As mentioned previously, this is our sixth year through the Champlain Canal. We’ve met many people and visited many communities through the years, but the Champlain Canal is something unique. The boats the Lois is patterned after were created specifically for the original Champlain Canal. Seeing the remnants of the original canal along the modern one bring a deep connection to the history we are talking to people about.
Fort Edward is a place that history really reaches out. The French and Indian War site of the old Fort Edward is right next to where we dock at the Yacht Basin, with Rogers Island located right across the river. Right down the road is the feeder canal for the old Champlain. Right up the river is the remains of a dam designed to raise the pool for industrial manufacturing.
Fort Edward is also the home of the Anvil, a restaurant that has been built in the old town blacksmith shop. Neil Orsini, the proprietor, is a huge history buff, and invited the crew to dinner there after we were finished interpreting to the public.
Traversing the canal in the fall is always a treat. While the weather is often a bit questionable, the days it isn’t are truly memorable. The colors of the leaves pop against the sky, and moving through it at a sedate five knots gives time to enjoy it fully.
For our arrival in Whitehall, I was on the helm. Due to the restrictions of the lock we were going to go through when leaving Whitehall, we were going to dock starboard side to the wall. This meant we were going to have to spin 180 degrees during the approach. Maneuvers like this remind me how talented the crew of the Lois McClure is. It’s all well and good to have a plan ready, but it still needs to happen. Having a large number of capable and talented individuals to help you carry out an idea makes things look easy.
Whitehall is the first or last part of the New York Canal System that one encounters coming south from Lake Champlain. Historically, it was a massive industrial town. Shipping flowed through it, with canal boats moving non-stop, hauling a wide variety of cargoes. There were side industries as well – the lighters (small boats that would have cargo offloaded from a canal boat into them and follow the canal boat through the system to the Hudson, allowing a much larger cargo load to be carried), the mule teams, the crane services for rigging and de-rigging the sailing canal boats. While today, Whitehall is not as focused on the canal, it is really neat to walk through the town and see the remnants of the canal era still present in the buildings.
The community of Whitehall always welcomes us with open arms. This year, as in some years past, they treated us to a pot-luck dinner. The spread laid out before us when we arrived was impressive. So many choices, all of them looking delicious. It took me three plates before I couldn’t eat another thing, and I still didn’t manage to get one of everything! The dinner was an informal affair, and there was lots of great discussions had.
One thing that is said on the Lois often is that we are not just retelling history, we’re making history. The Champlain Canal is a big part of the history of the Lois. It feels like home.
This is our 6th year through the Champlain Canal. It is a part of the Lois‘s history now, and we have created some fantastic connections along its length. Schuylerville is just one example of this.
Each year we pass through the canal, we see changes to ports we have stopped at in the past. A pavilion put up here, new gardens there, fresh paint everywhere. Schuylerville is one of the places that we have been able to see develop in a major way through the years.
The first time we stopped in Schuylerville was in 2007. Docked at the wall of C5, the island across the canal was still very wild. When we were back again, two years later in company with the Day Peckingpaugh, the Hudson Crossing Park of today had started to emerge. There was a dock across from the lock, built strong enough for the Lois to berth at, and there were paths cleared through the vegetation of the island from one end to the other. There was a small pavilion put up, and the start of flower gardens along some of the paths. When we cameback throughin 2010, the paths were graveled, the flowers were thriving, and there was the addition of a slide for kids! Returning in 2011, there was a massive sculpture of a dragonfly waiting for us. Each year we visit, something new has happened. This year, we arrived and were treated to running water on the island!
One of the treats of the Hudson Crossing Park is the people involved with it. Each year the Lois visits, they put on a dinner for us, and we all get to share stories and great food. This year was no different. Music was provided by a young guitarist, Olivia, and the crew stayed up past our bedtime swapping stories.
Seeing a port change so much over the years is a unique experience, and it generates excitement for a return visit. The board of the Hudson Crossing Park has done some amazing work, and we always enjoy being able to visit Schuylerville.
Every time we pass through Waterford, we reconnect with old friends. Chris Freeman joined us during our trip down the flight of locks to Renssalaer, Art reconnected with local historians, and we had a visit from Russell Van Dervoort, author of Canal Canaries. Some of the crew even made new friends – Jean Belisle on his walk into Troy (12 miles!) connected with a group taking a tour of a bell foundry, and was able to share some of his knowledge of historical architecture with them.
