Story of Industrial Revolution Unfolds over Hundreds of Miles of Paved Bikeways
By Karen Rubin
What brought us to Troy, just a stone`s throw from New York State`s capital city, Albany, was the prospect of biking on some 240-miles of paved trails that would tell the story of America`s transition from an agricultural to an Industrial society and how it became forged as a nation. Had we wanted to, we could have peddled our way to Buffalo, following the Mohawk River and the Eric Canal, all part of the 524-mile New York State Canal System and Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor.
Forget the super-powered DeLorean of “Back to the Future.” Who would have thought that a peddle-powered bicycle could be a time machine?
Our trip was much more modest than a 200-mile journey, but thrilling in its own way. We discovered a jewel in the rough-a destination undergoing a phenomenal renaissance using its important history as the raw material. Then, as now, location played a key part.
After checking in at the Best Western Rensselaer Inn (actually, at the base of the hill from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) in Troy, we took a late afternoon ride, crossing the Green Island Bridge to connect with the Mohawk-Hudson Trail, and peddle right into downtown Albany.
This was about a six-mile portion of the Mohawk-Hudson Trail, which follows the Hudson River (parallel to Route 747), where banners proclaimed, “Linking our past to our present.” The Hudson at this point is not all that scenic, but it still provided the fresh air and natural surroundings distinct from the urban setting, and took us to a city riverfront park (actually, the Corning Riverfront Preserve), where we chanced upon a marvelous outdoor concert of Irish music, joining thousands of local residents for the festivities.
Here at the park, which is at the southerly end of the Mohawk-Hudson Trail, there is an excellent visitor center and restroom facilities; you can also visit the U.S.S. Slater. The only World War II 563 Destroyer Escort still afloat, you can take a tour of the ship (518-431-1943, www.ussslater.org ).
(From a scenic point of view, the Hudson River is actually more impressive along the new Hudson River Park paved trail in Manhattan, where you can see a gorgeous skyline, architecture, enjoy cultural activities and cafes on the piers, stop in to such attractions as the U.S.S. Intrepid, the trapeze school, Chelsea Piers, kayaking, and ride all the way down to Battery Park, perhaps riding the ferry to the Statue of Liberty or to Staten Island).
The next day, we accessed the Mohawk-Hudson Bikeway from a small town of Cohoes, peddling on the portion of the trail that follows the Mohawk River. We traveled almost all the way to Schenectady (which would have been about 18 miles), reveling in the gorgeous scenery. Much of it was nestled in trees, but then, the trail would open up to simply spectacular views of the Mohawk River, with vast meadows of wildflowers making lines of color-purple, white, yellow-contrasting in texture and color with the delicate marshes of tall green grasses.
The most dazzling portion was along an open shoreline near Forts Ferry Road, and a little further on, at Railroad Station Park in Niskayuna. Along this section, you are apt to see wildlife-we spotted a magnificent great blue heron; someone else had spotted an eagle.
There were also historic markers and relics-some of America`s earliest mills, dams, locks, bridges, railroad stations, mansions, churches and music halls–that made the trip as much intellectually as physically uplifting.
Even though we traveled a dozen miles, it was an interesting panorama of how communities have changed over time, from the clustered antebellum townhouses of downtown Troy, to the small 1940s-era private homes of Cohoes, to the suburban developments and finally the rural homes that probably pre-dated them all.
We finished our ride where we had begun the day before, at the Visitor Center at Waterford, right at Canal Lock Number 2, from which I was able to take another ride, on the Old Champlain Canal trail, to get better views of the canal locks and the old Champlain canal system. (You really should start the trip at the Visitor Center to pick up trail maps and find access points, parking, restrooms, and historic attractions; even with the maps, it was sometimes hard to figure where you were exactly, but the trails are easy to follow.)
Located where the Hudson and the Mohawk rivers converge, Waterford actually was pivotal in American history. From Native American days, through colonial times and the Revolutionary War, and into the Industrial Age, it was vital as a place where the river could be forded, and later, where it could be tamed and used for industrial purposes. But Waterford, America`s first incorporated village, had fallen on hard times as the factories and mills failed. Now, the village, along with the other riverfront towns, is seeing a revival as old structures are being converted to new uses; at Cohoes, we saw a sprawling old mill being turned into riverfront condos.
One of the new uses greeted us: just as we arrived, we chanced to see the Canal Lock #2 spurt forth its water, and open to disgorge a stunning, specially built canal boat. The boat pulled up to the slip and we found two couples-one from Long Island-who had rented the vessel, been trained in how to operate it, and went happily on their way through the locks. They said it had been such fun, they intended to come back and do it again (that is high praise). They found it easy to steer and operate; they could tie up just about anywhere along the canal but they could also go into marinas where they could plug in for electric service and to explore.
