Monday, August 23, 2010

History Tied Together

My kids have had a very educational summer. For our family vacation, we visited Howe Caverns. For fun, I've taken the kids to St. Marie Among the Iroquois and the Salt Museum. And last week, we took a ride along the old Erie Canal (sort of), by visiting the Erie Canal Park in Camillus, driving down the old Genesee Turnpike (now called West Genesee Street), onto Erie Boulevard West to the Erie Canal Museum, and then onto Erie Boulevard East and along Route 5 to Chittenango's Canal Boat Museum. We even stopped in the middle to have lunch with my wife at my favorite pizza joint - Pavone's Pizza in downtown Syracuse.

Now, I'll grant, it wasn't a perfect trip. The Camillus site features a unique recreation of the actual Sims Store that served the canallers who had to wait at the old Gere Lock in Amboy. Sadly, the store didn't open until Noon last Thursday, and we were there at 10:30 AM, so we didn't get to go inside. I'd have liked to see and experience an authentic mid-1800s mercantile. We'll have to try again, maybe this week. Even as we were early to fully experience the Camillus site, we were late getting to Chittenango's museum - it closed at 4 PM and we arrived at 3:20. We knew we'd need more time, so we decided to postpone our exploration of the museum there. My daughter had been there with a school field trip and definitely made it sound like someplace we'd want to spend a bit of time.

Still, making the trip was a big part of the experience for us. I don't think you can really understand what the Erie Canal did to and for the city of Syracuse back in 1825, or what it might have been like to travel on it, without spending some time walking (or driving) in the footsteps of the mule drivers who powered the canal's 19th century traffic.

There were a handful of lessons that came out of that tour which my kids really seemed to embrace. The first, and possibly more important, was how things change, and how their history had an influence on them even if you can't see it. For instance, Water street is a fairly major thoroughfare in downtown Syracuse, but with the exception of little Onondaga Creek and an occasional fountain, there's no water anywhere near Water street. Seems like an odd name, then, doesn't it? And Water Street runs into Clinton Square, the very heart of the City. But the only Clintons my kids have ever heard of are Bill and Hillary. Was the square, with its fountains and its Soldiers and Sailors monument and its fancy stone bank buildings perhaps named for them? Well, of course not, but if not then for whom?

We talked about that. I pointed out Erie Boulevard from Water Street, and they correctly concluded that it had once been the site of the Erie Canal. I challenged them to imagine that they were standing on that spot a hundred years ago, and picture the canal operating there, and then asked them to imagine why Water street might have been so named. "Because it ran alongside the canal!" they answered. Right! We went inside and saw displays about Dewitt Clinton, New York State's governor in the early 1800s. We learned how Syracuse was a marshy little village when the Erie Canal was completed in 1825, but by 1848 had grown to the sixth largest city in the state (it's now fifth, for those keeping score). We discussed how that would have been a big deal for the people who lived here and who later moved here, and that they were probably grateful to Governor Clinton for what his efforts did for the community. Sure enough, they'd named their central square, right next to City Hall and two banks that were instrumental in funding the canal, a square that at one time was bisected by the canal, after that governor.

I don't think they necessarily studied the Erie canal in school in the same level of detail as they studied the Iroquois, for example, but I think they probably should have. Aside from being a true engineering marvel (water doesn't flow up-hill, however Buffalo is nearly 600 feet higher in elevation than Albany. Let's see you dig a canal between those two cities and not have it turn into the world's biggest water-slide, emptying Lake Erie into the state capital), the Erie Canal was the single most important state public works project of the 19th century and was directly responsible for putting Syracuse on the map (literally and figuratively).

But there was another great lesson they learned from our tour, and that was interrelationships. I was so proud to see the gears turning as my kids thought about what they'd seen at the different places we'd visited. My older son was particularly studious about it. He recognized how the same glacial processes and stone formations that had been involved in the creation of Howe Caverns related to the formation of the layers of earth above the Salina salt deposits, and the limestone from Split Rock Quarry that was used, along with that salt, in the old Solvay Process soda-ash factory. Between the Salt Museum and the Canal Museum, we could easily see how the Erie Canal contributed to Syracuse's salt industry, allowing those salt mines to ship their products more quickly, easily and cheaply around the state and around the country. Indeed, the employees of the salt operation were among the only ones exempted from the Civil War draft. The kids even figured out the origins of Salina Street's name.

Even though we didn't see everything we'd planned to see, everybody had a terrific time and I think we all learned a lot. On our way home, I engaged my enthusiastic kids in a game of trivia about the Erie Canal. Let's see how you do!

1. Before the building of the Erie Canal, the average cost per ton to ship goods between Buffalo and Albany was what? (Answer: $125)

2. After the building of the Erie Canal, the average cost per ton to ship goods between Buffalo and Albany was what? (Answer: $6)

3. The time to travel between Albany and Buffalo upon the Erie Canal decreased from ___________ using an overland route to ____________ by canal boat. (Answer: 6 weeks / 6-11 days)

4. The old nickname for the Erie Canal was Clinton's _____________ (Answer: ditch. Also correct but later abandoned: folly.)

5. A packet boat was a canal boat used to transport _____________ (Answer: passengers or people)

6. Name as many of the items typically transported on the canal as you can. (Answer: just about anything - timber, animal hides/skins, wool, corn, linen, cotton, cloth, meat, flour, wheat, live animals, people, coal, salt, iron, oils, beer, whiskey, and all sorts of finished goods)

7. The original depth of the canal was...? (Answer: 7 feet)

8. The mechanism used to raise and lower boats at points along the canal was called a _________ (Answer: lock)

9. The driver and his mules pulled the canal boats by walking along a what? (Answer: towpath)

10. A special bridge used to allow water, such as that of the canal, to flow over another waterway, such as a stream or a creek, was called a what? (Answer: aqueduct)

11. The Erie Canal was first completed in what year? (Answer: 1825)

12. Many of the workers who built the canal and worked on the boats and businesses that used it were immigrants from Europe. Two countries in particular saw significant emigration to the U.S. during this time. Name them. (Answer: Germany and Ireland)

13. The original function of the building that now houses the Erie Canal Museum was what?  (Answer: it was a Weigh Lock building - allowing four canal boats per hour to be weighed so a tariff could be assessed on their cargo).

14. This square and street are named for a car company that invented an air-cooled automobile engine in the early 1900s. (Answer: Franklin (named in turn for Ben Franklin). Note: this trivia was based on the "Syracuse Heritage" portion of the Canal Museum)

15.Salina Street is named for what major 19th-century Syracuse industry? (Answer: salt)


  1. "Wedding of the Waters" by Peter Bernstein is a good history of the building of the canal, if you want more detail.

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed your history lesson. I'm sure your crew was thoroughly immersed and happy to be involved.