One of the exciting parts about our visit in Waterford this year was the chance to see the replica Onrust. This boat is a recreation of an early Dutch exploration vessel, and is something that provokes double takes from everyone that passes by. Her high sides, huge sprit-rigged mainsail, and a bow that’s almost as blunt as that of Lois make for a very distinctive boat.
While the weather did not favor our public hours, those that braved the rain brought good cheer and great conversation to the boat. Waterford lends itself to interesting chats about how the waterways intersected, why the canals were so important, and all the supporting pieces to the infrastructure of the commercial era. Being able to explain the canal system and then point to the remnants of the original flight of locks helps make a powerful connection for people. I always look forward to being docked at Waterford.
On September 5th, the Lois McClure left Oswego and headed home. In terms of ports-of-call, we were halfway there: Oswego was our twentieth stop out of forty. Number 21 was Phoenix, up the Oswego River. On the way, we went up through seven locks.
Tom Larsen, the first mate, and I usually stand one-hour tricks at the wheel, and whichever one of us happens to be on watch guides the schooner and her tug through the locks as they come up. Thus it was that Tom had the watch as we approached Lock 5, at Minetto. There is a power station at Lock 5, using water flow to generate electricity. Depending on the needs of the grid, the power station may or may not be discharging large quantities of water down beside the lock approach. On this day, everybody in this part of New York State must have been making toast with the lights on. As Tom tried to ease the schooner past an approach wall to port, he noticed he wasn’t making any headway past it. The schooner was headed away from the end of the wall, but the vessel was moving sideways right toward it. Ah yes, power-station current setting us to the left. Making a big correction to the right, Tom managed to get us around the end of the wall and headed nicely for the lock entrance. Only to discover that now the power-station current was setting us strongly to the right. Despite corrective maneuvering with both the tug and the Oocher, Tom ended up with the schooner across the lock entrance, tug wedged against the end of the righthand approach wall, with the back-eddy trying its best to swing the whole rig even further around in the wrong direction. This all happened in slow motion; there was no damage. It was at this point when Tom calmly asked me if I had any suggestions. Well, I did. Experience has shown that if a boat won’t turn the way you want her to, she will most likely turn the other way. With the Oocher’s help shoving on the bow at Tom’s direction, she certainly did, and he took her back out into the river for another try. Which, with the benefit of detailed knowledge of just what that swirly current would do, went smoothly. We were grateful that everybody hadn’t suddenly finished their toast and turned off the lights.
The dock at Phoenix is luxurious, fitted with tables and chairs for the convenience of visiting vessels. We often say that the crew of the Lois McClure is like a family, and it certainly felt like one this evening, as we moved the feast of supper onto the dock and all sat around the table like civilized people. It’s always fun to gather on board for the evening meal, on deck in fine weather or below in the cargo hold served from our temporary buffet table as the weather may dictate, but this outdoor dining room was elegant.
We had seen some red and yellow leaves along the Oswego River and it was, after all, September, so at Phoenix we had our first school classes on board, 150 fourth graders. The ages of nine and ten are still ages of wonder, and we saw plenty of wide eyes and heard plenty of “Cools!” After a general introduction to canals and the canal schooner as historical context for these girls and boys growing up in a town on what used to be a vital commercial waterway, delivered by Art Cohn in his stentorian tones, the students troop on board and go through four stations of instruction and explanation. Back aft, at the wheel, they learn the importance of safe navigation and hear the story of the wreck of the General Butler, one of the two vessels on which the replica Lois McClure is based. Up forward on the bow, they learn about anchoring, and each small student uses our hand-operated anchor windlass to lift one of our 150-pound anchors up off the bottom, a telling demonstration of the power of a simple machine. In the cargo hold, there is a lesson in economics and physics, how water transportation opened distant markets to farmers and manufacturers and how a boat in a canal can move 100 tons of just about anything so efficiently as to reduce transportation costs by a factor of 10. In the schooner’s cabin, they experience life on board a canal boat. Although we jokingly offer to overlook stowaways, we have yet to find a youngster willing to trade smart phone and comfy couch for paint brush and a wooden bench.
On September 10th, the Lois McClure crossed Oneida Lake. Remembering from her childhood on board a canal boat how rough this 15-mile-long, 35-foot-deep lake can get, Cora Archambault used to warn Art Cohn, “Be careful crossing Oneida Lake.” And so we were. We arrived at Brewerton, at the west end of the lake at 10:30 a.m. on the 9th. The northwest wind was only gentle, but it looked as if it might breeze up as the day went on. I have learned never to trust a northwester. We tied up, resolved to start across Oneida at first light next day and get off the lake by about 9:30 in the morning, hopefully before that day’s northwester had time to grow. As it turned out, the breeze never did come up more on the 9th, but on the 10th, as we crossed, it stayed gentle and then did breeze up later after we were snug back in the canal. By early afternoon, we were tied up in Rome.
