Women’s History Month Calls Attention to Pioneering Women and Sites Associated With Their Contributions All Over New York State

Eleanor Roosevelt’s study where she wrote her famous newspaper column. Visitingn her home, Val-Kill, at Hyde Park, provides remarkable insights into this most remarkable woman, “First Lady to the World” © 2014 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The struggle for women’s right to vote is enshrined here in New York State, at Seneca Falls. The struggle for freedom also had its stops on the Underground Railroad at the homes of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, in New York State. The American Red Cross founder, Clara Barton, had her first chapter in Danville, which still operates today. And a pioneer of television comedy, Lucille Ball, is the hometown hero of Jamestown. These are just a few of the sites associated with women who played such an important part in American history and culture.

Celebrate Women’s History Month and learn about New York women’s massive contributions to history, culture and society at sites throughout New York State. Through Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Path Through History initiative, New Yorkers can explore women’s heritage sites and key events like the nation’s first women’s rights convention that took place in 1848 in Seneca Falls or the “First Lady of the World” Eleanor Roosevelt’s home in Hyde Park.

“New York State has been inspired by the great contributions of New York women for over two centuries,” said Governor Cuomo. “The Path Through History gets visitors started on a journey back in time to discover and celebrate the diverse people whose accomplishments made our state great. I encourage all New Yorkers to learn more about these extraordinary women who helped transform our culture and society.”

Women’s Rights is one of 13 themes used to organize 500-plus heritage sites across the state through the Path Through History initiative. Those looking to celebrate Women’s History Month in March can learn about the important role women played in the women’s suffrage and civil rights movement, but also about New York women in various fields from education to entertainment at museums and historic sites around the state. Visitors can locate sites by looking for the Path Through History marker on major state highways as well as additional local signage. In addition, the Path Through History web page—www.paththroughhistory.ny.gov— provides a list of sites.

“New York led the way in establishing women’s rights and that long journey can be traced and recounted by visiting historical sites and museums all across the state,” said Senator Betty Little, chair of the Senate Cultural Affairs, Tourism, Parks and Recreation Committee. “Path Through History encourages an interactive approach to learning about our past and developing a deeper understanding of the dedication of those who came before us and fought so hard. It’s enriching tourism and something I hope many people take advantage of this month.”

Assemblywoman Margaret Markey, Chair of the Assembly Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development Committee, said, “New York women had a vital role in the nationwide suffrage movement that led to the adoption of the 19th Amendment. They still provide the same inspiration and determination as the struggle for equal rights for women continues in our times. All New Yorkers should take pride in the ‘Path Through History” program that spotlights important sites that reflect the spirit of these pioneering women.”

“Governor Cuomo’s Path Through History initiative was created to connect historically and culturally significant locations throughout the state to attract visitors and boost the economy,” said Empire State Development Division of Tourism Executive Director Gavin Landry. “The hundreds of Path Through History sites identify historical assets and provide a platform to recognize and honor both the struggles and achievements of great New York women in our nation’s history.”

Several of the key Women’s Rights sites along the Path Through History as well as other locales honoring the contributions of women include:


The life of a Pioneer Woman. The Adirondack Museum (Blue Mountain Lake), one of the largest museums in upstate New York, is closed until May, but its online exhibit “Women’s Work in the Adirondacks: 1850-1920” will have you looking at the region’s rugged mountains and historic homes with new appreciation. The online narrative is illustrated with photos and historic artifacts from the museum collections.


I Wish You Were a Boy. Abolitionist and women’s suffrage leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton was born in Johnstown, in the Mohawk Valley Region. The Elizabeth Cady Stanton Hometown Association offers a self-guided cell-phone walking tour of Johnstown, “Walk in the Footsteps of Elizabeth Cady Stanton,” that can be reached by phoning 518-406-7081. The tour covers about a mile and is filled with insights and anecdotes, such as the time when her father sighed and said “Oh, my daughter, I wish you were a boy.” This comment, says the narrator, set Elizabeth on a course “to prove that women were indeed as good as men.” For information on special exhibits and events, including a display at the Bank of America on Main Street, visit The Elizabeth Cady Stanton Hometown Association.

Arts in the Park. The Saratoga National Historical Park in Schuylerville (518-664-9821 ext. 2985) is featuring a Women’s History Month exhibit, “The Force of Fashion—Prettifying the Ladies”. Learn that what’s practical and what’s fashionable are by no means new concepts.


I Love Lucy. The Lucy Desi Center for Comedy in Jamestown honors a hometown entertainment pioneer. Born here in 1911, Lucille Ball was the first woman to head a major Hollywood studio, which produced Star Trek and other popular shows. Visitors can see re-creations of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo’s NYC apartment and Hollywood hotel suite, a screening area, and vintage memorabilia. You may also be surprised to learn how ground-breaking I Love Lucy was: the show was the first filmed before a live audience using three cameras, and the first to reach over ten million homes.


The Fight for Rights. The Women’s Rights Movement has its roots in Seneca Falls, where America’s first women’s rights convention was held. For a sense of how revolutionary the idea of women’s suffrage was, visit the Women’s Rights National Historic Park. A film, Dreams of Equality, and exhibits at the Visitor Center, provide an excellent orientation to the Women’s Rights Movement. The Park also offers a self-guided cell phone audio tour of key sites around Seneca Falls that can be accessed by calling 315-257-9370. Other sites on the tour include Wesleyan Chapel, where the Convention was held, and two homes of civil rights leaders, M’Clintock House in Waterloo, (open May – August), home of Thomas and Mary Ann M’Clintock, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton House in Seneca Falls. Also in Seneca Falls, the National Women’s Hall of Fame honors women of the past and inducts new honorees every other year. Visitors can read about these women and be inspired by their stories.

The Ongoing Struggle. A third national women’s rights convention, held in 1852 in Syracuse, brought another articulate leader into the movement, as visitors learn when touring the home of Matilda Joslyn Gage in Fayetteville, about 15 minutes from downtown Syracuse. Gage, along with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was a founding member of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and served in various offices of the organization for twenty years (1869-1889). The museum offers an in-depth understanding of Gage’s life and work, and serves as a center for continuing education and discussion on current social justice issues.

Arrested for voting. In 1872, Susan B. Anthony and other women were famously arrested for voting in Rochester, but the right to vote was only part of what Anthony was fighting for. “Women must have a purse of her own,” she said, protesting the fact that once married, a woman could not open a bank account, rent a place to live, or enter into contracts. Visitors to the National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House in Rochester learn about the life of this legendary civil rights leader. In addition, the Learning Center is designed to keep her spirit alive by offering programs that help people to make positive differences in their lives and communities.

The Underground Railroad Stopped Here. Visitors to the region will also want to see the Harriet Tubman Home Museum in Auburn, where the famed Underground Railroad “conductor,” Civil War spy and promoter of black and women’s rights lived. The Thompson Memorial AME Zion Church that she attended, a center for the abolitionist movement is marked by a plaque. Events are scheduled throughout the year to commemorate the centennial of Tubman’s death in 1913 and can be found at www.harriethouse.org/events.htm, or phone 315-252-2081.

The Angel of the Battlefield. Known as “the angel of the battlefield” for her bravery in setting up and manning hospitals at the front lines of the Civil War, Clara Barton is best known for founding the American Red Cross. In Dansville, the site of the first chapter, started by Barton, is still operating. The chapter maintains a small museum that displays some of Barton’s personal belongings, writings and letters. Visits are by appointment. Call 585-335-3500.

The Mother of Women’s Colleges. Elmira College, founded in 1855 as Elmira Female College, claims the honor of being the world’s first college to grant a baccalaureate degree to women, equal to those granted to men. It remained a women’s college until the school became co-ed in 1969. Eight of the site’s buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places.


The General’s Lady. It was in the farmhouse at what is now Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Park in Newburgh that General George Washington established his headquarters from April 1782 to August 1783. While here, Martha Washington served as official hostess, managed the wartime household and helped operate their Virginia plantation. Every year, the park celebrates Women’s History Month with a special program, “The General’s Lady,” which presents the “Martha Washington Woman of History Award” to a woman who demonstrates similar characteristics while contributing towards the education and preservation of history in the Hudson Valley. This year’s presentation will be made on April 6, 2014.

Sojourner Truth lived in slavery here. About 90 minutes north, the Hurley Heritage Society offers a self-guided walking tour of the Hurley Village Dutch Stone Houses, many of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. These well preserved homes, most dating to the mid-18th century and still occupied, include Hardenbergh House, where famous abolitionist and woman’s rights orator Sojourner Truth lived in slavery for about six years, as well as a home with slave quarters and another house that was part of the Underground Railroad.

Doris Mack, a docent at Val-Kill, relates her first-hand experience with Eleanor Roosevelt to visitors © 2014 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

First Lady of the World. Eleanor Roosevelt was the longest serving first lady in the United States, but her work didn’t start or end with her husband’s presidency. Nicknamed “First Lady of the World” by President Harry S. Truman in recognition of her human rights achievements, she also served as the U.S. delegate to the United Nations and helped draft and pass the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which she described as “the International Magna Carta for all men everywhere.” Visitors to Val-Kill, her home in Hyde Park, learn about her legacy through a short film and a guided tour. The site is open May through October from 9 am to 5 pm, Thursdays through Mondays. Guided tours are available throughout the day. November through April the site is open Thursdays through Mondays, with guided tours available at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.

Inspiration for a Prize-Winning Poet. Visitors can draw their own inspiration while exploring Steepletop, the Victorian home and well-tended gardens where Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Edna St. Vincent Millay lived. Her Austerlitz home and grounds include a “poetry trail,” where poetry readings and other events are often featured. The house is open from late May to the middle of October, except for special events.

Equal Rights N.O.W. Co-founder of the National Organization for Women and women’s rights activist, Betty Friedan lived in Grand View while writing her radical book, The Feminine Mystique. The book helped kick-start the modern women’s movement, with its demands for equal pay and other rights. A monument to Friedan now stands in front of the Grand View Village Hall.


Honor in a Park. From Cleopatra to Marie Curie, the names of New York City parks and playgrounds read like a Who’s Who of women in history. The New York City Parks Department offers borough-by-borough and themed listings as well as a searchable list of special events. Women’s History Month events feature a talk, “The Iroquois Influence on Woman’s Rights” at the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum (in Fidler-Wyckoff House Park), in Brooklyn on March 23. Admission is free.