They could have taken bicycles aboard, as we saw some people doing (and we surely would do), and at each stop, biked along the trail, or used the bikes to explore-just as people do on the riverbarges and canal boats in Europe. The boats (about the same size as an RV) would be great for families, particularly because you can take aboard such diversions (even a portable TV, if you choose).
The operator, Erie-Champlain Canal Boat Company has four of these splendid vessels based here at Waterford. (Two other companies offer bareboat canal cruises in New York: the Mid Lakes Navigation company located near Syracuse, and the Eric Canal Cruise Lines in the Rochester area but this is the only one in the eastern part of the state).
The Eric-Champlain Boat Company is strategically located at the most eastern end of the Eric Canal and the most southern tip of the Champlain Canal, so you have a choice of cruising on either canal system. If you go through the Erie Canal, you cruise at the highest canal lift in the world, ascending 169 feet through a series of five locks; alternatively, you can cruise northward for 60 miles to Lake Champlain.
The vessels are nimble. The narrow Old English design makes them easy to handle, even by a novice operator with the three-hours of training (including taking the boat through Lock #2 as a “new captain”) that is provided (the couples we spoke to said it was easy to operate). The New York State Canal System is a relatively safe body of water, protected by close land and easily accessible anchorages, and it is easily navigated by the channel markers placed and maintained by the state.
A suggested itinerary for traveling on the Champlain Canal, Waterford to Whitehall, includes a stay at the Schuyler Yacht Basin, which provides nearby access (a 15-minute carbide) to Saratoga race track and casino, Saratoga Springs, the Saratoga Battlefield Village and the 1777 General Philip Schuyler Summer Home (visited by such luminaries as George Washington, Marquis de Lafayette, and son-in-law Alexander Hamilton)
The cruising season is May 1 through October (fabulous fall foliage here); charters are $2,400 for a week, or, by special arrangement, $350 per day (Erie-Champlain Canal Boat Company, 1143 Leesome Lane, Altamont, NY tel. 518-577-6363, www.eccboating.com ).
Biking and boating lets you experience the surroundings in a very personal way. You have time to stop at the markers, and see the context. I had always heard of the Eric Canal, but I had never before appreciated how, when it opened in 1825, this 363-long canal was the engineering marvel of its day (even though Governor Clinton was ridiculed for the seven-year project, dubbed “Clinton`s Ditch). It was the first all-water link between the Atlantic seaboard and the Great Lakes, and fostered settlement in the Northeast, Midwest and Great Plains; it transformed New York City into the nation`s principal seaport and created the Empire State. As the gateway to the West, it opened the interior of the continent; it helped link the nation`s regions, and forge its economic success and was critical in the achievement of America`s “manifest destiny.”
From here, you can see how America made its transition from agrarian to Industrial power. Here you had extraordinary waterpower-as represented by the Cohoes Falls (which could rival Niagara), and these superior links for transportation and commerce. The cities of Albany, Schenectady, Troy, Cohoes and Watervliet led the Industrial Revolution.
The region is all part of a federally-designated Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, as well as New York State-designed heritage areas (the Mohawk Valley Heritage Corridor and the Hudson-Mohawk Heritage Area). The corridor contains canals from two major eras-the Towpath Era (the part nicknamed “Clinton`s Ditch), and the 20th century Barge Canal, which was built between 1905 and 1918 to accommodate larger vessels and is the navigable waterway you can cruise today. It is clear how heritage, history and its natural resources are the raw materials for new economic enterprises and an infusion of state, federal and local funding.
We were the beneficiaries, making excellent use and taking great enjoyment of the Visitor Center at Waterford, the comfort station at Niskayuna park, where you can see an old railroad station and the historic markers all along the way.
We set out on the Mohawk-Hudson Bikeway, a 70-mile trail along the Eric Canal and Mohawk River between Little Falls and Waterford. Many sections were built on former grades of the 19th century Eric Canal towpath and on what had been a railroad track. The trail is continuous except for a short segment under I-87 (the Adirondack Northway) in the Town of Colonie, where you go through some neighborhood streets, and short segments in Cohoes and Schenectady, and between Rotterdam Junction and Amsterdam (we did not get that far).