Rome is one of the canal towns that is famous in literature. Walter D. Edmonds wrote the novel Rome Haul that gives as good a picture of canal life as any book can. And the canal near Rome and the characters that lived round it are the protagonists in one of his hilarious short stories, The Death of Red Peril, Red Peril being “the fastest caterpillar in seven counties,” a critter that earned Pa a lot of money, until…, well, you’d better read the story.
We do meet some interesting vessels on the Erie Canal. On our way from Rome down to Frankfort on September 12th, we met a handsome schooner yacht named the When and If. Of course she had her rig down, just as we did, for traversing the canal, but we knew she was a schooner and we had expected her because our crewman, Ian Montgomery, had worked on repairing her, knew her crew, and knew her schedule. She was given her unusual name by her first owner, General George Patton, who said he looked forward to sailing her “when and if” he survived World War II. Her design was from the great John G. Alden firm. Since her draft is 9 feet, we made plenty of room for her in the center of the canal as she slid by, making knots. I knew her as a white schooner and was surprised to see that she is now black. The artistic yacht designer, L. Francis Herreshoff, would not have approved. He used to say that there are only two colors to paint a yacht, white or black, and that only a fool would paint a yacht black.
At Frankfort, we were to moor at the head of an inlet to the canal formed by a meander of the Mohawk River. The chart gave depths of up to 14 feet, but warned that shoaling to 6 feet had been reported as of 1988. We’d heard the usual stories that “You can’t get up in there; it’s all silted up.” So, as we approached, we sent the Oocher ahead to sound the creek, just as, say, Samuel de Champlain would have done. Kerry Batdorf reported plenty of water for our 4 ½-foot need. As we went slowly in with the schooner, Art Cohn radioed that the Churchill’s fathometer read a minimum of 6 feet, and also that it measured the depth of a 35-foot hole!
We had more school girls and boys on board in Frankfort. And when we later opened our floating museum to the public, a good many of the students escorted their parents on board and gave them the tour. Now that’s satisfying.
There was just room in the Frankfort creek to turn the schooner round so that we didn’t have to back her out of the narrow waterway. This is where our inflatable boat, the Oocher, comes into her own, shoving on the bow so that schooner and tug turn in the schooner’s length as a unit. Then, it was down the Erie Canal on the lovely, crisp morning of September 14thto Little Falls.
I’ve never understood how Little Falls got its name. Its lock has the biggest drop of any on the canal and at just over forty feet was once the tallest canal lock in the world. How come they didn’t call the place Big Falls? At any rate, the Canal Corporation building at Little Falls houses a fine facility for us visiting mariners, with not only top grade “heads” and showers (we have a complicated system for rating such sanitary equipment), but also a comfortable lounge with TV (baseball! baseball!) and a book swap.
It was at Little Falls where Ian Montgomery’s parents, Dennis and Cindy, caught up with us in their power cruiser, the Red Hook. Ian gets his boatbuilding penchant from his father: the Red Hook is a handsome and able wooden vessel. There was plenty of socializing, and the local citizens treated us all to a wonderful outdoor dinner, with so many cooks’ favorites that it was impossible even to sample them all.
We left Little Falls on September 17th and went down through the big drop at Lock 17. After a run of two hours, we came to a small basin on the north side of the canal at St. Johnsville. I remembered in our two previous trips on the Erie passing the place, with its tidy marina and boats, and thinking what a nice spot it would make for a stop. Well, this year St. Johnsville was on our schedule of ports-of-call, so we slowed down, swung into the basin, and tied up to the wall. It was only to be a day-stop, but in the short time we were moored at St. Johnsville, we had more than a hundred visitors on board. And we were also able to pump out sanitary tanks and take on fuel for the Churchill and Oocher.
Later in the day, we went on to Fort Plain, and Erick Tichonuk, tempted to trade his desk at the Museum for time on the schooner, eased the McClure in to a snug berth at a little side-cut to the canal. If we allowed ourselves to rate communities that are our favorites to visit, Fort Plain would have to make the short-list. The people just can’t seem to do enough for us. On our first evening there, they treated us to both a reception and a home-cooked dinner. And nothing would do but that the crew had another dinner the next evening at the home of Sevim Acar Morawski. Sevim not only cooked us a wonderful Turkish meal, but also regaled us with tales of Turkey, where she still has family.
