Week-long Journey by Boat and Bike Along New York’s Historic Erie Canal Ends in Palmyra, ‘Queen of Canal Towns’

Neil, piloting the Canadice through a Lock 32 along the Erie Canal © 2012 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin

We awake in Pittsford, and knowing we will have a long day of sailing – our goal is to reach Palmyra for the last night of our week-long journey – we once again take that picturesque ride to Fairport (this proves to be a mistake, because we get to Palmyra too late for the museums, which all close by 4 pm).

All along the canal, which is designated the Eric Canalway National Heritage Corridor – there are fascinating historic markers, often where you can compare photos from a century ago to what it looks like today. They also provide fascinating explanations that are like chapters to a story. The historic marker in Pittsford though, provides the best summary:

“The Erie Canal was the most important of America’s inland waterways. It facilitated opening the American frontier and provided route west for tens of thousands of settlers and immigrants – Villages, towns and cities were born along its route while commerce spread from Hudson Valley to the Midwest. The Erie Canal transformed NY into the Empire State, and the nation into an economic superpower. Almost 2 centuries later, its name is still synonymous with American industry and ingenuity.”

“The Erie Canal keeps evolving. Put into service in 1825, enlarged from 1834-62 and again in the 1890s, the canal finally underwent last and largest expansion in 1918.

The Erie Canal has evolved over its history. Rarely used for shipping, it has become a recreational byway © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

“Each era reflected demand for larger barges and bigger cargoes. Introduction of self-propelled boats in 20th century allowed path of canal to be changed, utilizing New York’s lakes and rivers. During a century of evolution, canal’s infrastructure incorporated many new technologies, transitioning from cut stone to poured concrete, wooden lock gates to giant steel, hand-operated cranks to electrified push-button controls.

“Modernized barges, canal locks designed for steel barges with 3000 tons of cargo could accommodate boats with 100 times the capacity of those from 1820s.

“As the nation changed, the canal adapted. By the 1960s, the canal could no longer compete with modern modes of commercial transportation and the St. Lawrence Seaway. It lost its economic viability as a commercial corridor. Although still used commercially, recreational use has become primary function. (Vicky Daly, Palmyra mayor says that are beginning to ship more cargo again along the eastern section, from the Oswego Canal into the Erie, to the Hudson River).

“Steel fabricated oil barges now replaced by tour boats, pleasure boats, canoes and kayaks.”

We have been leapfrogging ports in order to see more of the canal, by boat and bike. My strategy today, for our last night, is to overshoot Macedon, where the Mid-Lakes Navigation marina is and where we need to return the boat by 9 am tomorrow, and go to Palmyra, just on the other side of two locks.

I calculate this will take about 2 hours, depending upon how long it takes to get through the locks (they estimate 25 minutes each).

The lock closes behind us as we make our way to Palmyra © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We pass through Fairport at 1 pm.  The lift operator asks our destination: Palmyra, I say.  He says he will alert Lock 30.

We do not have to wait to go through the lock – the operator tells us that when he sees us, he will begin to open the gates so we can go right in. He also operates Lock 29; it takes us 25 minutes to get there and he is already there.

Going through the locks is better than a theme park ride, because it matters.

I expect to find the town of Palmyra right on the canal, so overshoot the port. I call Mid-Lakes to get directions and find out the town is a couple of blocks up from the marina.

Palmyra calls itself the “Queen of Erie Canal towns” (it was a model for the book, Canal Town).

Most interestingly (which I did not know), it was the birthplace of the Mormon religion (how timely), and thousands of visitors converge at the nearby Hill Cumorah each July for the largest outdoor religious pageant in the world (Hillcumorah.org).

William Phelps Store in Palmyra is dubbed, the museum “where time stands still.” Established in 1826, and renovated by Proprietor William Phelps in 1875, when he died, his son Julius locked the doors and walked away in 1940, leaving everything as it was © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

As we walk up from the marina, we pass one of the most unusual museums: William Phelps Store and Home. Dubbed, the museum “where time stands still” it has been a boarding house, tavern, bakery and general store since it was built in 1826. Proprietor William Phelps completed renovations by 1875, but when he died, his son Julius simply locked the doors (and everything as it was on the shelves) in 1940 and walked away, leaving a sort of time capsule into that time. Upstairs, you can visit the Phelps’ family home with post-Civil War furnishings (no electricity or indoor plumbing), where Sibyl Phelps lived until she passed away in 1976 (unfortunately, it is already closed by the time we come: hours are June-Sept., Tuesday-Sat, 11-4; Oct 1-May 1 (Tues-Thurs.), and in winter by appointment, 315-597-6981.