Alice Austen’s House on Staten Island pays homage to a pioneering woman photographer © 2014 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

A Pioneering Photographer. Alice Austen, a 19th century photographer and one of the first women to shoot documentary-style photographs, lived on Staten Island. Her former home, originally built in 1690 as a one-room farmhouse and renovated in the 19th century by her father into a Victorian Gothic cottage, is located at the entrance to New York Harbor. Today, visitors to Alice Austen House can tour the historic home and view works by Alice Austen and other artists. The museum is closed January and February; call 718-816-4506 x10 for more details.

For more information about women’s heritage sites, visit http://www.hallofgovernors.ny.gov/wh/Womens-History or the New York State Office of Parks and Historic Preservation’s Women’s Heritage Trail and its Heritage Trail map.

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://www.paththroughhistory.ny.gov.

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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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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Journey by Boat and Bike Along New York’s Historic Erie Canal: Day 4

Where the Erie Canal is built over a creek and makes a sharp turn entering Medina © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

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.

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 © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

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.

Albion’s Courthouse, indicative of the fabulous architecture that abounds in this historic Erie Canal town © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

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

The pastoral countryside along the Erie Canal bikeway, between Albion and Medina © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

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.

Biking on the Erie Canal to Medina you get to explore 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 © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

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.”


Biking along the Erie Canal, you see where the Erie Canal is built over a creek and makes a sharp turn entering Medina © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

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.

Mark McDaniel in his extraordinary shop, the Candle Nook, makes every candle by hand; each is scented using natural ingredients and he says he has invented the recipes for 22,000 different scents © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

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.

Brockport at night © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

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).

Helpful contacts:

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)


© 2013 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.examiner.com/eclectic-travel-in-national/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/eclectic-traveler-in-long-island/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/international-travel-in-national/karen-rubin and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures.

Journey by Boat and Bike Along New York’s Historic Erie Canal: Day 3

The Otisco, one of Mid-Lakes Navigation’s specially designed Lockmasters, cruising on New York’s historic Erie Canal © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Rochester, Spencerport, Brockport, Holley, Albion

by Karen Rubin

We awake on our second morning on the canal in Pittsford to beaming sunlight. I walk the couple of blocks from the canal park where we are docked to Starbucks where I can check my email.

Awakening in Pittsford on our Lockmaster canalboat, the Canadice © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

After breakfast, we set out on our voyage – our first real challenge ahead: Lock 32, followed a mile further on by Lock 33.

Piloting our Lockmaster, a houseboat specially designed for the Erie Canal by Mid-Lakes Navigation, has been surprisingly easy, though docking requires some skill and practice, and agility. But the locks have us most anxious.

Both these locks are distinguished because the lines we need to catch – so that our boat doesn’t float around the lock when it fills with water – are embedded in the concrete wall.

The Erie Canal lift operators like Paul, patiently guide us in how to dock the canal boat and catch the wire embedded in the wall © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The lift operators are particularly helpful – they are very sympathetic to the fact that we are not experienced boaters (in fact, Matt, who has given us our two-hour orientation on the Canadice, says the operators nickname the Lockmasters “bumper boats”). Paul, the operator here, patiently shows us how to put our line behind the wire. It is very windy today, and he actually makes the water flow so that the boat pushes back to the wall.

The lock operators also ask where you are headed, so that they alert the operators along the way – at the lift bridges and locks – that you might be coming. Often, the operators are responsible for more than one bridge or lock, and have to travel between the them . (A site provides locations and information about the Erie Canal’s locks and lift bridges, www.100megsfree3.com/wordsmith/statistics.html).

After we make it through the locks, we are bound for our next thrill: just south of Rochester, the Erie Canal crosses the Genessee River which is one of the rare rivers that flows to the north, emptying into Lake Ontario. This is another remarkable example of engineering that involved a dozen bridges, east and west of the river.

There are literally four-corners. We make a right turn from the canal onto the Genessee River to travel into Rochester’s downtown, 4 miles further.

We are headed to Cornhill Landing, the dock in downtown Rochester, beyond which you cannot go any further because there are rushing falls right in the city. But along the way, we see a dock and assume that is Cornhill Landing. It is directly across the river from the University of Rochester campus on the eastern shore, and is not on the chart. This turns out to be Brooks Landing, attached to a relatively new hotel, the Springbridge Suites, that serves the University of Rochester.

It proves a better place to tie up anyway. We take our bikes and ride along a bike trail alongside the Genessee River (best to ride the eastern shore), up to the falls and then return to the boat.

Rochester, New York, a city that developed largely because of the Erie Canal © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The Erie Canal turned Rochesterville into an American “boom town” and today, it is the third largest city in New York State, my brochure says. The canal first went through the center of the city, across an 800-foot aqueduct over the Genessee River – a major achievement at the time. A second, sturdier version, built in 1842 to replace the original aqueduct, can be seen at the base of the Broad Street ridge.

Eventually, as Rochester was built up and the canal interfered with traffic, the canal was rerouted to bypass the city. You can see old Lock #65 along the 490 Expressway. The High Falls Historic District has an interpretive center, archeological site, pedestrian bridge across the gorge, and the 96-foot waterfall. There are also nightclubs, restaurants, shops that fill former factory and warehouse spaces, and Rochester is renowned for its museums. During our visit, a popular Jazz Festival is underway.

I am not really in a Big City mood, though. I’ve been enjoying our sojourn into small-town America too much, and after our brief visit to Rochester, we set out again on the canal, continuing our west-bound journey.

Before long, once we get passed Greece (there are several towns here named for countries – Sweden, Egypt) and we are back into a rural looking setting which makes you forget entirely that you are in New York State or even in the 21st century.

As we sail along on our way to our next port, I reflect how they built the canal three or four times: in 1822-3, during the Civil War (mind-boggling), in the late 1800s, and again, 1917-1918 (during another war); the west is all man-made, but the east used existing lakes and rivers.

Beginning in the 1980s, the canal was transformed from commercial use and now is almost entirely for recreational use – boating, kayaking, canoeing, crew, fishing, though not long ago,  it was used to transport two fighter jets from the Intrepid in New York City to another museum, and blades for wind turbines (a harbinger of the future, perhaps?).

In the 1980s, the control of the Erie Canal was shifted from New York State’s Department of Transportation to the quasi public-private New York Thruway Authority, which established the New York State Canal Corporation, funded by the fees charged the boat operators (like Mid-Lakes), which pays for the operators and the maintenance.

I think how glorious the Canal must be in fall – lined with maples, oaks (Mid-Lakes Navigation operates until mid-October; the Canal is actually closed on Nov. 1, when they pull the plug; the canal is refilled around May 1).

The canal is absolutely beautiful between Greece and Spencerport – the  landscape and the bike trail as well.

We arrive at Spencerport, where we dock for the night (no charge here; the south side has access to water as well as electrical plug ins, and the Spencerport Canal Museum serves as a welcome center with computer and WiFi, showers; the north side only has electrical plug in, and a delightful picnic pavilion).

We still have an hour or so of daylight (we are here during the longest days of the year), so we take our bikes westward on the bikeway towards Adams’ Basin, where we find the charming Adams Basin Inn (315-352-3999), beside the lift bridge. Historical photos at the marker show that the inn has been in the same place to serve the canal as long as the canal has existed.

It’s about 8:30 pm by the time we get back to Spencerport. Someone tells us about a charming bistro, Bad Apples, at Brockport & Spencerport Road. But it is a pretty long walk to get there and we don’t think we can make it before 9 pm when it closes, so we find Tops grocery store (open 24/7) and a Chinese Take Out (Chef King) that proves absolutely fabulous, and have another picnic dinner under a pavilion on the canal beside the boat.

Sunset in Spencerport, where we tie up on the Erie Canal for the night © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Spencerport’s slogan is “Someplace Special.” The village began as Ogden Center in 1802 and became Spencerport in 1825 after the Erie Canal was cut through Daniel Spencer’s land. Shops developed along Main Street to serve the boats and passengers brought by the canal. We find few shops on Main Street today.

Our houseboat is very much like a floating RV, but one of the big differences is that our “house” goes right to the downtowns, rather than an RV which goes to camp grounds.

Tuesday: Spencerport-Brockport-Holley-Albion

We wake in Spencerport to brilliant sun, blue sky, a bit of a wind and a chill in air, but the sun is hot.

I have been enjoying the idea of traveling without any schedule or itinerary, but reality sets in as I realize we will have to make it back by  9 am on Saturday. I have to abandon my hope of getting to North Tonawanda, the farthest point you can go on the canal in order to see Niagara Falls.

We will not even make it as far as Lockport, where I was so anxious to see the last remaining “original” section of the Erie Canal and the historic 1842 “Old Flight of Five” staircase locks (replaced by Locks 334 and 35) (it takes about 25 minutes to go through each of the locks, so you have to tack that onto your travel time).

I make a plan of action: to stop and stay tonight at Albion and bike along the bikeway 12 miles to Medina (since we bike twice as fast as we boat). At least, then, we will have traveled most of the route of the “100 Must See Miles of the Erie Canal.”

As we chug along on our travels today, the wind against my face and this openness to the surroundings, there is something very special about the experience of piloting the canal boat, seeing the canal from the water.

From this perspective, you can best appreciate what a marvel of construction, capitalism and can-do spirit the Erie Canal was.

You have an enormously satisfying feeling of acquiring skills, knowledge of handling the boat, doing it yourself, being on your own.

As we near Brockport, I finally see a farm, as we enter an agricultural region.

Brockport has lift bridges at its east and west entries. We arrive at Brockport 12:35 pm. There is a very welcoming visitor center here, and the most well-equipped port for boaters we have found (it is also the only one we encounter on our trip that charges; up to $15 for a boat 40 feet or more).

Here, you can borrow a bike for an entire day (return by 7 pm; don’t expect great bike); use Wifi and a computer, see TV, DVD, use the restroom and shower, washer and drier, telephone (local calls), copier and fax machine, grab a cup of coffee pot, brochures and maps. The visitors center is staffed by 100 volunteers.

Brockport has a pleasant, revitalized Main Street – but not much in the way of interesting shops, except for what is claimed to be the biggest bookstore in the region (this is a college town, SUNY Brockport is walking distance).

The Morgan Manning House, on Main Street, Brockport © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

I come upon the Morgan Manning House, on Main Street. I learn that a pioneer reaper industry was developed on Erie Canal banks by William H. Seymour and Dayton S. Morgan. This 1854 dwelling became the Morgan family home in 1867. The eldest daughter, Sara, wife of Frederick A. Manning MD, lived here until died, 1964. The building was deeded by the Landmark Society of Western NY and Western Monroe Historic Society (637-3645).