School was indeed open, and the crew turned teachers on the Lois McClure at Fort Plain on the morning of September 19th, before leaving for Canajoharie, or Canajo, as I shortened the town’s five-syllable name, where we opened our floating classroom again on the 20th.
It was at Canajoharie where, at our morning crew meeting before getting underway, I startled the crew by bursting into song. I just couldn’t resist trying a rendition of Oh Once There Were Three Fishermen, because of the last line, wherein “They all sailed off for Amsterdam,” since that was where we were bound from Canajo. Luckily, there was no mutiny, so we too sailed off for Amsterdam.
The new (1917) New York State Barge Canal makes use of the Mohawk River, and as we traveled downstream, we passed through a gap in the Appalachian Mountains, the gap that made the original Erie Canal feasible. At Amsterdam on September 22nd, we found, tied up to the wall just ahead of our berth, the New York Canal Corporation’s wonderful, old tug, the Governor Cleveland. She has always operated as a sort of good-will ambassador for the canals, for she was designed not only as a working towboat, but also as a fancy vessel with extra cabin space to accommodate officials.
But at Amsterdam, we looked in vain for Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham, the “Three Fishermen” of song. They were hardly missed, for more than 500 citizens of every occupation came on board the schooner to learn what carrying cargo entailed 150 years ago. Visitors often ask us whether or not a canal boat family used to fish for their supper. Of course it must have been done, but from what we can discern, fishing was not an important source of food for canal-boat families.
The wind gods were kind to us at Amsterdam. The western sky grew black as a cave, but the threat waited until our visiting hours were drawing to a close. We urged our last visitors to head for their cars and doubled up bow and stern lines. You never know with a thunder squall. This one looked mighty threatening, and it did rain as if it had never rained before, but the fierce, gusty wind that the ragged bottom edge of the clouds forecast did not blow.
Summer had ended, and the cool, overnight temperatures had started to produce mornings of thick fog coming off the water. When we started for Half Moon on the 24th, we had to wait until 8 o’clock for the air to warm up and evaporate enough of the vapor so that we could see where we were going. We’d had an early breakfast, our usual simple, quick, first meal of cold cereal, and this seemed like a good morning for a more elaborate second breakfast after getting underway. On such occasions, Kathleen Carney, who is responsible for feeding the crew, usually turns to the Boatswain, Len Ruth, who besides being our expert on knots and splices, just happens to be the best bacon cook, well, in the world, as far as we know. Kathleen added the apple pancakes, and we had a major repast.
Going down through Locks 10 and 9, we saw ample evidence of the destructiveness of last summer’s flood. Although most of the damage has been repaired in a near-miraculous flurry of major construction work, great, gravel-lined washouts and huge piles of uprooted trees testify to the unbelievable power of fast-moving water. As a counterbalance, we saw elegant, graceful, white egrets against the dark green of the marsh grass along the river bank, where they were stalking fish. Where does an egret get breakfast when calm shallows turn to raging torrents? At Half Moon that evening, we built and lighted the first wood-fire of the season in the schooner’s Household Marine stove. Ahhh.
On September 26th, we set off for Rensselaer. This day’s trip would take us to the east end of the Erie Canal at Waterford and then down the Hudson River through the Federal Lock at Troy. The river is tidal all the way up to the lock. Rensselaer is on the east bank of the Hudson, right across the river from Albany.
The run would have to be made without the services of the Oocher, whose outboard motor refused duty this morning. Getting the schooner off the Half Moon dock against a gentle breeze and turning her bow into the wind required a bit of backing and filling, but luckily there was plenty of room for such maneuvering. And going down through the Waterford flight of five locks required a bit of patience, for we had to enter the locks more slowly than usual, with no Oocher to keep the schooner from twisting in the lock when the tug, on the hip, brought her to a stop.
We made two landings in Rensselaer, one at the Albany Yacht Club (which had to move across the river when new highways took over the club’s Albany waterfront) and one at our designated berth, a single floating dock nearby, which had to be cleared of a usurper.
Fortunately, neither of these landings required any tricky maneuvering, so we were able to make them easily without the Oocher.
We were now at our furthest point south on the 2012 cruise. The next time we got underway, we would be truly heading for home, steering north.
The morning we left Half Moon, the Oocher decided it had done enough for the season, and refused to start. No amount of convincing would get it running, and the few times it did cough, gasoline came out of the exhaust. Not a good sign.