We did a 15-mile segment, between Cohoes to the beginning of Schenectady. The most beautiful sections proved to be from Colonie to Niskayuna, where there were two truly spectacular views of the Mohawk River. One steep climb led to a beautiful overlook of the area, before going down into the more “citified” sections leading into Schenectady. I got to the part just past the gigantic General Electric Plant, now guarded by machine-gun bearing federal guards of the Department of Energy).
Back at the Waterford Visitor Center, which is just at the start of a bridge to Peebles Island, we took our bikes over to this tiny island that once was privately owned and used as a Bleachery (bleaching textiles). It has been converted to a state park (you can bike over, but then you are restricted to hiking on the island) and also is the base for the New York State Heritage Areas program. You can see the Bleachery Factory (to be candid, a reminder of what was bad about the Industrial Revolution, which should put a bit of a damper on our romanticization of all things turn-of-the-century). This will also be the start of a New York State Greenway trail, for kayaking and canoeing, that will stretch along the Hudson River from Battery Park at Waterford, to Battery Park, Manhattan; it will offer access points every 10 miles, and accommodations every 15 miles.
This part of the trail is also part of the Uncle Sam Trail, a toyur of river communities that developed around the labor and industry movements of the turn of the century.
I also did the trail, right from the Visitor Center, that goes along the Old Champlain Canal. Now bordered by woods, this was really an enchanting ride beside the abandoned canal.
A separate biking route travels along U.S. Route 4 (this is not a dedicated trail, however; you ride along with traffic), but you can make your way to the Waterford flight of locks-a set of five lift locks that raise boats from the Hudson River at Lock 2, to the Mohawk River, west of Lock 6 above the Cohoes Falls, the highest set of lift locks in the world, with an elevation of 165 ft. (518-233-9123). In spring, you can see the Cohoes Falls, which we were told, can rival Niagara, but during other times of the year, the water is diverted for electric power. (Now there is talk that the Niagara-Mohawk Electric company will be shut down, and the water will flow naturally again.)
Our stay at the Best Western (which has a wonderful lap-size pool, and serves a modest breakfast that is included in the room rate; 518-272-3210), gave us a chance to explore Troy. The architecture, which dates to the Civil War, is fabulous (Troy would be my pick as a set for movie-making, and in fact, one street, which is the Antiques district, was used as the set for the 1992 movie “Cry of Innocence,” about Edith Wharton.). As a sign of its rejuvenation, we met a man in town to help consult with some RPI alums who want to start a new communications company here.
The focus on “heritage” has really benefited Troy. As we walked down one street, we came upon a plaque on a building that informed us, “Here was begun April 27, 1860, the rescue of Charles Nalle, an escaped slave who had been arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act”-a rescue, we learn from a sign on the curb, that was orchestrated by Harriet Tubman, called “Moses” for her work rescuing slaves from bondage.
There is also the historic Henrick Hudson Hotel, a reminder that Henry Hudson, who discovered the river, sailed his Half Moon up to this point, when it could go no further.
For dinner, we went just a few blocks away to Fresno`s, on the Hudson River, a really delightful place with the look of a saloon and a wonderfully eclectic menu featuring burgers, wraps, fajitas, steaks, chops, ribs, chicken, and Texas-sized beer (30 oz). There is also entertainment on weekends.
We discovered that many people staying in the Best Western were there to go to Saratoga Springs, 20-minutes drive away, for thoroughbred racing-the Best Western`s rate was about one-third the price of hotels in Saratoga. “Track Season” at Saratoga Race Course is just five-weeks long; as a result, each day can bring 20,000 to 40,000 people. The track is historic, dating back to 1863 and exuding the charm that rivals Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. There is also harness racing at Saratoga Gaming and Raceway, and the Saratoga Harness Hall of Fame & Museum.
Other attractions in the Albany-Troy area include the Howe Caverns, which features a boat ride on the underground Lake of Venus, 200 feet below the surface (open year-round; 518-296-8900,www.howecaverns.com ). Nearby is the Iroquois Indian Museum, an educational institution dedicated to fostering understanding of Iroquois culture (518-296-8949, www.iroquoismuseum.org ). Also, the Schyler Mansion State Historic Site, the 1761 Georgian Home of Revolutionary War General Philip Schyler, featuring 18th century furnishings (518-434-0834, www.nysparks.com/hist)
Sources of information include: New York State Canalway Trail, 800-4CANAL4, www.canals.state.ny.us ); Hudson River Valley National Heritage Corridor, 518-473-3835, www.hudsonvalleyheritagearea.com ); Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor (518-237-8643, www.eriecanalway.org ); Rensselaer County Economic Development, Planning & Tourism, 518-270-2959, www.rensco.com ; Albany County CVB, 800-258-3582, www.albany.org.
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