Brockport, it turns out, was where Cyrus McCormick found a factory to manufacture his reapers, to meet the growing demand of orders from farther west (there is a marker near the dock).

Another marker describes Luther Gordon who “epitomized Brockport involvement in canal commerce during its heyday.” Gordon owned the sawmill and 7000 acres of timberland; he shipped 2-4 million board feet of lumber, 400,000 pounds of buildingstone on the canal throughout NYS. Gordon also was founder and president of the First National Bank of Brockport which served as the repository of canal tolls collected here.

We walk passed the First National Bank Building, with the dates 1864-1927, on Main Street.

This was the Industrial heartland – as we travel, I am struck by how many innovations came from this area. The towns today show skeletal remains of those glory days, when these towns were important, and had a place in global commerce.

At about 3 pm, we bike from Brockport west,  to Holley, just about 5 miles away, and arrive by 3:40. Here there is a pleasant parkline port and a bikepath named the Andrew Cuomo Canalway. opened in 2000 (It was built with a $1 million grant from HUD, when Andrew Cuomo was Secretary, under the Canal Corridor Initiative. The trail is only 100 yards long; two 5-foot-tall Medina sandstone monuments inscribed with his name mark the entrance).

Holley was settled in 1812 and established on the original Erie Canal. This was an enormous and complicated loop that was changed, putting the town a few blocks from the canal. The restored railroad depot (circa 1907) s now a museum.

Bill Billotti, proprietor of the Goodie shop in Holley © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We bike the short distance into the center of the village – literally a public square, bordered on all sides by lovely buildings, including the Odd Fellows Hall (1890), and several charming shops, like Jonathan’s Pastry and the Goodie Shop, where proprietor Bill Billotti offers ice cream and collectibles, and on Thursday nights, presents the Goodie Shop Singers (7-9 pm). I note the “Save the Old Stone Store” signs.

Billotti tells us about the village’s unique attraction, the Holley Falls, and we follow the signs to see the falls.

Holley was the center of an Italian immigrant community who were brought over to work the sandstone quarry at Medina (the sign says, “affectionately called, Podunk”). Billotti’s own father came as a shoemaker, and he was a mason before he retired and took over the shop.

We leave Holley by 4:45 pm for the six mile bike ride and are back at the boat in Brockport a half hour later – not bad for the six miles.

We have been leapfrogging ports so that on our return, we can stay in different wants. So we depart Brockport for Albion, which I calculate will take 2 ½ hours. I use the chart book to estimate the distances and see that we will have to cross 3 lift bridges.

Piloting the Canadice on the Erie Canal in the quiet of the summer evening, on our way to Albion © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

There are hardly any other boats on the canal now. It’s like having the canal to ourselves.

What a feeling: the bridges lift for you; the locks load for you. You get the hang of reading charts (I ask operator approximate time will take from Albion to Holley, 1 ½ hours, as I calculated)

He tells me “see you at the next lift” – in a  half hour, since he covers both.

The long days of summer make a difference to what you can do: we want to do about 2-4 hours of biking and 2-4 hours of boating and 2-4 hours of visiting/touring a day.

Albion is an agricultural area with orchards, fields and farms which come into view after the Keitel Bridge.

We dock at Albion at 8:20 pm just as the sun is going down.

There are several fast food places here, but the only restaurant we can find that is open late is the Village House diner, a few blocks walk up Main Street. Main Street is dead at 8:45 pm.

Helpful contacts:

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)


© 2013 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.examiner.com/eclectic-travel-in-national/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/eclectic-traveler-in-long-island/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/international-travel-in-national/karen-rubin and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures.

Day 2: Journey by Boat and Bike Along New York’s Historic Erie Canal

The Otisco, one of Mid-Lakes Navigation’s Lockmasters, traveling on the Erie Canal © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

Fairport and Pittsford are Jewels Among Canal Towns

by Karen Rubin

The Grand Canyon may be a natural wonder, but the Erie Canal is a marvel of human industry and ingenuity.

We are experiencing the Erie Canal by canalboat, a floating home, really, specially designed for the Erie Canal but based on the English canalboats that Peter Wiles, who operated, by Mid-Lakes Navigation, a tourboat company on Lake Skaneateles, had seen.

At the time, the canal was being “transitioned” from commercial traffic to recreational use – boating, canoeing, kayaking, crewing.

All along our travels, as we boat and bike from town to town, we have been fascinated by historical markers with explanations, historic photos of the construction and of the people and businesses that developed along the canal. The story seems to unfold.

And so we learn that the canal evolved over time, and is still evolving.

In the early 19th century, countering mammoth opposition, New York State Governor DeWitt Clinton got the Legislature to allocate $7 million (the equivalent of $7 billion today) to build the 363-mile long Erie Canal, which opened in 1825.

“The canal became the most  successful and influential artificial waterway in North America. It connected the Hudson River at Albany with Lake Erie at Buffalo, establishing the first all-water link between the Atlantic seaboard and the Great Lakes.

“More than just a heroic feat of engineering, the Erie Canal opened the interior of the continent, providing a safe and reliable route for westbound migrants and manufactured goods, and eastbound products of forests, farms, and mines. Connecting places, people and ideas, it strengthened the nation and fostered social and reform movements.”

The Erie Canal was designated the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor by Congress in 2000.

All of this unfolds for us as we travel along the canal on the Canadice. More interestingly, is how seeing history first-hand resonates in how we understand and deal with the challenges of today.


The Canadice, at the Port of Pittsford © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

After just under two hours of boating from Macedon, where we started out on our self-skippered Lockmaster canalboat, we come to the first town we will visit: Fairport.

Theoretically, I need to jump off at just the precise moment with the line and tie the bow before the boat pulls away from the dock. It’s my first time and I am nervous. but just in the knick, someone helps us tie up at the dock (one of the pleasures of this style of travel, there are usually people to help or advise you) – a man who has spent a year on a houseboat traveling on the Erie Canal through the Great Lakes to the Mississippi down to the Gulf of Mexico to the west coast of Florida, and up the eastern coast to the Hudson River and back onto the Canal; I am in awe. He gives us some pointers on handling our canalboat (piloting the boat on the calm waters of the canal is not the problem – it is only docking and going through locks that you need to get the knack of).

Fairport is a most charming town, with shops and restaurants right along the canal. It is a picture-perfect model of revitalization.

Fairport did not exist before construction of the Erie Canal dried up a swamp and produced a “fair port” for travelers. “Commerce thrived as entrepreneurs turned ideas into products,” says one of the best guides to this portion of the canal, “100 Must See Miles”

One of these products was Henry Deland’s idea to produce baking soda from wood ash. The building right on the canal and next to the bridge, where there is now a delightful Towpath Cafe, one of the more delightful eateries along the canal (live music, too), and the offices of an engineering and landscape architectural firm, once was where Deland manufactured baking soda which was transported by canal to international markets.

The Deland Mansion in Fairport. Henry Deland made his fortune producing baking soda in a factory beside the Erie Canal and shipping it via the canal to markets © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

Just up Main Street, on the south side of the canal, I find the Green Lantern Inn, which was the Deland Mansion, built in 1876. Deland has a Florida connection: after he made his fortune in Fairport, he bought land and founded Deland, Florida, in 1876, where he envisioned creating a citrus, agricultural and tourism center. He sold his northern business and hired people to clear land, lay out streets, erect buildings and recruit settlers, most of whom came from upstate New York; then he lost his fortune in an orange freeze in 1885.

The mansion is magnificent: Second Empire style with tower, porches, fireplaces, it was one of the grandest private residences in western New York. After several private owners, including the Clark Family, the Deland Mansion opened as the Green Lantern Inn sometime after 1928, and served as a restaurant, speakeasy, rooming house, banquet hall.

The mansion is across from the First Baptist Church, which was built at same time as Deland built his mansion. The Deland family donated its windows and paid more than one-third of construction cost, but stipulated that the door of church and door of mansion be directly across (now there is a small building in front of the mansion that obstructs; building is for sale).

Each of the canal towns has done a superb job of using historical markers and photos to illustrate the “then and now.” As we follow them, it is like a story that unfolds.

At Fairport, there is a marker that shows how Old South Main Street “yields to urban renewal: Commercial block changes from necessities to niceties.”

There is also a plaque honoring Peter Wiles, Sarah and Peter’s father, for his leadership in developing the Erie Canal for recreational purposes.

On the north side of the canal, passed the railroad tracks, where freight trains rumble through frequently during the day, we find a shuttered factory still waiting to be “repurposed.”

Fairport, a charming canaltown has been revitalized © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

The beauty of the canal boat is that you can organize the day around what you want to do – whether it is to just hang out in a town – perhaps visit a museum. Our main purpose is to position us to bike the towpath. And so we tie up the Canadice at Fairport, take down our bikes from the roof, and head out about 7 miles to the next major town, Pittsford, along the canal bikeway. It is one of the prettier rides, with lovely homes on the canal.

We pass Perinton Park, a beautiful community park where there are tennis courts and is a lovely place to picnic.

Just before Pittsford, we cross over a mile-long section called “The Great Embankment.” This is the highest canal embankment, actually built over the Irondequoit Creek which rushes through a tunnel under the canal.

In the earliest days of the Erie Canal, the embankment thrilled both onlookers and passengers as boats seemed to travel in midair over the mile-wide valley created by the Irondequoit Creek. The canal has been rebuilt three times since it originally opened in 1823. The original canal was a mere four-feet deep and 40-feet wide; three times it was enlarged, made deeper (first 7 feet deep and 70-feet wide, then 12-feet deep and 120-feet wide), and in many cases, moved entirely to make a better route as boats became motorized.

This is our first introduction to the engineering of the Erie Canal. I really hadn’t even thought of the canal as having a false bottom, that the canal is actually drained (around November 1), and refilled (around May 1) each season.

The Great Embankment is a revelation, but we will find even more dramatic examples of engineering, as we explore by bike and boat.

We return to Fairport, and prepare to get underway again – actually boating back to Pittsford.

It’s just passed 6 pm when we leave Fairport.

But to leave Fairport, you have to go under a lift bridge, and Fairport’s is very distinctive: it is constructed with no right angles.

One of the thrills of cruising the Erie Canal is going under the lift-bridges. Fairport’s is particularly interesting: it has: no right angles© 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

There are 16 lift bridges on the Erie Canal, all of them in the west, and the eastern-most one is here at Fairport. The bridges are delights to look at – they have ornate towers and it is wonderful to watch how they work. (A site provides locations and information about the locks and lift bridges, www.100megsfree3.com/wordsmith/statistics.html).