The Oocher is a key component of how the Lois moves through locks. Since she is so long and narrow, the Lois doesn’t like turning in small spaces. Unfortunately for her, canals by default are small spaces. To make things more complicated, part of the travel on this particular day was traversing the flight of locks leading down to Waterford. It was going to be an interesting trip.
Roger took the helm, and we got underway. With some creative use of spring lines (the dock lines that run from one end of the boat towards the other), the Lois warped off the dock, and was able to be convinced to turn around in the channel, despite not having her bow thruster. Roger stayed on the helm for the trip down the flight of locks, and watching him reminded me how much I have to learn still. The term delicate isn’t often applied to large boats, but Roger made each locking look effortless, giving the roving fenders an easy job of it. I can only aspire to have that much composure and skill.
This trip was my first experience on the Hudson river proper. Every other trip I’ve been on with the Lois, we’ve always turned directly out of the Champlain Canal system into the Erie or vice versa. Taking a right hand turn out of the Erie and heading south was a new experience for me. The Hudson River valley is a beautiful area to travel in, especially by boat.
Docking in Renssalaer was another testament to Roger’s skill. The dock at Riverfront Park was just under the length of the Lois, and looked a bit fragile from the water. Roger decided to pass by it first, and we docked temporarily at Albany Yacht Club, one of our partners for our stay in Renssalaer. Roger gently set the Lois on their docks with no fuss at all. A quick look at the arrangement in Riverfront Park reassured us that it was solidly anchored to shore and very sturdily built. In short order, the Lois was spun around and moved up river to dock there. All this without an Oocher! Like I said, I’ve got a lot to learn.
That afternoon, we towed the Oocher over to the Albany Yacht Club for a closer look. Ian Montgomery got the honor of using a personal watercraft as the tow vehicle, which made for quite an interesting visual.
While at the Albany Yacht Club, one of the club members took a look at the motor, and we realized in short order that it needed to go to a shop for some professional attention. Will O’Leary, the Vice Commodore of the yacht club, quickly volunteered his truck and procured a trailer that we could borrow, and in no time at all, the Oocher was out of the water, and on its way to Yankee Boating Center in Schenectady for an overhaul. Thank you Will, for all of your help with this!
Drama with the Oocher wasn’t the only thing that happened in Renssalaer. We also were graced with groups of students from two different schools in the morning. There was a great amphitheater for a place to do an introduction, and despite the construction on the bridge up river from the Lois, the kids all were very focused and attentive. It’s amazing to see the differences in learning styles come through outside of a classroom. Some students even were able to convince their parents to come back and visit in the evening!
The next morning, we headed back upriver without our Oocher, bound for Waterford.
24th of September, it is 7 in the morning but I can’t see anything A very thick fog is covering Amsterdam. But like magic around 9 a ray of sun and a second. Suddenly the sky is clear. Ahead of us the NY Canal tug Governor Cleveland is leaving , floating on water smoke. Soon after we are following. And we can see first hand the damage of last year hurricane. The locks of the Erie Canal are still in reconstruction. They became little islands in the middle of all this destruction. But where is Half Moon?
I never heard of this place. I know like anybody that it is the name of the ship of Henry Hudson, but why the little town we are heading is call Half Moon? Looking at a map, it becomes more obvious – the town is shaped like its name. The portion we will be docked at is a hamlet in the town, called Crescent. At 3:30 in the afternoon under a slendid blue sky Half Moon is in sight. On the dock John Callahan from New York State Canal Corporation is waiting for us in full suit, ready to take our dock lines. The dock is dusty and there is a big barge taking most of the space at the dock. Are we in the middle of nowhere?
Soon after docking an electrician from the Canal Corp is on site to help us with shore power and rapidly people are starting to appear (some are even bringing us tomatoes from their garden!). Then Ellen Kennedy, the town historian, is at the bottom of the gangway hoping to help us. And for sure we need help. What is the strange stone structure under our stern? The answer is coming fast – the Lois McClure is docked over the north abutment of Crescent Aqueduct. Our stern is in original Erie Canal!
The Crescent Aqueduct is in fact a bridge for boat with a towpath. This aqueduct was one of the 32 aqueducts built on the Erie Canal. And the Crescent one was the longest at 1,137 feet of length resting on no less than 26 arches. It was built in 1846 on the remains of the first aqueduct. It remain in operation until 1916 when the 5 new locks of Waterford with theirs dams raised the water of 28 feet at the level of Half Moon. The old aqueduct became obsolete and an obstacle to navigation. It was demolished at that time. But both abutments north and south survive in ruins with a little section of the crescent channel. Because I was forgetting, the name of Crescent for the hamlet is coming from the 90˚ curve the canal take here to cross the Mohawk River.
