Two years ago, we took a houseboat on the Erie Canal to discover -by bike and boat – this fascinating and scenic destination, that brought us to charming towns that had helped turn America into an industrial and economic world power. It is one of the destinations that are part of the Governor’s Path Through History program, highlighting historically and culturally significant sites and events throughout New York State.
“From the untamed beauty of Niagara Falls, all along the Erie Canal, and on to the soaring peaks of the Adirondacks, New York State has a multitude of historic attractions that deserve a visit to experience,” Governor Cuomo said. “Our state has played a particularly important role in the development of transportation industries and technology, and the Path Through History program is a great way to appreciate them. Whatever your interests, New York is rich with incredible destinations that will make any trip around the Empire State an unforgettable experience.”
The Path Through History program makes it easy to explore the state’s canals and transportation history sites. Important in creating the Empire State we know today, Canals and Transportation is one of 13 themes that New York State is using to organize its 500-plus heritage sites. The program’s website provides additional information to plan an itinerary that includes site visits, and identifying markers on major state highways as well as local signage with a distinctive Path Through History logo to help point the way.
Here is a region-by-region sampling of the Canals and Transportation sites highlighted in the Path Through History program along with other fun ways to experience the history of transportation around the Empire State.
Central New York:
The town of Rome was the starting point for a canal system that eventually linked Manhattan with the developing American West. There the Erie Canal Village presents a reconstructed 19th century town complete with a schoolhouse, blacksmith and mule-drawn packet boat rides along the canal. In the town of Chittenango the sight of a 96-foot cargo boat under reconstruction at the Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum puts the scale of the canal’s traffic in perspective. And in Canastota, the Canastota Canal Town Museum brings the history, folklore and engineering achievements of the canal into focus with artwork, artifacts and activities.
Canal buffs will also love Schoharie Crossing State Park in Fort Hunter, where remnants of all three eras of Erie Canal development are visible including a two-mile long segment of the original “Clinton’s Ditch.” The Fort Plain Museum and Historical Park in Fort Plain spotlights life along the Erie Canal circa 1820-1850, while The Black River Canal Museum in Boonville features a full-scale canal boat replica and conveys a sense of the engineering accomplishment involved in building the 109-lock Black River Canal. For more about the Central New York region, visit www.nyfun4u.com.
The Finger Lakes:
Canal adventures continue just beyond Palmyra in the historic town of Montezuma, where the Cayuga-Seneca Canal shoots off to connect the Erie Canal with 92 miles of the region’s rivers and lakes, including two of the beautiful Finger Lakes–Cayuga and Seneca. The canal-connected waterways and trails provide a relaxed-paced way to explore this sophisticated, rural region, acclaimed for its fine wines, artisanal food and natural beauty, while a number of museums recreate the era when canals put the region on the transportation grid.
In Syracuse, the Erie Canal Museum, housed in America’s only remaining weighlock building, is a hub for narrated sightseeing tours and canal boat charters. In Seneca Falls, the Seneca Falls Museum of Waterways and Industry offers a thought-provoking look at how the commerce and industrial growth powered by the canals helped to foster and spread social reform movements, including women’s rights.
The Finger Lakes also played a key role in aviation. The Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport honors pioneer aviator Glenn Curtiss, who progressed from building bikes and motorcycles to planes, making the first official long distance flight in the U.S. He also built the first seaplanes for the U.S. Navy earning recognition as “the father of naval aviation.” Dedicated to the restoration of World War II and Korean War aircraft, the 1941 Historical Aircraft Group Museum features informational displays as well as air shows at the Geneseo Airport. And in Elmira, the National Soaring Museum explores the challenge and history of motorless flight such as gliders.
Additionally, Canandaigua’s Granger Homestead and Carriage Museum, home to 19th century Postmaster General Gideon Granger, features a carriage museum with more than 100 horse-drawn carriages and offers carriage rides through historic downtown Canandaigua. Transportation by sea is the theme at the Sodus Bay Lighthouse and Maritime Museum at Sodus Point, where a climb to the lighthouse tower offers stunning views of Lake Ontario. For more about the region, visit www.fingerlakestravelny.com.