Matt has instructed us on the etiquette of using the radio to ask the operator to lift a bridge or open a lock. Some of the bridges are covered by operators handling multiple bridges, so you might be told to standby and wait for the operator to get back to the bridge.

The operator tells us we will have to wait a few minutes.

For the most part, we are lucky on our trip, there is not a lot of traffic so we are never stacked up. The operators also ask where you are headed so they alert the operators ahead. I figure out to call as we get near a bridge or lock, to get an idea of how fast or slow to approach.

It is just before 8 pm when we dock at Pittsford– I jump off with the line.


We tie up for the night at the newly refurbished Port of Pittsford Park, right below the Main Street Bridge (there is no charge; some of the ports along the canal charge up to $15 to overnight).

By this time, it is nearly 9 pm on a Sunday and though Pittsford has some of the best selection in restaurants near the canal that we find of any of the towns, just about everything shuts down by 8:30 pm.

We stroll the charming streets (and there are some gorgeous residential streets as well), and see what an affluent community Pittsford is – like Great Neck is to Manhattan. It is loaded with doctors, engineers and professionals. Old money, and new money poured in over the last 15 years to revitalize the downtown area.

Pittsford was settled in 1789 by Revolutionary War veterans, but it was the Erie Canal that first brought prosperity to the town, because it facilitated transport to market of tons of heavy gravel from the nearby hills.

We see stunning Victorian-era buildings – the Phoenix Hotel, built in 1812 in the Federalist style, 1812 to serve the Erie Canal and Turnpike trade, restored 1967 (now an office building which houses the Institute 4 Priority Thinking, offering Leadership Coaching, Organizational Development, and Ethics Education; across from the Town Hall, dated 1890. There is also the Canal Lamp Inn, a stunning Victorian, right beside the canal bridge. (Self-guided walk through Pittsford, villageofpittsford.org).

Pittsford’s Flour Mill has been repurposed into an office tower© 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

Pittsford offers some of the best examples of a town that has “repurposed” from its industrial heritage: the silo for the Pittsford Flour Mill has been converted to an office tower; the Coal Tower has become a restaurant’ Towpath Bike Rental shop was a hardware store. There is still a shuttered barn and factory which adds character to the waterfront.

At this late hour, we are guided by a resident to Pontillo’s Pizza Place and bring our slices back to the canalpark to dine on a picnic table beside our boat.

We watch ducks that appear to be doing elaborate synchronized swim in the canal, when they believe no one is around to watch.

Staying overnight in the canalside park where we are docked (it is closed to all but the boaters after 10 pm), the setting is magical.

Just minutes after we finish our picnic dinner, get inside our boat and close the hatches, it starts to pour. We are cozy inside. We hear the patter of rain as we watch a DVD on our computer.

It’s been a day of adventure and discovery, as perfect as can be.

The star attraction – and a major character – in this travel epic is the Erie Canal, itself. The historic markers we come upon are like chapters in the story, and as our trip unfolds, our appreciation of what the canal was, what it represented, and the impact it had, grows.

The Erie Canal journey by boat and bike continues..

Helpful contacts:

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)


© 2013 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.examiner.com/eclectic-travel-in-national/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/eclectic-traveler-in-long-island/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/international-travel-in-national/karen-rubin and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures.


Civil War Sesquicentennial: 150th Anniversary of Siege of Vicksburg Marked at Vicksburg National Military Park

Vicksburg National Military Cemetery is the largest Civil War cemetery, where there are 17,000 US soldiers, of which 13,000, are “Unknown.” This year marks the Sesquicentennial of the Vicksburg Campaign. © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin

After retracing much of the route taken by General Ulysses S. Grant during the spring of 1863 in his audacious and bold campaign to take Vicksburg, a natural fortress giving the South control over the Mississippi River which both sides recognized as crucial to victory, we finally come to Vicksburg National Military Park.

Our trip started in the city of Vicksburg, itself, with many antebellum homes and structures that have survived to tell their story of a 47-day siege that terrorized the civilian population. Our trip continued on to Grand Gulf, the Ruins of Windsor, the Shaifer farmhouse, Port Gibson, the Raymond Battlefield, Raymond and Champion Hill.

Now, we stand in the national military park, which hugs the city.

As it happens, we are here on the 150th anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter, the attack that set off the Civil War. It would be two more years before Vicksburg’s campaign that sealed the fate for the Confederacy.

Until this visit, I thought of Vicksburg as a major battle like Gettysburg and Shiloh;  now I understood it was a complex, longest campaign that went on for months, involved many battles, and culminated in a 47-day siege of the city, and its surrender, on July 4, 1863.

This year, from April through November, there are events and reenactments to mark the Sesquicentennial of the Vicksburg Campaign and the Siege of Vicksburg, with the signature events taking place over Memorial Day weekend.

President McKinley signed the legislation establishing Vicksburg National Military Park in 1899. It is one of the oldest and largest of national military parks. There is a sense of reverence here, and the signs of effort at reconciliation.

One hundred thousand troops from 28 states fought for control of Vicksburg and the Mississippi River; 17,000 Union soldiers are buried here, of which 13,000 are in graves marked “unknown.”

Some of the finest sculptors in the world created works that decorate Vicksburg National Military Park © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Vicksburg National Military Park is one of the most heavily monumented parks in the world with over 1325 monuments, markers, tablets, and plaques – all 28 states that were engaged in the battle have built monuments here. The finest European and American artists sculpted the monuments, prompting one Civil War veteran to call Vicksburg National Military Park, “the art park of the world.”

Besides the monuments and markers, it has 20 miles of reconstructed trenches and earthworks, a 16 mile tour road, antebellum home, 144 cannon, restored Union gunboat-USS Cairo (phenomenal to see), and the Vicksburg National Cemetery (awesome to behold).

Spanning 1,795 acres, the battlefield at Vicksburg is in an excellent state of preservation. Vicksburg is distinctive because of the accuracy of recreating the battle, of keeping so much of the battlefield intact, and most spectacularly, the restoration of the USS Cairo, an ironclad gunboat that was sunk in December 1862, the first in history to be sunk by an electronic detonating device.

To establish the park with accuracy, the planners conducted correspondence with Civil War veterans, who were part of the 98-day Vicksburg Campaign, from March 29-July 4, 1863.

Terrence J. Winschel, National Park Service historian, guides us through the park and continues the story of the battle as Grant comes to the city itself © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Terrence J. Winschel, National Park Service historian, guides us through the park and continues the story of the campaign as Grant comes to the city itself.

By May 18, Grant arrives at Vicksburg with 40,000 Union troops; Vicksburg, a fortress  with 9 major forts guarding the entrance, is defended by 30,000 Confederate troops and 172 big guns.

Grant realizes that for Vicksburg to fall, it would have to be by combined land and water assault

On May 19, Grant mounts his first assault on Vicksburg’s defenses, but  the attack repulsed with the Union losing 1000 men.

Grant tries again on May 22 with more than 200 cannon, but the Federals were again driven back, sustaining losses of 3000.

Grant leaves behind the dead and wounded, forming a thick blanket of blue, exposed for days to sun, heat, flies. “Their aim is to stink us out of Vicksburg,” Confederate General John Pemberton declares.

On May 25 Pemberton waves a white flag, pleading in the name of humanity to be able to bury his dead.

In one of the extraordinary events of the Civil War, the men of blue and the grey mingle – drinking coffee; two Union and two CSA  play cards together.

“Grant realizes Vicksburg could not be taken by force, and decides to lay siege to the city. Slowly his army establishes a line of works around the beleaguered city and cuts off all supplies and communications from the outside world. Commencing May 26, Union forces construct 13 approaches along their front aimed at different points along the Confederate defense line. Their objective is to dig up to the Confederate works, then tunnel underneath them, plant charges of black powder, and destroy the fortifications. Union troops would then be able to surge through the breaches and gain entrance to Vicksburg.”

On June 25, along the Jackson Road, a mine is detonated and Federal soldiers swarm into the crater attempting to exploit the breach in the city’s defenses.

“The struggle raged for 26 hours during which clubbed muskets and bayonets were freely used, as the Confederates fought with grim determination to deny their enemy access to Vicksburg. The troops in blue were finally driven back at the point of bayonet and the breach sealed.”

On July 1, a second mine is detonated. The explosion throws a black Confederate soldier into the air and he lands behind Union lines unscathed. The incredulous soldiers ask, “How high did you go?”

“I don’t rightly know how high,” he is said to respond. “I think three miles.”

The man is introduced to General Grant and is sequestered. The soldiers pay 50 cents each to gawk at “The Man Blown to Freedom.”

The soldiers fight from distances ranging from several feet to just a few yards.

“In some cases, they could have stood and touched shoulder on other side of parapet,” Winschel says. Lit cannonballs, are tossed back and forth like a game of “hot potato.”

To make life for Confederates as miserable as possible, the Union side even uses biological warfare. Vicksburg’s water originates behind Union lines. The men are ordered to poison the streams with rotting carcasses.

“The Confederates didn’t realize they were being poisoned – some 10,000 got dysentery and malaria – spread . By July 1,  Pemberton’s forces went from 30,000 to 18,000 effective soldiers.”

Throughout June “the gallant, but weary, defenders of Vicksburg suffered from reduced rations, exposure to the elements, and constant bombardment of enemy guns. Reduced in number by sickness and battle casualties, the garrison of Vicksburg was spread dangerously thin. Soldiers and citizens alike began to despair that help would ever come. At Jackson and Canton, CSA General Johnston gathered a relief force, which finally took up the line of march toward Vicksburg on July 1. But by then it was too late, as time had run out for the fortress on the Mississippi River,” the NPS site relates.

“On the hot afternoon of July 3, 1863, a cavalcade of horsemen in gray rode out from the city along the Jackson Road. Soon white flags appeared on the city’s defenses as General Pemberton rode beyond the works to meet with his adversary –  General Grant. The two officers dismounted between the lines, not far from the Third Louisiana Redan, and sat in the shade of a stunted oak tree to discuss surrender terms.

“Unable to reach an agreement, the two men returned to their respective headquarters. Telling Pemberton he would have his final terms by 10 p.m., Grant was true to his word, and his final amended terms were forwarded to Pemberton that night. Instead of an unconditional surrender of the city and garrison, Grant offered parole to the valiant defenders of Vicksburg. Pemberton and his generals agreed that these were the best terms that could be had, and in the quiet of his headquarters on Crawford Street, the decision was made to surrender the city.