Many houses dating from the height of the canal era are still visible in the village. The following day we are open to public. Early in the morning workers from the municipality are in the parking setting up a sign welcoming the Lois McClure to Half Moon. Around 10 a group of student from a school of Saratoga came on board for our education school program. In the afternoon we are open for the general public. Suddenly the parking is full with car and people are coming to visit the boat. It was unexpected. Half Moon is surprising us with a lot of style.
After closing we are going to the icecream store to keep alive a new tradition for me and Art – the evening banana split! The next day we are ready to go but Oocher don’t want to leave. His engine refuse to start! Well it is difficult to leave such a surprising place.
Jean Belisle A recently retired professor from the Art History Department at Concordia University, Jean has been involved with LCMM for many decades. He joins us for his second year as crew aboard the Lois McClure.
We last visited Canajoharie in 2007, but I had been off the boat and missed the community named for a natural feature in the river. Today Canajoharie is marked by an enormous Beech Nut sign that reflects on the industry that helped build the community. The Arkell Museum and Library, an extraordinary cultural center just a short walk from the harbor, was established by the family that owned the company. The rest of the downtown seemed prosperous and interesting with the antique store getting visits from most of our crew, and the ice cream store which was also popular. Like most downtowns along the present canal, the old [enlarged] Erie canal was now filled in and remembered by historic markers. We were very excited to be coming to Canajoharie where the community had arranged to enroll over 200 local students to participate in our educational programs. They were due to come aboard the next morning and our berth at the beautiful canal park made for the perfect location to receive them.
We had a wonderful day for the school programs and the students and teachers were enthusiastic and timely. Our program has evolved from an effort to find the best ways to utilize the Lois McClure as a classroom and despite the intensive nature of the program, the crew all feels that we are delivering a lot of good, *curriculum-based information in a relatively short period of time. Most schools today have very limited field trip budgets and, on average, allocate about an hour of on-site time for the program. I’d like to offer a snapshot of the way the program is presented.
Whether they come by bus or are close enough to be walked down to see us, we almost always hear the students before we see them. When the kids arrive, we gather the whole group to get an orientation to the history represented and the particulars about the way the time with us will be utilized. The role of the interconnected waterways in the settlement, military and commercial development of their town is given. The few rules about cooperation, raising hands, moving slowly and no running while on-board are presented. The group is then typically divided into 4-equal sized smaller groups and those groups are introduced to the crew member who then guides them to their first of the four stations.
Each group will go to all four stations, just in a different sequence. The four stations are; the bow, where the group gets oriented to the working of the boat through examining the vessels anchors, the brakes. “Once this anchor that weighs more than you is over the side, how can we possibly get it back aboard?” The answer is the “windlass” which is a “complex machine” made up of several “simple machines” that give the crew-person “mechanical advantage”. Then, to their delight, each student has an opportunity for a hands on work experience with the windlass bars and “tailing” the anchor line until the slowly rising anchor is visible. This demonstration is always a big hit with the kids and really seems to make an impression.
A second station is the stern, where the ships wheel is examined and a the discussion about how the boat works, As they examine our unique “shin- cracker” arrangement we reveal that the way we knew how to build it, as well as the rest of the boat, is from original shipwreck examples. The concept of “primary sources”, diaries, journals, letter and archaeological sites is explained. Here, with the students sitting on the cabin top, our crew-member will unfold the dramatic story of the 100-year December storm that sank the General Butler and the heroic rescue of Captain Montgomery, his daughter, her girlfriend and two others from the ice covered stones of the Burlington Breakwater by James Wakefield and his son Jack. Below decks are two more stations – the cargo hold where the freight carrying role of the canal boat is illustrated and the comparison is made to our modern 18-wheelers and finally the stern family cabin where the life of the family that ran the boat is discussed with the students asked to travel back in time an image life without electricity, computers, televisions and indoor plumbing.
Each area has its storylines and lessons and students are encouraged to ask questions. Then, just as the station and its lessons are coming into focus, the bell rings, signaling to the crew and students that it is time to rotate to the next area. At the end of the visit, the orientation crew member will gather the groups back together off the boat to make some final observations and engage the group in further discussion. Final questions are presented and answered. We always close the program by informing the class about our public hours and invite them to return with family and friends when “they can be the tour guide.” It is always very validating to us when the kids return with their family or friends and we listen to their conversation. It never ceases to amaze me just how much information is passed through to the young students.