The hundred mile footpath between Tonawanda, just outside Buffalo, to Newark in the Finger Lakes, has become a popular destination for hiking and biking. This westernmost segment of the Erie Canal is the longest continuous section of the Canalway Trail. Whether biking, boating or traveling by car, it’s fun to explore the nostalgic small town Main Streets, farmlands, lift bridges and multi-tier locks. As an added attraction, Niagara Falls is just a ten minute drive from Buffalo. The Pierce-Arrow Museum offers a unique collection of bicycles, automobiles, and memorabilia – many of which have a story entwined with that of Western New York’s communities at the turn of the 20th century. In Lockport, the triumph of building the canal is apparent. The town is built around two impressive five-lock staircases that move boats up the steep Niagara escarpment, which visitors can learn about at the new Erie Canal Discovery Center & Flight of Five.
More transportation history beckons at the Historic LeRoy House in LeRoy, which features more than 100 historic vehicles ranging from an ox-cart and antique bikes to a 1908 Cadillac. Naval enthusiasts will want to see the decommissioned U.S. Naval vessels, including the Cleveland-class cruiser USS Little Rock, the Fletcher-class destroyer USS The Sullivans and the submarine USS Croaker, at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park. Rail buffs will also find plenty to explore in the region, starting with the Medina Railroad Museum, a beautiful wooden freight depot filled with memorabilia and model trains, which offers train rides along the Canal. The Arcade & Attica Railroad runs steam and World War II-era diesel engines from its historic station in Arcade. The station itself is a museum with everything from antique railroad lanterns to switch locks along with original photographs. For more about the region, visit www.greaterniagara.com.
The Hudson Valley:
Before paved roads and railroads became commonplace, rivers were America’s highways, as visitors learn at the Hudson River Maritime Museum in Kingston, which features visiting and resident steam tug boats, ice cutters and other vessels as well as the environmental-education vessel, the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater and a display on Hudson River lighthouses. The region also is home to Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park in Highland that crosses the Hudson atop the former Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge. When the 6,768-foot bridge opened in 1888 it was an engineering marvel thought to be the world’s longest bridge in its day. Today, visitors come to walk, skate or bike across the pedestrian bridge as they admire the stunning views of the river more than 200 feet below. Additionally, the Motorcyclepedia Museum in Newburgh offers over 400 historic motorcycles, some dating back as far as the beginning of the 20th century.
You can also retrace the footsteps of the artists who drew their inspiration from the Hudson River Valley and the Catskills, along the Hudson River School Art Trail.
For more about the region, visit www.hudsonvalley.org.
This region of high peaks and whitewater rivers also had a brief brush with car manufacturing. Today, the Champlain Valley Transportation Museum in Plattsburgh is housed in a factory that produced exquisite Lazier Motor Company automobiles and race cars from 1905 to 1910. The museum has expanded its scope to celebrate the region’s rich transportation history through its collection of vintage automobiles, boats and trains. Kid-friendly exhibits include a Vulcan Locomotive that kids can climb around and more than 750 Diecast model cars, trucks, boats, airplanes, tractors and fire trucks. The museum also provides transportation on the replica Sail Ferry Westerwax to the Bluff Point Lighthouse, which still operates and includes displays about the lighthouse itself and the ecology and history of the area. For more about the region, visit www.visitadirondacks.com.
The Capital-Saratoga region produced trains, and the ALCO Heritage Museum in Schenectady, currently closed for renovations, aims to share the history of the American Locomotive Company (ALCO), which built steam and diesel locomotives. The Saratoga & North Creek Railway boasts vintage cars that make multiple stops along the Hudson River and offers breathtaking views of the Adirondacks. The cars are also kitchen-equipped to provide fresh meals prepared to order.
About 150 years ago, before the era of cars, train service opened up the Catskills and spawned an era of grand hotels and friendly guest houses. Although roads have displaced trains as the route into the region, several vintage trains still operate as tourist attractions. The Esopus Scenic Train, which departs from Mt. Tremper, stops at a 1900’s railroad depot, now home to the Path through History’s Empire State Railway Museum. The important role of river travel is the focus of tours (reserve in advance) at the working Hudson-Athens Lighthouse, located between the towns of Athens and Hudson. For more about the region, go to www.visitthecatskills.com.
One of the brightest lights shining on Lake Erie emanates from the Dunkirk Historical Lighthouse in Dunkirk. The 61-foot tall lighthouse, established in 1826, continues to guide sailors navigating Lake Erie. The lighthouse was automated in 1960 but still uses its original 1875 Fresnel lens. Guides here tell tales of the many shipwrecks off the coast and take visitors up the Lighthouse’s spiral stairs to the upper observation level, the restored 1800 lighthouse keeper’s home and a museum with nautical displays and military memorabilia; new this year are ghost tours.