The Palmyra Historical Museum (also closed by the time we arrive) was a former hotel and tavern, and now offers 23 themed rooms on such subjects as local business, government, police and fire service, medicine, education, tools, toys. It tells the story of Erie Canal and Underground Railroad history, Civil War, Women’s Suffrage, and personalities such as Winston Churchill, Joseph Smith and Palmyra founder John Swift, a Revolutionary War general who moved here in 1790.

The Palmyra Print Shop, the newest addition to the Historic Palmyra collection, was established by John M. Jones who came to Palmyra in 1856 and changed the face of the printing industry. He produced printing presses and cutters for export around the world via the Erie Canal.

The Alling Coverlet Museum presents the largest collection of American hand woven coverlets in the country. It is named for Mrs. Merle Alling, a Rochester resident and coverlet collector, and is housed in a 1901 newspaper printing office (open Jun to mid-September, 1-4 pm)

You can purchase admission to individual museums, or get a Trail Ticket to visit all four. In addition, the museum offers walking tours, including the Erie Canal, village and cemeteries (351-597-6981, www.historicpalmyrany.com).

It has a broad boulevard that runs through, flanked on each side by interesting buildings and shops.

A sign in from of this Palmyra building: “This House (322 Main Street) built by Pliny Sexton in 1827 was a station on underground railway in days of slavery” © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

Here we discover the Grandin Print shop where the Book of Mormon was first published in 1830, says the marker. (They offer free tours.)

One of Palmyra’s most famous spots is the intersection at Main and Canandaigua/Church Streets with each of the four corners dominated by a church: Western Presbyterian (1832), First United Methodist (1867), First Baptist (1870) and Zion Episcopal (1873).

We also see a beautiful Village Hall, dated 1867; and the Liberty House BnB (Liberty St), in a stunning Victorian.

Walking, we find on one corner a monument dated 1892 that is reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower (it is called a flagpole), dedicated to President Ben Harrison and Civil War Veterans, rededicated 2005 as sign of Palmyra’s pride (why not Abe Lincoln, what did Harrison have to do with Civil War? I wonder. I learn that it was put up during Harrison’s reelection campaign by the Republican committee. Harrison lost to Grover Cleveland).

Just beyond, a sign stops us: “This House 322 Main Street) built by Pliny Sexton in 1827 was a station on underground railway in days of slavery.”

Strolling about Palmyra’s Main Street © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

Some gorgeous Victorian homes, buildings. – no café, not even ice cream shop (Pittsford has 4), and not obvious option for a restaurant beyond pizza and Chinese take-out.

Just at the dock (and along the bike route and the bridge), we find Muddy Waters which is normally open only for breakfast and lunch, but on Friday nights, 7-9, it hosts folk music and food.

Muddy Waters is absolutely delightful, decorated with crew, canoe oars, flags, and serves up delectable paninis, sandwiches and salads (the Eastern Canal salad has romaine, feta cheese, cranberries, walnuts and balsamic dressing), and for dessert, a Belgian waffle that is packed high with ice cream fresh strawberries and whipped cream.

Allen Hopkins and Jim Clare, 60s-something folksingers from the Rochester area, play folk music classics as well as own music- accompanied with clever banter and stories. Their songs about the canal and people’s struggle provides the perfect connection of the Erie Canal of long ago and today.

Jim says how these upstate villages have been so hurt by economy – brick buildings shuttered, so sad.

Al introduces a song about a woolen mill in Georgia, which applies equally to what is happening in these factory towns: “Where people came up expecting to spend their lives there supporting their family, and we’re seeing that here.”

“Think of people’s lives. Whoever thought [this would happen to] Xerox, Kodak – scary,” Jim says.

Folk singers Allen Hopkins and Jim Clare perform at Muddy Waters on a Friday night in Palmyra © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

They sing,  ‘The only tune I hear is the sound of the wind as it blows through town… Too old to work, too young to die.’