While the program is intensive with each crew member required to give 4-mini lectures during the hour visit, its also very rewarding and why we take such pride in our program.
We were graced with another random act of kindness in Canajoharie as well. Bill and Nancy Lyker stopped by the boat the evening before we left, and brought both culinary treats for the crew as well as a piece of history. Navigation buoys on the canal used to be fueled by kerosene, and refilled by buoy boats. Along our travels, we had seen the little buoy tenders remaining from these days, but Bill and Nancy showed us for the first time the lanterns those boats were tending. The two lanterns they had really helped us reconnect to the canal era. Thank you both for sharing them with us.
*Dr. Scott McLaughlin. Canalers Afloat: The Champlain Waterway’s Unique Maritime Community, 1819-1940. An Educational Curriculum for Grades PreK-8. Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, Volume 1&2. 2005.
From Canajoharie we headed east to the Amsterdam waterfront. The wonderful park and harbor which has been developed on the canal waterfront is separated from the city by busy railroad tracks which could only be navigated by an overhead causeway. When we arrived and saw the logistics of getting to the waterfront, we were worried that although we were on an ideal park, we might be hard to see and reach by the public, and accordingly we anticipated a small crowd for our weekend program. The people of Amsterdam proved that their connection to history could overcome all that and we had an extraordinary turnout.
The New York Canal Corporation, Congressman Paul Tonko, Mayor Thane and the Amsterdam Historical Society made our visit a catalyst for a larger history event. The Canal Corp brought the historic tug Grover Cleveland to share the wall with us and we were wonderfully surprised to see over 500 people in one day. But perhaps the best surprise was that many of the school students were had seen the previous week in Canajoharie came to Amsterdam with their parents, siblings and sometimes grandparents to explore the boat.
Amsterdam turned out to be one of our most dynamic stops of the journey. The crew was able to explore the south side of the river where the old Erie Canal had passed through and see much remaining evidence of that era. As with all our stops, people went out of their way to make us feel welcome. Congressman Tonko and Mayor Thane each made us feel very much appreciated and we embarked to our next destination looking forward to the time when we will be able to return.
Monday, August 17th, the crew of the Lois McClure was greeted at the dock of Lock 15 in Fort Plain, NY by a welcoming committee including members of the Friends of Fort Plain group. The ‘Friends’ invited us to a wine and cheese at the fire house, followed by a dinner at the Methodist church across the street. Lois’ crew and the ‘Friends’ spread out over three tables and were able to swap history and stories all night, and the crew was happy to hear a lot of the history of Fort Plain and its people.
Tuesday morning, our original plan was to host school groups from 8:30am until 2pm, but bad weather warnings encouraged us to postpone them until the following morning, and so the crew was gifted with the morning off. Despite the bad weather, some of us merited from a guided car tour of Fort Plain, hosted by Dave Manclow, one of our gracious hosts. Dave took us all through the town, pointing out some of the town’s historic houses and their residents. The real treat of that tour, at least for us canal boaters, was to visit the old Erie Canal site that runs just North of Canal Street. We could see the walls of the old canal still intact in some places, and even more impressively we were able to check out the old Lock 32, a lock in the same place as our Lock 15. The location of the lock named that part of town ‘Lockville’.
The old lock provided another point of interest to the archaeologist in me as it was located just East of the aqueduct, part of which was still visible. Long stone slabs that made up the old structure still ran through Otsquago Creek, which was a nice continuation from the old aqueduct that we discovered in Frankfort. The aqueduct in Frankfort was discovered by Art and Kerry after much debating over what some huge planks of very well-preserved wood would have been. When I visited that aqueduct later with Tom and Ian, it was the first sight of any aqueduct remains I had ever seen. Having seen that one, I quickly recognized the foundation of the aqueduct in Fort Plain at the bottom of Otsquago Creek.
At the end of our tour, Dave brought us to 47 Main St., a building that the Friends of Fort Plain were restoring to become the historic center of Fort Plain. Though still a work in progress, some of the old images stored in the building were particularly of interest to us. Specifically, one of the images showed the lift bridge over lock 32 from the 1800s, and even more exciting was an old drawing of the old Erie Canal with – you guessed it – Canal Boats! Two boats being towed through the canal by what must have been a steam tug. I was excited to see this old drawing in the town, a convincing argument that these boats really did exist and thrive in towns along the Erie Canal.