“At 10 a.m., on July 4, white flags were again displayed from the Confederate works, and the brave men in gray marched out of their entrenchments, stacked their arms, removed their accouterments, and furled their flags. The victorious Union army now marched in and took possession the city.”

General Grant sent President Lincoln a key as his way of informing the President of the fall of Vicksburg.

“The war can never be brought to a close until the key is in our pocket,” Lincoln had said.

When Lincoln received the key, President Lincoln is said to have exclaimed, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.”

The fall of Vicksburg, coupled with the defeat of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in the Battle of Gettysburg fought (coincidentally) over July 1-3, 1863, marked the turning point of the Civil War.

Illinois Memorial

47 steps lead up to the Illinois State Memorial at Vicksburg National Military Park, one for each day of the Siege © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We stand in front of the Illinois Memorial – the largest among the 28 state memorials at Vicksburg. It cost $195,000 to build in 1904 – “chump change today, but in 1904, it represented 20% of the state’s budget.”

The memorial is modeled after the Roman Pantheon, deliberately to be a “temple” paying homage to those soldiers. Half of the Union soldiers fighting at Vicksburg came from Illinois.

It was built with 47 steps – one for each day of the siege.

Inside, bronze tablets are etched with the names of 36,325 soldiers from Illinois who served at Vicksburg.

Among the names  is that of Albert D. J. Cashier who enlisted into the 95th Illinois Infantry on August 6, 1862, and became part of the Army of Tennessee under General Grant, fighting n 40 battles, including Vicksburg, the Red River Campaign and Guntown, Mississippi.

Only years later, in 1911, was it revealed that Albert was actually a woman. An Irish-born immigrant,  Jennie Irene Hodgers, reportedly pretended to be a man to get higher-paid jobs, and when she left the military, continued to live as a man in order to collect the soldier’s pension of $13 a month. Albert’s tombstone has both names.

USS Cairo

The Vicksburg National Military Park has numerous exhibits and displays, in addition to the memorials and monuments.

One of the most fascinating exhibits at Vicksburg National Military Park is the restoration of the USS Cairo. The USS Cairo ironclad was raised from the Yazoo River in 1994; it was sunk by the first electronically detonated mine in history, in 1862 © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

One of the most fascinating is the exhibit to the USS Cairo, a Union ironclad gunboat in the “Brown Water” navy. On December 12, 1862, in the Yazoo River north of Vicksburg, Cairo struck two underwater torpedoes and sank in just 12 minutes; all 175 men survived.

To me, the boat looks like something out of Jules Verne or “Wild, Wild West” and in fact, it was state-of-the-art, high-tech weaponry of its time. It is fascinating to behold.

Preserved by mud and silt, the Cairo sat on the bottom of the river for 102 years. She was raised in 1964 and was later restored along with many of the objects that were found aboard, which are now part of a fascinating indoor exhibit.

This exhibit highlights one of the Civil War’s pivotal struggles, the battle for control of the Mississippi. It features life in Vicksburg, Mississippi during the devastating 47-day siege of 1863. It depicts hardships of civilians and soldiers in a besieged city.

The exhibit also gives richly illustrated insights into life aboard the U.S.S. Cairo, and the recovered objects give a unique window into daily life and leisure time of Union officers and sailors during the Civil War.

“The Navy played a prominent role in the Vicksburg Campaign, to transport the troops,” Winschel tells us. “They got by the defenses  on April 13. Then the Navy kept away, supplied the troops and bombarded the defenses.

“On July 4, as Grant entered Vicksburg, he rode down to the Court House to see the change in flag, and then to the waterfront, to thank and congratulate Admiral Porter.”

In 1917, Congress appropriated $200,000 to US Navy for a heroic sized statue to Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter.

In the exhibit, I learn of James Buchanan Eads  (1820-1887), “an inventive self-taught engineer living in St. Louis and familiar with the Mississippi River” who proposed that the U.S. government invest in the development of steam-powered, ironclad warships. He had recognized that the emerging conflict would, in large part, focus on the control of the country’s river systems. His idea was coolly received. But when hostilities began, he was summoned to offer the U.S. government advice on how to wrest control of the lower Mississippi River from the Confederacy.

Life in a Cave during the Siege

What most intrigued me about the Siege of Vicksburg was the image of women and children living in caves for the 47-days of shelling from the Union gunboats on the river below the city.

Here at the Visitor Center, you can get a sense of what it was like to live in a cave during the siege:

“To escape relentless shelling from Federal artillery, many citizens of Vicksburg took refuge underground. They dug caves into the hillsides of loess soil, a fine-grained clay deposit indigenous to this area. Single family caves had only one or two rooms, others were huge and said to have accommodated as many as 200 people. To avoid entrapment and induce air circulation, caves often had several entrances. Cooking took place outside the entrances.

“Amenities were preserved in the caves with carpets, furnishings, and wall niches for books, candles, and flowers. Jane Bitterman described her underground quarters as ‘far more pleasant than the people imagine.’ Thanks to widespread use of caves, only a very small number of Vicksburg citizens were killed or wounded during the 47 days of sustained bombardment.”

The furnishings shown in the exhibit are original pieces of the Civil War era, typical of household articles brought into the caves during the siege. There is even a rocking chair that was used in one of the Vicksburg caves.

Other Visitor Center exhibits include: Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, General Ulysses S. Grant, Confederate Trench, Confederate Hospital, Field Officer’s Tent, Milliken’s Bend.

Doug Baum of the Texas Camel Corps, with a camel much like Old Douglas, at the Vicksburg National Military Park. The Texas Camel Corps will be a showcase event during special Sesquicentennial commemorations of the Vicksburg Campaign and Siege taking place this year © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The Park also offers Living History programs. Presented every summer from the first week in June through the first week of August, rangers and volunteers offer demonstrations and interpretive talks of Civil War life, activities, and professions. You can watch artillery and rifle firings performed using the drills taught to the soldiers and sailors of the era, and listen and participate in various ranger programs presented throughout the park along the 16-mile tour.

This summer’s program are particularly enriched by a focus on the Sesquicentennial of the Vicksburg Campaign and Siege of Vicksburg.

Vicksburg National Military Cemetery

The Vicksburg National Military Cemetery is the largest civil war cemetery, where there are 17,000 US soldiers, their upright headstones making neat rows along the rolling hillside, just above the river. The ones that have been identified have small square blocks, but the majority, 13,000, are “Unknown”.

During the Civil War, the soldiers did not wear dog tags; 56% of all Civil War soldiers are unidentified

A 16-mile auto tour, paralleling the Union siege and Confederate defensive line, takes you past 15 designated tour stops, wayside markers and exhibits, short spur trails to points of interest – key sites related to the Siege of Vicksburg.

Vicksburg, Vicksburg National Military Park (www.nps.gov/vick/index.htm), and surrounding areas including Raymond and Port Gibson are all marking the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War and the Vicksburg Campaign this year with special events.

Vicksburg Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1010 Levee Street, Suite 2B, Vicksburg, MS 39181, 800-221-3536 or 601-636-9421, www.visitvicksburg.com, Facebook: www.facebook.com/visitvicksburg, Twitter: @VisitVicksburg.

See  slideshow

See also:

Vicksburg Civil War Sesquicentennial shows value in seeing history first-hand and slideshow

Civil War Sesquicentennial: Following the trail of the Vicksburg Campaign and slideshow

Staying in Vicksburg bnb is best way to experience Tapestry for Civil War 150th and slideshow

Civil War Sesquicentennial of Vicksburg Campaign marked with special events and slideshow


© 2013 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.examiner.com/eclectic-travel-in-national/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/eclectic-traveler-in-long-island/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/international-travel-in-national/karen-rubin and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures.

Civil War Sesquicentennial: Following the Trail of the Vicksburg Campaign

The Raymond Battlefield, with 22 cannons placed just where they were May 12, 1863 © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin

I was standing on the Vicksburg National Military Park battlefield the very day in April 2011 that marked the beginning of the Civil War Sesquicentennial – the 150th anniversary of the first shots fired at Fort Sumter.

Vicksburg’s own Sesquicentennial would not be for another two years; indeed, it is just getting underway now, with special events in Vicksburg, at the Vicksburg National Military Park, and in towns that all played a part in the Vicksburg Campaign like Jackson, Raymond, Port Gibson, from April through November, 2013.

Before coming to Vicksburg, Mississippi, I thought of it as a single, sensational battle, like Gettysburg or Shiloh.

But being here, I realize that Vicksburg was a massive campaign over several months and multiple battles waged through the region – in fact, Vicksburg was the longest, most complex of the war, and filled with drama. And it did not just take place on a battlefield. Most dramatic to me was learning that the city itself was under siege for 47 days, with women and children forced to live in caves as cannon fire from Union gunboats below exploded overhead.

Vicksburg, a natural fortress that commanded control of the Mississippi River from bluffs 300 feet high, was considered crucial to both sides of the war.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who is from Vicksburg area, called it the “nail” that held the two halves of the South together; President Lincoln called Vicksburg the “key” to a Union victory.

The campaign is filled with drama: visualize 17,000 Union soldiers secretly crossing the Mississippi River – the largest amphibious operation in American military history until the Allied invasion of Normandy during World War II; the soldiers marching four abreast into the night, a line 15 miles long, confronting the Confederates at midnight at a farmhouse outside Port Gibson; Union gunboats slipping through the gauntlet below Vicksburg’s fortress-like defenses, taking advantage of a ball underway in the city; in 1862, the Union ironclad USS Cairo, becomes the first in history to be sunk by an electrically detonated mine (the restoration of the gunboat is one of the most incredible exhibits on view at Vicksburg National Military Park).

The Duff Green Mansion, Vicksburg. The family abandoned the home during the siege to live in a cave, where a baby, named William Siege Green, was born © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Most dramatic of all, is the 47-day siege of the city, in which the civilians – women and children mainly – had to live in caves dug into the bluffs; a baby born in a cave during the siege was named William Siege Green (the Duff Green Mansion can be visited).

To really understand the Vicksburg Campaign, you should start your travels outside of Vicksburg, outside the Vicksburg National Military Park, and retrace the steps of General Ulysses S Grant and his 17,000 troops.

