenic and the most fascinating part of the bikeway, and should not be missed, because you see things by bike that you cannot experience from the boat.
Biking to Medina
It’s exactly mid-week of our week-long trip along the Erie Canal by canalboat. This will be as far as we go by boat, since we need to travel back the same way.
After exploring Albion on foot, we set out at 10:30 am for the 12-mile bikeride on the Erie Canalway to Medina for what proves to be the most fascinating and scenic bikeride of our trip along the Erie Canal Heritage Trail.
This portion that we ride today is just a fraction of the 114-mile long Erie Canal Heritage Trail, which itself is only a section of the 376-mile long Erie Canalway that follows the Erie Canal from Albany to Buffalo.
Just two miles west of Albion, and I finally see the farms and pastoral countryside that I had been expecting. Hard to believe this is New York State; the scenery is more what you associate with the Midwest: classic red barns, fields of gold and green, apple orchards.
Birds are profuse – goldfinch, woodpeckers, heron, red shouldered blackbirds. In fact, I learn there are some 100 birdhouses set along the canal.
We come to a thick flock of geese that has basically taken over the bikepath. We have to basically ride through them, hoping they will move or separate to make way. As we ride through, they straighten up their necks for added height, hiss and show their tongues and teeth and are genuinely intimidating.
I see an animal that looks like a beaver or otter scamper from the canal into the bush.
On the south side of the canal, I get a view of the massive prison that has become Albion’s main industry – it is hideous, with shining silver fencing. A historic home is set in the middle, like a hostage.
About two miles outside Medina we come upon a major historic attraction: the Culvert road, the only road built under the Eric Canal, in 1823. The culvert was so extraordinary, it was even listed in Ripley’s Believe it or Not. We climb down from the biketrail to the road to see this tunnel that goes under the canal: water actually drips down into the tunnel, and the echo is amazing. From here, you can best appreciate how shallow the canal is, even today at 12 feet, and how it is truly a man-made construction.
This part, too, was rebuilt – stone from the original is now part of foundation of the Verios Touissant home, 3704 Culvert Road; the original was dismantled in 1854 and rebuilt in 1855 on the enlarged canal’s new alignment. Forty years later, in 1895, it was altered again during a $9 million improvement (that’s like $9 billion today).
You can’t see this (or appreciate it) from the boat because there is no place to tie up; to see it you would have to tie up in Medina and walk back.
But that is not all.
A little further on, just as you enter Medina, the canal is constructed OVER a rushing creek that drops into waterfalls, and makes an extraordinary turn.
Here, you bike over the concrete – which apparently was quite innovative at the time; you can look under the canal which is like a reverse dam, with the tunnel opening the way for the river.
This is a stunning engineering achievement, as the historical marker notes. “During construction of the canal, a host of technical, physical and organizational challenges inspired innovative solutions. The Oak Orchard Creek passed deep below level of canal and the sharp curve of the canal here complicated matters further. The solution that engineers chose was to create 125-foot wide canal channel – which required massive amount of high strength concrete, specially formulated and tested for this application. Oak Orchard Creek passes 45 feet under canal in 50-ft wide arch.”
The marker, which offers historical photos so you can visualize the construction process, also notes the claim to Medina’s fame: sandstone. During the building of the canal, workers discovered a beautiful reddish brown stone that came to be known as Medina sandstone. The deep color and durability made it desirable as a building material and it was close to the surface and easy to reach. This stone was exported on the Erie Canal to markets worldwide – from the Buckingham Palace in London to the pillars of the Brooklyn Bridge. It can be seen in churches and buildings including the steps of the Capitol building in Albany and the George Washington Bridge.
John Ryan opened first sandstone quarry in 1837. Demand peaked in the early 1900s; from 1903-4, 1200 men were employed in 48 quarries.
It’s about 12:45 pm when we arrive at Medina – frankly because we have been stopping so often to shoot photos and take in the scenery. The Main Street is quite nice and welcoming – with Victorian light poles decorated with flowers and speakers which pipe in music (a little eerie, actually), and the most interesting shops we have seen so far. Here you should also visit the Medina Railroad Museum and important historical buildings.
We see a banner draped across one of the imposing buildings to “Save the Opera House.”
This is Bent’s Opera House. During Lincoln’s Presidency, in 1864, as the Civil War was raging, Don C Bent built his opera House as a social center of the village and surrounding area. It operated until the early 20th century. Built of Medina sandstone, it is one of the oldest surviving opera houses in the country. The campaign to save it is being mounted by Orleans Renaissance Group of Medina (eggstreet.org).
The shops reflect an affluent suburban lifestyle, not unlike Great Neck or Port Washington, Long Island, rather than long-distance visitors – artisan food shop, a visual arts academy, dance academy, art gallery, pottery, florist, computer. There’s a Florsheim shoes and the Rosenkrans Pharmacy and Rosenkrans Gift Shop (despite the name, there isn’t a single Erie Canal souvenir and the shopkeeper shoots me a puzzled look when I ask her) but there is also the English Tea Shoppe, Delia’s Chocolates, and most phenomenal of all, the Candle Nook, which also serves as a bike rental and repair shop, and a very pleasant ice cream parlor, and offers the only truly Erie Canal oriented items we have seen so far.
You have never seen a candle shop like this – there are more than 2000 different scents on display and Mark McDaniel, who makes each and every candle by hand, using natural ingredients, says he has created (invented) the recipes for 22,000 and can customize just about anything.
“My motto is: Your color, your scent, your choice,” McDaniel, who makes every candle himself, tells us.
The “nook” comes from the fact that the sho is divided into various different sections – or themes: Mama’s Kitchen (the Popcorn candle smells exactly like buttered movie popcorn); Butcher Nook has “manly” candles include BBQ, bacon and beer candles, “Red Neck Wedding” with scents created from Moonshine and Jack Daniels (and they smell good!); Monkey Fart (made with banana, celery, pickles – everything a monkey would eat -and it smells good!); North Pole (Santa’s Lucky Night, inspired by a 16-year old, is made with scents of Victoria’s Secret Love Spell, chocolate brownies and chocolate milk). He ships, but it is enormous fun to go through the actual shop. (The Candle Nook, 409 Main Street, Medina NY14103; 585-798-3888).
We feel we could visit a lot longer in Medina, but we head back on our bikes at 3:30 pm, returning to Albion at 5:15 pm (about 12 miles).
This proves to be the best bikeride of our trip.
We set off by boat back to Brockport where we stay over for the night (the best equipped port we have found, Brockport is the only one so far that charges to overnight, $15 for the largest boat).
Mid-Lakes Navigation, 11 Jordan St, PO Box 61, skaneateles, NY 13152, 315-685-8500, 800-545-4318, www.midlakesnav.com.
Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, PO Box 219, Waterford, NY 12188, 518-237-8643, ext 3110, www.eriecanalway.org.
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