You can also enjoy the Salamanca Rail Museum in the town of Salamanca, where a restored 1912 passenger depot uses artifacts, photos and video to paint a picture of the days when rail was the main way to travel from city to city. The station’s rich red oak wainscoting and two-story skylit ceiling have been restored based on the original architectural plans and include authentic nostalgic touches such as the “Ladies Retiring Room” sign and the telegraph machine in the ticket office. For more about the Chautauqua-Allegheny region, visit www.visitwesternny.com.
New York City:
New York City can proudly claim the Brooklyn Bridge, the first steel-wire suspension bridge in the world and the longest of its day, and the landmark Beaux-Art Grand Central Terminal, celebrating its centennial this year with exhibits, events and an audio tour among its transportation icons. Not surprisingly, the city is also home to one of the world’s premier museums devoted to urban public transportation history. The New York Transit Museum, housed in a former 1936 subway station in Brooklyn Heights with an annex at Grand Central Terminal, explores the development and importance of public transportation. And for one of the best values in the city, residents and visitors can enjoy the views of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and the Manhattan skyline on a free Staten Island Ferry ride between the tip of Manhattan and Staten Island. For more about New York City, visit www.nycgo.com
Authorized by Congress in 1792, the Montauk Point Lighthouse has been part of Long Island’s land and seascape for over 200 years and its 100-foot tall tower still serves as an active aid to navigation. Tours of this National Historic Landmark include a visit to the former keepers’ dwelling, containing the apartments of the head keeper and his two assistant keepers; the Fire Control Station, a tower built during World War II which served as part of the extensive East Coast Defense Shield and the lighthouse tower itself, completed in 1796. Long Island’s seafaring past is also vividly portrayed at two wonderful museums: the Sag Harbor Whaling & Historical Museum, set an 1845 Greek Revival whale ship owner’s mansion, and the Long Island Maritime Museum in West Sayville, where maritime history comes to life on a sail aboard a landmark historic vessel (reserve in advance) and visits to landmark homes.
Transportation also looms large at the Long Island Museum of American Art, History & Carriages in Stony Brook, which has over 200 horse-drawn carriages and other rare artifacts from the era. Admired for their beauty and craftsmanship, the carriages reflect an important part of America’s industrial and transportation history. Long Island also played key roles in aviation history, as visitors learn at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City. Here visitors learn how Long Island’s flat terrain at the edge of the nation made it a natural launch point for aviation pioneers including Charles Lindbergh, as well as a center for large commercial and World War II plane producers such as Grumman. For more about the area, visit www.discoverlongisland.com
The Thousand Islands-Seaway:
Boldt Castle, Singer Island and many of the region’s most famous sites date back to the late 19th and early 20th century when the area became popular with America’s wealthy industrialists. Then as now, many popular tourist destinations, including some eye-popping mansions-turned-museums, were accessible only by boat, conveying a sense of the importance of water travel to the region. More than 300 finely-crafted boats and thousands of boating artifacts can be seen at the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton. And the Tibbet’s Point Lighthouse in nearby Cape Vincent features its original working Fresnel lens along with a telescope for surveying. The lighthouse also offers hostel lodgings for those who want to overnight. In Oswego, the H. Lee White Marine Museum displays Native American dugout canoes and other boats. For more about the area, visit www.visit1000islands.com
About Path Through History
Path Through History highlights historically and culturally significant sites and events throughout New York State. The program, introduced by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, builds on New York’s already robust heritage tourism attractions. The initiative is currently focused on 13 themes including: Arts & Culture, Natural History, U.S. Presidents, Women’s Rights, Canals & Transportation, Civil Rights, Colonial History, Immigration, Innovation & Commerce, The Revolutionary War, Native American Heritage, Sports History and the War of 1812. Important heritage sites and events across the state were selected with input from leading historians. For more information, visit http://paththroughhistory.ny.gov/.
Each week, I LOVE NEW YORK social media channels will highlight one theme from Path Through History, featuring photos, videos, event itineraries and more to showcase the rich history of New York State. Follow I LOVE NEW YORK on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram or use #LoveNYHistory to join us on the journey down New York’s Path Through History.
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