Only then do you realize how audacious, how daring, how risky this whole enterprise was, and how much luck played a role. I begin to wonder whether the latent sympathies of many of Warren County for the Union (Warren County voted to stay in the Union), might not have played a part, because deception was a key part of Grant’s plan and at critical times, it would not have been hard to send ahead a scout to alert the Confederate Generals where Grant’s forces were. Instead of sending out the alarm, farmers provided Grant with a map.

I think of the slave who crossed the river to tell Grant, “There are no soldiers at Bruinsburg,” giving the Union General the best place to cross the Mississippi from Louisiana (an audacious route). And I think of a fortuitous height of the river which enabled Grant’s forces to be ferried further inland than they could have otherwise.

We embark on our Civil War Heritage Trail from the Southern Cultural Heritage Foundation in downtown Vicksburg, being guided by Parker Hills of Battle Focus (www.battlefocus.com), a retired Brigadier General with an extraordinary command of the military strategy, who tells us the story of the Vicksburg campaign as our bus rolls through the same places. It is thrilling, and illuminating, to put the events into context.

Amazingly, because the area is still largely rural, it is not much changed – you can visualize as he tells the story:

Military strategists still study the Vicksburg Campaign, he tells us, but Grant was more than a military strategist, he understood “the Big Picture,” which included the politics of war.

“Follow the money,” he says – the flow of commerce from the Midwest, the merchants, manufacturers and farmers who needed to get their goods to the Gulf of Mexico ports. They couldn’t do it because a big chunk of the river in the South still has guns; it stops civilian commerce.”

The Midwest was strangling economically, and in early 1863, there were rumblings about joining the South: Copperhead Democrats who opposed Lincoln were gaining seats in the Congress and state houses, building up to the 1864 election.

This was important because troops came from the state (the US did not have a standing army, which is the basis for the Second Amendment).

Lincoln needed the support of the Midwestern states, and he needed to get the port at Vicksburg open.

Knowing his plan was audacious, Grant went so far as to deliberately withhold his plans for battle – sending a message by a slow boat, so that another General who had ambitions to challenge Lincoln in 1864, would not be able to take credit, nor stop him. He is being pressured to return to Memphis, but he wants to take Vicksburg, and he realizes this will require a combination of land and water assault.

The risk that Grant was taking was extraordinary. “He would be out of communication with his superiors in Washington, who no doubt would be severely troubled that one of their main armies had disappeared from view. Grant would have to live off the land, maneuver in hostile territory — likely against superior numbers — and hope for the best. It was a terrible risk, and his own trusted subordinate, General William Sherman, was against the plan, but Grant felt he had no other option,” write Brooke C. Stoddard and Daniel P. Murphy, Ph.D.

From January – March, 1863, Grant attempted to bypass the city of Vicksburg by building a canal that would divert the Mississippi River away from the city, so the boats could get through without being shot at. He abandons the plan on March 27.

The USS Cairo, a Union gunboat that was sunk on December 1862. Admiral Porter was asked to undertake a suicidal mission by General Grant, to sail his gunboats passed the Vicksburg gauntlet © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

He calls upon Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter to undertake a suicidal mission: to slip his gunboats through the Vicksburg gauntlet so that the boats would be south of the city and in position to ferry his men across from Louisiana.

On April 16, while Grant’s army marched south through Louisiana, Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter prepares to run by the Vicksburg batteries.

In the dead of night, Porter sends his gunboats drifting downriver with their engines muffled and lights extinguished – the Ironclads move at 6 knots,  the Mississippi river at 4 knots for a total of 10 knots – once they get to a certain point, there is no going back.

“As the boats rounded De Soto Point, they were spotted by Confederate lookouts who spread the alarm,” the National Park Service site relates. “Bales of cotton soaked in turpentine and barrels of tar lining the shore, were set on fire by the Southerners to illuminate the river. Although each vessel was hit repeatedly, Porter’s fleet successfully fought its way past the Confederate batteries losing only one transport, and headed downriver to the rendezvous with Grant on the Louisiana shore south of Vicksburg.”

Grand Gulf Military Park

Grand Gulf Military Park is like a ghost town © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Grand Gulf Military Park, a state park, which today marks the beginning of 50-mile Grand Gulf Scenic Byway, is actually a ghost town of buildings and artifacts set amid farmland and woods that make it easy to visualize what it was like 150 years ago.

Today, you experience Grand Gulf as a kind of a ghost town – which makes it all the more interesting and makes it easy to visualize the events of so long ago. It has an excellent Civil War exhibit with wonderful artifacts.

Here, Grant would have loaded 150 wagons – all the wagons they could steal – with 7000 pounds of supplies.

I am amazed to learn that even in the heat of these grizzly battles, Grant almost always has a family member with him – his wife is almost kidnapped; at Vicksburg, he has his 12-year old son, Frederick, with him.

“Grant knows he has a weakness for drinking,” Hills says. “He drinks when he is lonely or bored, so he always keeps a family member with him.”

Confederate General Van Dorn, most famous for his success using guerrilla tactics, heard that Grant’s wife was there and sent guerrillas to try to capture her three times. She got out the night before from Holly Springs with her young son on lap, in a box car.

“It was Grant’s intention to force a crossing of the river at Grand Gulf, and move on ‘Fortress Vicksburg’ from the south. For five hours on April 29, the Union fleet bombarded the Grand Gulf defenses in an attempt to silence the Confederate guns and prepare the way for a landing. The fleet, however, sustained heavy damage and failed to achieve its objective. Admiral Porter declared, ‘Grand Gulf is the strongest place on the Mississippi.’

“Not wishing to have his transports loaded with troops attempt a landing in the face of enemy fire, Grant disembarked his command and continued the march south along the levee.

The battle at Grand Gulf was a Southern victory, but their success would be short-lived.
General Grant quickly developed a second plan and moved his men overland through Louisiana to a point below Grand Gulf.

Secret Crossing at Bruinsburg

There was no bridge across the Mississippi – Grant had to use gunboats to transport 500 men at a time.

“The landing was made unopposed and, as the men came ashore, a band aboard the U.S.S. Benton struck up “The Red, White, and Blue.” The Hoosiers were quickly followed by the remainder of the XIII Union Army Corps and portions of the XVII Corps — 17,000 men.

“This landing was the largest amphibious operation in American military history until the Allied invasion of Normandy during World War II. Elements of the Union army pushed inland and took possession of the bluffs, thereby securing the landing area. By late afternoon of April 30, 17,000 soldiers were ashore and the march inland began.

“It’s like D-Day without a single shot,” Hills tells us.

The landing downstream from Grand Gulf gave the Union General the foothold he needed to move on Vicksburg.

Ruins of Windsor

All that remains of the Ruins of Windsor are 23 ionic columns, burned in an accidental fire in 1890 © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We come to Windsor Plantation, now known as the Ruins of Windsor – a magnificent, haunting sight. Twenty-three iconic columns are all that remains of what was once one of the grandest homes in the region.

“Moving away from the landing area at Bruinsburg, the Federal soldiers rested and ate their crackers in the shade of the trees on Windsor Plantation. Late that afternoon the decision was made to push on that night by a forced march in hopes of surprising the Confederates and preventing them from destroying the bridges over Bayou Pierre.”

When Grant came here with his men, this was a grand house on a 2600-acre plantation, built at a cost of $175,000 ($4.5 million in today’s dollars) in 1861 by slave labor. The owner, Smith Coffee Daniell II only lived in the house a few weeks before he died at the age of 34. Mrs. Daniell is said to have been cordial to the Union soldiers; Grant’s forces camp in her cornfield.

Though it is easy to presume that the mansion was burned in the Civil War, it actually survived the war Grant is said to have felt it “too beautiful to burn.” and it was used as a hospital. After the war, Windsor was used for social gatherings – Mark Twain stayed here.

But on February 17 1890, a guest carelessly tossed lighted cigar ignited a fire that burned the house down. All that’s left today are 23 columns of the 29 columns, looking eerie.

The Union columns resumed their advance at 5:30 p.m., but instead of taking the Bruinsburg Road — the most direct road from the landing area to Port Gibson — Grant’s columns swung onto the Rodney Road, passing Bethel Church and marching through the night toward Port Gibson. It is April 30, 1863.”

We drive past the Bethel Presbyterian Church. The congregation of the Bethel Presbyterian Church was organized in 1826. The building, that we see today, was built in the mid 1840s.

The Shaifer House comes into view from the road where Grant’s forces marched. A battle began just after midnight © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We travel by bus over the same road Grant’s troops would have taken to come upon the Shaifer House, just outside Port Gibson, stuck out in the woods even today and the road not much better than the dirt road that Grant’s troops marched on. Apparently, because Mississippi is largely agrarian, these historic roads have been saved from development.

It’s hard enough road by bus in the daylight, I try to imagine what it was like being a soldier, carrying 40 lbs of gear, now hiking uphill in the dark at a fast march.

We finally come to a modest white farmhouse tucked into the woods.

The first shot of The Battle of Port Gibson was fired here, at the Shaifer House on May 1, 1863.

“Shortly after midnight the crash of musketry shattered the stillness as the Federals stumbled upon Confederate outposts near the A. K. Shaifer house. Union troops immediately deployed for battle, and their artillery, which soon arrived, roared into action. A spirited skirmish ensued which lasted until 3 a.m.”

Later, we meet Libby Holllingsworth, whose great great grandfather built house. She still has the portrait from the house that day which was struck by a bullet.

She tells us that her great grandfather went to prison but when he came back said. “We were wrong, it never should have happened,”

“Reconciliation started with my great grandfather,” she says.

Port Gibson

We arrive at Port Gibson, where Grant’s soldiers would have come on May 1, 1863 – desperately hungry because they exhausted their rations. They ransacked the town, took books from the library (the paper served as toilet paper). But the town Grant said “was too beautiful to burn.” It is still gracious and beautiful – even cinematic.

The battle of Port Gibson on May 1 cost Grant 131 killed, 719 wounded, and 25 missing out of 23,000 men engaged. This victory not only secured his position on Mississippi soil, but enabled him to launch his campaign deeper into the interior of the state. Union victory at Port Gibson forced the Confederate evacuation of Grand Gulf and would ultimately result in the fall of Vicksburg, according to the NPS notes.

The First Presbyterian Church in Port Gibson, built in 1860, is famous for its Gold Hand reaching to heaven © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We stop in Port Gibson to visit the First Presbyterian Church, built in 1860, famous today for its Gold Hand reaching to heaven, and inside, chandeliers from the steamboat, the Robert E. Lee.

What particularly interests me is that across from the church is the Gemiluth Chaset Synagogue –built 1891 in a Moorish style, the oldest synagogue in Mississippi, and listed on the National Register.