We returned in time to greet the public between 3 and 6pm that afternoon, after which we were once again invited to dinner, this time by Sevim Acar Morawski. Dave Manclow and Fred Chambers were kind enough to provide lifts for the crew to Sevim’s house. Upon arriving, our gracious host welcomed all of the crew into her fascinating home, where we were lucky enough to taste some excellent Turkish cooking. It was one of those few and far between experiences where the crew was actually able to sit around a table together and share stories. Luckily Sevim had some great stories of her immigration to the US from Turkey, since most of the crew was too occupied with eating to come up with our own stories. One of those stories was a really great mystery involving the house she and her husband purchased. Rumor had it that the man who built the house was a very successful man in the real estate business, but did not believe in keeping his money in the bank. When the man died of an accident involving him slipping and falling on his head, his children searched the entire house for the money that they were convinced must have been hidden somewhere in the superstructure. They never found the money, and each time the house was sold after that it would be searched for hidden treasure. When Sevim and her husband bought the house, they redid the entire building (having planned on it anyway) knowing full well the rumor of the hidden money. They found a box, hidden in the attic, full of paper of some kind. Unfortunately the paper had been stored for so long that it had practically turned to dust.
The generosity we received from the people of Fort Plain seemed endless. Roger and Kathleen were welcomed to stay at Melissa Brown’s B&B in town during their day off, and the rest of us were treated to breakfast and lunch by the Friends of Fort Plain. The school groups we had on Wednesday were greeted by Erick as he arranged them into a human canal system demonstrating how the canals joined Lake Champlain to the Hudson River, the Great Lakes and Canada. The kids were very well behaved, and had great questions for the crew. We were very happy to have them, and the public the day before.
Carolyn Kennedy A recent graduate of Concordia University in Montreal where she studied archaeology, Carolyn was introduced to the Lois McClure project while doing a nautical archaeology field school at LCMM.
When the planning for a tour starts in the depths of winter, we reach out to communities that we may have missed the last time we came through a place, or to communities that have specifically requested a visit. Unfortunately, there are so many places that fit well with the mission of the Lois that there is no way we can stop at all of them. Each year, we end up going by places that we would love to stop and are unable to fit into the schedule.
This year, however, the mayor of St Johnsville asked at the perfect time – we had just looked at the travel times for our next transit (Fort Plain from Little Falls). When he inquired if we would be able to stop, having received a lot of requests from the community, we were able to work out an afternoon stop at the St Johnsville Marina.
The marina is a place that we’ve during the previous two Erie tours, and each time someone in the crew has made the comment “Hmmm, I bet we could stop there.” It’s that kind of place. A small harbor on the side of the channel, it’s a wonderful place to stop for the afternoon. The community quickly embraced us, and the turnout would have done an organizer with months to plan proud. The fact that it was a last minute stop made the response astounding.
Ports like this are what make the tour so special. Being able to connect with people who are truly excited about the history of their region and bringing them a tactile experience to relate to is something that is rare in this time and age. Working a visit in at the last minute, and providing a new experience for people who have lived on the canal their whole lives, while tough, is worth it when you realize that you’ve connected people to history in their own backyards.
Little Falls is a unique place on the canal. Housing the lock with the highest single lift on the canal, it’s one of the places that you look down into the town as you traverse the canal channel. When we arrived, we were greeted with open arms by Chris, the harbormaster, as well as a group of the local partners. Shortly after the Lois had docked, Ian Montgomery’s parents arrived on their boat, the Red Hook, bringing Ian some cold weather clothing and his guitar on their way to partake in the New York State Canal Conference.
The evening we arrived, the organizations that partnered to bring us to Little Falls put on a barbeque for the crew. With the weather still being nice, we were treated to a huge amount of great home cooked food, good company, and a wonderful setting.
The crew was given a day off after we arrived, and we all spent time exploring the area. Little Falls has some antique stores that caught the attention of many of the crew. Ship’s Carpenter Kerry Batdorf and Ian’s father, Dennis Montgomery, had a minor competition about who could find the best old woodworking tools.
Little Falls is also home to something called “potholes.” Not like the ones in a gravel road after a rainstorm, these are geologic formations created by sediments in the Mohawk River that got caught in an eddy. These eddies would wear away the stone, creating holes in the bedrock, and leaving the stone looking like an alien landscape. Located on Moss Island between Lock 17 and the Mohawk River, there are hiking trails through the woods that a handful of the crew explored. The scenery was something I had never experienced before. I couldn’t decide if it was something out of a Tolkien novel or a science fiction movie. Either way, it is something that will stick with me for a long time.