They provide the perfect epilogue to our trip.

“More than just a heroic feat of engineering, the Erie Canal opened the interior of the continent, providing a safe and reliable route for west-bound migrants and manufactured goods and east-bound products of forests, farms and mines,” reads a brochure describing the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor (established by Congress in 2000). “connecting places, people and ideas, it strengthened the union and fostered social and reform movements. Celebrated in art, literature, story and song, it helped establish an American identify, both here and abroad.”

Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, PO Box 219, Waterford, NY 12188, 518-237-8643, ext 3110, www.eriecanalway.org.

If we didn’t have to return the Canadice to the Mid-Lakes marina by 9 am, we would have loved to spend the day in Palmyra visiting the museums.

Do a better job than we did and plan at least a day in Palmyra (Palmyra, NY & Wayne County, 315-597-4849, www.palmyrany.com; Wayne County Tourism, 800-527-6510, www.waynecountytourism.com).

End of a Perfect Journey Aboard Canalboat

Now old hands at navigating the locks, we entering the lock on our way from Palmyra back to the Mid-Lakes Navigation marina at Macedon © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We radio ahead to Lock 29 to say we are preparing to leave, and the operator says that once he gets a visual, he will open the gates. We are able to just sail through and on to Lock 30.

Just after Lock 30, we see the turn-in for the Mid-Lakes marina at Macedon, where we had set out a week before.

Matt is on the dock waiting for us, helping us to guide the Canadice back into the slip.

Peter Wiles, whose family owns Mid-Lakes Navigation, is here too.

The canalboat, he says, “is a platform you can design, extend, expand your activities” Peter says. “You can move around or stay longer, store stuff, but if you want to do more, you can.” Some people even simply dock the boat, and rent a car to go to Niagara Falls or travel through New York’s wine country.

The trip is ideal for any age, young couples or empty nesters; families or couples traveling together. It is fabulous for families – even with younger children – because you don’t get bored and you can stop and tie up and bike or visit places; ideal for multi-generational families; and for couples traveling together, particularly if you want to bike more of the canal trail (you can switch off, with one couple driving the boat while the other couple bikes, then reverse on the return).

The only caveat would be you need to be reasonably agile in order to jump off the boat to tie up (though people on shore are very helpful, too), and get on/and off the boat.

It is ideal for people who like to be independent, to explore.

The lifestyle onboard is much more comfortable and luxurious compared to camping.

Our luxurious Lockmaster, The Canadice, a houseboat specially designed for the Erie Canal, tied up at Pittsford © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Mid-Lakes does a superb job of preparing you for the trip – with lists of what is on the boat and what to bring; a superb job of orienting you to the boat, even taking you on a “shake down” cruise so you go through a lock with your trainer; orienting you to your itinerary so you have some idea of what is ahead. You know they really care about the guest experience when you receive a questionnaire in the mail a day after you return home. Just about every need has been anticipated and they are eager to know what else they can do to make the experience even better.

If you do not want to do the self-skippered trip, Mid-Lakes also offers 2-3 day escorted cruises on the Emita II, a 65-foot retired ferry (each day includes cruising on the canal, several lockings and lively commentary; a tour of a working lock and a historical site; meals served on board; overnight accommodations in nearby hotels; the one-way itineraries include the return by motorcoach).

Mid-Lakes Navigation has just issued its 2013 schedule which features new Tuesday departures and lower fares on weekends.

You can choose 3, 4, or 7 nights aboard your own canalboat – an amazingly comfortable houseboat with turning-heads charm.

Rates range from $1550 for three nights on the smaller Lockmasters, to $3075 for seven nights on the larger Lockmasters.

The cruising season is mid-May (when they refill the Erie Canal) to mid-October (they drain the Canal each year).

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.

See also:

Journey by boat and bike along the Erie Canal: Macedon-Fairport-Pittsford and slideshow

Erie Canal journey by boat, bike: Exploring canaltowns from Pittsford to Albion and slideshow

Erie Canal journey: Albion-Medina bikeride is most scenic, illuminating and slideshow

Erie Canal journey by boat and bike: Palmyra, ‘Queen of Canal Towns’ and slideshow

New season of self-skippered canalboat cruises on New York’s historic Erie Canal (Photos)


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