Grant’s strategy is to draw out the Confederates from Vicksburg, where they had had 30,000 troops, force the Confederates to spread out. His plan works, though it is not clear why the Confederates did not reinforce their troops.

We continue on to the field where the Battle of Raymond was waged.

Local citizens have raised enough money to buy back the battlefield and bring back 22 cannons, lined up just as they were. It is extraordinary to have an actual field preserved in this way. It is astonishing to realize how close the Union and Confederate forces would have been.

On our way into the city of Raymond, we pass the Confederate Cemetery – neat rows of headstones.

In Raymond, we see something that I find one of the astonishments that was actually common during the Civil War: Raymond Courthouse is across the street from the Episcopal church. Both became hospitals – one for Union soldiers, the other for Confederates, and the ladies of Raymond cared for them all.

There are still bloodstains on the floor of the church, and considerable resentment today of how the Union soldiers seemed intent to demolish Episcopal churches, the religion of the Southern aristocracy.

There were several other battles still to come before Grant finally gets to Vicksburg: Jackson (May 14), Champion Hill (May 16), Big Black River Bridge (May 17).

5,000 Confederates and Old Douglas, the camel, are buried at Soldier’s Rest at Cedar Hill Cemetery, Vicksburg © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

There’s another stop to make before you go to the Vicksburg National Military Park: Cedar Hill Cemetery, where the Confederate dead are buried. The graves are maintained by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Known as “Soldiers’ Rest,” the plot in Cedar Hill Cemetery is the final resting place for 5,000 Confederate soldiers, as well as Old Douglas, a camel who was the mascot of the 43d Mississippi Infantry, killed by Union sharpshooters and eaten by the ravenous Confederates.

Later, we will visit the Vicksburg National Military Park and the national cemetery, one of the biggest, where 17,000 Union soldiers are interred, of which 13,000 are listed simply as “Unknown.”

Vicksburg, Vicksburg National Military Park (www.nps.gov/vick/index.htm), and surrounding areas including Raymond and Port Gibson are all marking the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War and the Vicksburg Campaign this year with special events.

Vicksburg Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1010 Levee Street, Suite 2B, Vicksburg, MS 39181, 800-221-3536 or 601-636-9421, www.visitvicksburg.com, Facebook: www.facebook.com/visitvicksburg, Twitter: @VisitVicksburg.

See slideshow

See next:

Civil War 150th: Siege of Vicksburg marked at Vicksburg National Military Park and slideshow

See also:

Vicksburg Civil War Sesquicentennial shows value in seeing history first-hand and slideshow

Staying in Vicksburg bnb is best way to experience Tapestry for Civil War 150th and slideshow

Civil War Sesquicentennial of Vicksburg Campaign marked with special events and slideshow


© 2013 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.examiner.com/eclectic-travel-in-national/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/eclectic-traveler-in-long-island/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/international-travel-in-national/karen-rubin and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures.

Vicksburg Civil War Sesquicentennial Offers Poignant Reminder of Value in Seeing History First-Hand

Vicksburg’s Old Court House Museum includes a Confederate flag that had never been surrendered, 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin

Vicksburg is just about to mark the 150th anniversary of the part this city and region played in the Civil War. The Vicksburg Campaign stretched over months and multiple battlefields culminating with the Siege of Vicksburg, a 47-day ordeal that began, appropriately enough, on what we now mark as Memorial Day, and ended coincidentally enough on July 4th, 1863, with the surrender of General Pemberton to General Ulysses S. Grant.

It was the longest, most complex and arguably crucial campaign of the Civil War.

“Vicksburg is the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together,” said Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, who came from this area, and launched his political career from Vicksburg’s Court House.

“Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until the key is in our pocket,” said President Abraham Lincoln,  which is why General Grant sent him a key after Vicksburg’s surrender was secured.

The war could have – should have – ended after the surrender of Vicksburg. That Confederate defeat followed its defeat at Gettysburg and the Confederacy knew it would never win the war. The Union would prevail. But what sort of Union?

The Confederates calculated that the longer the war dragged on, the more likely it would be able to negotiate favorable terms.

Instead, the most lethal war in American History, which took the lives of 625,000 -2% of the entire population, the equivalent of six million Americans today and half of all American soldier deaths in all our wars combined – went on for two more horrendous years.

The recent movie, “Lincoln” brought extraordinary insight into that time, but what was most remarkable for everyone was how similar the political backdrop is today.

A photo of Jefferson Davis and his wife, Varina Banks Howell Davis, in the Old Court House Museum in Vicksburg. Davis, whose plantation was just outside Vicksburg, launched his political career on the grounds © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Being here in Vicksburg, immersed in the Sesquicentennial where you can see the context, the lay of the land, even sleeping in their homes and visiting the same buildings – you get a better understanding of that time and its connection to our time. You don’t have to believe in ghosts to sense the ghostly presence of the people who have come before.

I have been following several Civil War Heritage trails these past few years, and I can’t get away from feeling a sense of utter tragedy that the War and all its horror could have been, should have been, avoided.

The Civil War was fought over the big issues left unresolved by the Founders – a nation founded on “We the People,” and “all are created equal,” nonetheless enabled slavery and tolerated an ambiguity between federal and states’ rights. And today, it seems, the issues are still unresolved – wounds still not healed – from the Civil War. It is eerie, indeed, to hear again calls for “secession”, “nullification” and “states rights.” States like Texas are again calling for secession, and several like Wyoming have put out the order to shoot federal agents who attempt to enforce federal gun control laws. Even provisions of the 14th amendment are being questioned, and on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the US Supreme Court heard arguments to overturn provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that specifically targeted the practices of the former Confederacy to prevent blacks from voting.

It is a good thing, an important thing, to visit places like Vicksburg. Walk for a spell in the shoes of those who walked here. Sense the ghostly shadows of soldiers on the battlefields and feel the spirit of those women and children huddled in caves in fear for their lives. In the stories of the people and places, you realize the consequences of policies and politics taken to extreme.

“Wars are started by politicians, not soldiers,” says Parker Hills, who leads Battle Focus tours of the area. but it is the soldiers who fight and die, and, as we see in Vicksburg, the civilians who suffer the deprivations and the terror.

Being here, you realize that in many ways, the wounds of that time seem to have been reopened – more likely they never healed. Much of the discourse is as heated, partisan, bitter and divisive.

The Civil War is still referred to as “The War of Northern Aggression,” as if the South was not the initiator, So you have to remind yourself who fired the first shot at Fort Sumter, who seceded from the Union (rather than take Lincoln’s Grand Plan to wean the South off slavery), who placed the fledgling nation at risk of being overwhelmed by a return of colonial powers like England and France, chomping at the bit to regain their foothold in the New World. And who prolonged the war when it was already clear that victory was lost.

Blood in the wood floor of Cedar Grove from when it was used as a hospital during the Siege, was the home of John and Elizabeth Klein and now a bed-and-breakfast inn © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

As you travel, you see a subtle glorification of the Noble Cause. At Cedar Grove, a mansion home that survived the siege and is today a bed-and-breakfast inn, a blood stain on the wood floor is enshrined in a case; the cannonball that lodged in a wall, framed.

A Noble Cause?

And the burning question for me is why the war was fought at all. That’s the thought that comes to mind in the brinksmanship and intransigence of today, with threats to take up arms against the government rather than allow an assault weapons ban. We might not be fighting a war to end slavery, but in many ways, these are still struggles over life and death, equality and opportunity.

It was here at Vicksburg that General William Tecumseh Sherman came into his own, and from here that he launched his campaign of terror as he marched to the sea. I think it was here that he realized that the only way the South would surrender was if the civilian population suffered the pain. That was the lesson after 47 days of firing upon the city of Vicksburg, blockading the city from food and supplies, forcing the surrender on July 4th.

Civil war is different from wars among nations, but the American Civil War, I submit, was like no other – Not only was “the enemy” not foreign but the enemy was often a family member, friend, classmate, neighbor or partner. Lincoln and Grant, both from Illinois, both married women from Kentucky slave-holding families; General John Pemberton who commanded the Vicksburg army, was from Philadelphia, a West Point graduate (as was Robert E. Lee), who wound up on the side of the Confederacy because of his wife, Martha Thompson of Norfolk VA.

Union General George Meade’s sister, Elizabeth Ingraham, who married a Virginia planter and moved to Mississippi, became an ardent rebel and lost two sons . During the Vicksburg campaign, her home, Ashwood, became the headquarters for Union Generals John McClernand and James McPherson; she is famous for having kept a diary.

On July 23, 1863, Elizabeth wrote to her brother. “My dear George,” she began, “We have been despoiled of everything, our crops ruined, our home literally gutted, but the Federal soldiers under Gen’l Grant & McClernand, Gen’l McPherson being in my parlor during a portion of the time & to whom I applied personally without effect.

“My sons are dead. Edward murdered at Farmington [MS] after he had surrendered, he’s buried near Corinth. Frank, killed at Chancellorsville on 3rd May, the very day this house was despoiled, is buried on Mary’s Hite, without even a winding sheet, it being one of the barbarous usages of this cruel & unnatural war to strip the dead—God help me.”

Elizabeth Klein, whose husband John Alexander Klein built their Vicksburg mansion home Cedar Grove, was the niece (by marriage) of General William Tecumseh Sherman. She was pregnant during the Vicksburg Siege and General Sherman offered to transport Elizabeth, her mother and children back East until the war was over if Cedar Grove would serve as a hospital. That saved the home (it’s a magnificent bed-and-breakfast today). Elizabeth named the child she bore during the siege William Tecumseh Sherman Klein; her neighbors said the child would be cursed (he was killed at the age of 16 when his friend accidentally shot him).

And then there are the stories of the Vicksburg mansion homes being turned into hospitals – caring for Confederates on the upper floors (probably because they most prone to shelling), and Union soldiers on the lower floors. They would fly a yellow flag to alert the Union gunboats.

General Grant made a decision when he was on the march to Vicksburg, fighting battles along the way, to leave his wounded behind knowing that the local women would care for the Union soldiers. In Raymond, we see two structures across the street from one another – one which was used as a Union hospital and the other for the Confederates. The Union soldiers stayed on for months during their recuperation. Some came back after the war and married their nurse.

And there are these oddities – amidst the horror and carnage, gentility and fellowship. During the siege, General Pemberton called a brief truce in order to bury the dead; the soldiers of the blue and white shared coffee together; two Confederates and two Union soldiers played cards together. And then the truce was over and they went back to murdering each other from a distance of a few yards, and in hand-to-hand combat.

Vicksburg: The South’s Gibraltar

Set on a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, the city was a natural fortress; soldiers could pick off any of the boats that came down from the upper Midwest to the Gulf Ports. So Vicksburg was able to strangle shipping from the upper Midwest, which was causing Northern support for Lincoln’s struggle to waiver.

Larry Clowers portrays General Ulysses S. Grant. There will be many reenactments and special events during Vicksburg’s Sesquicentennial of the Siege and campaign © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

General Grant attempted to take away Vicksburg’s control by ordering the building of a canal, Grant’s Canal , beginning in June, 1862, with the objective to alter the course of the Mississippi to bypass the Confederate guns. But it failed. (It is ironic that in a twist of nature, on April 26, 1876, the day before General Grant’s birthday, no less, the Mississippi shifted direction away from Vicksburg, but the US Army Corps of Engineers managed to construct access on the Yazoo River, so Vicksburg remains a river port.)

General Grant embarked on a different tack that from the beginning to end was audacious, risky and depended as much on luck as planning.

After two months of marching and fighting, Grant’s forces came to Vicksburg, but could not penetrate the defenses. So Grant had another idea – to mount a siege, blockade the city, and force a surrender.

The shelling began on May 26, and went on for 47 days. Families huddled in caves, cannonballs whizzing overhead.  The siege of Vicksburg finally ended on July 4, 1863 – the city would not celebrate Independence Day again until after World War II.

The Union’s victory at Vicksburg sealed the Confederacy’s fate, but had the Confederacy prevailed it is very possible that Lincoln would have been forced to negotiate an end to the hostilities by giving in to the South’s demands. That is because, as I learn during this visit, Vicksburg controlled access on the Mississippi to the Gulf ports – the Midwest was cut off and the farmers and manufacturers were pressuring Lincoln to end the war.

And you realize that had Vicksburg gone differently – if the audacity that Grant showed and the risks he took and the luck hadn’t turned his way, Lincoln would have very possibly been forced to negotiate terms favorable to the Confederacy. The ‘Noble Cause’ of preserving the South’s way of life – based on a slave economy and the social structure that convinced one human being they had the right over life and death over another human being – would have continued.

There likely never would have been a 13th Amendment – it would have taken generations more for slavery to die of its own putrefaction. In the meantime, the South would have continued to dominate the Congress, because of its 3/5 rule that counted slaves for the purpose of representation but did not allow them to vote (not unlike the illegal immigrant situation today). And on and on.

These revelations emerge during our visit to Vicksburg – it for such epiphanies that we travel, seeing first-hand, in context is so powerful.

Old Court House Museum

The Old Court House Museum, opened in 1860, it is locus and witness to the history of Vicksburg © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Our first stop on our own Civil War Heritage Trail of the Vicksburg Campaign starts in the heart of Vicksburg, the Old Court House Museum.

The Old Court House Museum-Eva W. Davis Memorial (named for its first curator) is a significant National Historic Landmark with a superb collection that tells Vicksburg’s story and Civil War history.

The building itself has been the scene of major historic events – it is locus as well as witness, and houses the artifacts as well as actual records of the people and events.

Vicksburg was founded by Burwill Vick and became a city in 1826. The Court House was built on land donated by the Vick family on one of the city’s highest hills; 100 highly skilled slave artisans made the brick and erected the magnificent building, with its four porticos and 30-foot tall Ionic columns. The building was completed in 1860 for a cost of $100,000, a monument to the city’s prosperity.

The Court House was where Jefferson Davis, who had a plantation nearby, launched his political career.

The Court House was brand new when the Civil War broke out – and suffered through shellings from the Union gunboats on the river, but suffered only one major hit – you can still see a cannon ball that landed inside.

It was here on July 4, 1863 that the Stars and Bars were lowered and the Stars and Stripes were raised as General U S Grant reviewed his victorious army.

Later on, notable figures such as Zachary Taylor, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington gave speeches from here.

Today the Court House is an outstanding museum that tells the story so well of the city and its people. There is a fascinating display of everyday objects, photos and other artifacts that give you a sense of the community here before the Civil War. It was here that I first learned and began to appreciate that the Vicksburg community was much more diverse than I ever imagined, with a large immigrant community of Jews from Eastern Europe, people from the Middle East, and others. Indeed, this riverport city became prosperous largely because of merchants and banking; the planters, including Jefferson Davis who had a plantation nearby, did very well under the Union. And when it came time to vote for secession, Warren County voted to stay in the Union.

I think about this later, during our visit to the Ruins of Windsor, where Grant sneaked his 17,000 troops across the Mississippi. The locals could have sounded an alarm, sent scouts to alert the Confederates at Vicksburg, 42 miles away; instead, they let the troops rest and provided a map. This suggests to me there was latent sympathy for the Union.

I was fascinated to see the rooms which depicted the life and times of Vicksburg’s early inhabitants – including John Alexander Klein whose homes we visit (Cedar Grove, Annabelle Inn where we stay).

In one small room in the back of the Court House there is an exhibit – almost a shrine – to Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy (until then, I had not realized he was from here). It is a simple exhibit, but absolutely fascinating, that extols the virtues of the man.

The exhibit humanizes Jefferson Davis – who I subsequently learn was released from prison and led a free and normal life until his death in 1889 (another extraordinary aspect of the Civil War, which was alternately one of gentility and humanity and brutality and carnage).

One part of the exhibit  in particular, struck me: there is a photo and a description about his relationship to his plantation slaves (which I find is part of the Southern propaganda wherever I travel):

“Every colored man he ever owned loved him,” William Sanford, a former Davis slave, is quoted saying on a card in the display.

Other cards note Jefferson was “Master and friend,” slaves had “free time to earn money,” “families kept together,” “many were taught to read  and write.”

Another card notes, “When Davis was president… Mrs. Davis gave money to a former slave, 100 years old, who had been robbed by Yankee soldiers.”

The Jefferson Davis exhibit includes a card relating the story of a slave named Jim Limber © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Then there is a photo and description of Jim Limber: “a little black boy in Richmond was rescued by Mrs. Davis from a savagely cruel father. She healed his cuts and bruises and virtually adopted him. When Richmond fell, Jim Limber went with the Davis family only to be taken from them by Union soldiers. Mrs. Davis wrote that he ‘fought like a tiger.’ The President asked a Union officer to look after the child and see to his education But what became of Jim Limber is unknown…He died in the north in 1889 at 81.”

Another story presented is about a loyal slave, named Holt Collier, who was “very educated” and served General Hines. He was 13 years old when the Civil War started and became a Confederate soldier; he killed a Union officer during the occupation of Vicksburg but was acquitted. He went on to lead Teddy Roosevelt on a bear hunt.

I learn of Varina Anne (“Winnie”) Davis, the youngest of the Jeffersons’ six children, born in the White House of the Confederacy in 1864, who was dubbed “The Daughter of the Confederacy.” After the war, she fell in love with the son of a Northern Abolitionist, but they did not marry (possibly because of the outcry); she died while visiting Rhode Island at the age of 34.

Archives in the Court House Museum © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The Court House also has a fascinating room containing all the records – property owners, census, yellow fever. (Old Court House Museum- Eva W. Davis Memorial, 1008 Cherry Street, Vicksburg, Mississippi 39183, 601-636-0741 or by e-mail at societyhistorica@bellsouth.net).

At the Court House, finally someone else articulates my confusion over how the South reflects on the Civil War and the contradictions here that are somehow invisible or not acknowledged.

“Civil War communities have a long memory,” Walt Grayson, writer photographer and television personality, tells us. He quotes William Faulkner who said that here in the South, “The past is never dead; not even past.”

“The sense of place is paramount in the South. ‘Where are you from?’ is the question that will be asked of any stranger. It’s not the literal place, but a place of the heart. Southerners – more than any other – fall in love with the places they live,” he says.

What is impressive is that here in Vicksburg, at least, people seem to recognize and acknowledge the inherent contradiction – very possibly reflecting that (dare I say) “liberal” strain that caused Warren County to vote against secession.

Grayson reflects on the South as being “the most American and un-American” of places.

“The South forged Thomas Jefferson who crafted Declaration of Independence and the writers of the Constitution. But the South also is very un-American: institution of slavery; in 1960s, Civil Rights. It is a mix of beautiful and nightmarish.”

Reflecting on the Civil War and the South, he says, “One prism to look through is that the South lost the Civil War. But who lost? While the South lost, Black south was liberated.”

The South is known for myth-making, its tall tales, he says.

General Beauregard, for example, when the Civil War broke out, is purported to have said, “We can wup those Yankees with cornstalks.”

Four years later, huddled in a cave and worse for wear, he said, “Sons of bitches wouldn’t fight with cornstalks!”

Myth envelops the South to its detriment, Grayson says, in a remark that merges past and present.

Here in Vicksburg, they are hoping that the Sesquicentennial will bring people like me, from the North, whose image is shaped by the Civil War and the 1960s civil rights struggles, in order to puncture some of the myths of our own.

Indeed, my visit to Vicksburg is a revelation – plunging into history is sobering, humbling, a kind of reality check. You see yourself more as a link in a chain. You see our problems today as less “special” and “unique” when viewed through the larger prism of history. And I come away with a great appreciation for the people of Vicksburg and Warren County, no more a caricature or stereotype.

And so we begin our personal march along a Civil War Heritage trail that was the Vicksburg Campaign.

Vicksburg, Vicksburg National Military Park (http://www.nps.gov/vick/index.htm), and surrounding areas including Raymond and Port Gibson are all marking the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War and the Vicksburg Campaign this year with special events.

Vicksburg Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1010 Levee Street, Suite 2B, Vicksburg, MS 39181, 800-221-3536 or 601-636-9421, www.visitvicksburg.com, Facebook: www.facebook.com/visitvicksburg, Twitter: @VisitVicksburg.

See slideshow

See next:

Civil War Sesquicentennial: Following the trail of the Vicksburg Campaign and slideshow

Civil War 150th: Siege of Vicksburg marked at Vicksburg National Military Park and slideshow

See also:

Staying in Vicksburg bnb is best way to experience Tapestry for Civil War 150th and slideshow

Civil War Sesquicentennial of Vicksburg Campaign marked with special events and slideshow


© 2013 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.examiner.com/eclectic-travel-in-national/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/eclectic-traveler-in-long-island/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/international-travel-in-national/karen-rubin and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures.