In 2007, during our Grand Canal Journey, we observed that the Schenectady Yacht Club was located just east of the old Rexford aqueduct. The opportunity to get a better look at this historic canal feature and learn more about it was very exciting to the crew and to me. One of the key observations we are making while on the canal is just how much it has changed during its more than 180-years of continual operation. Expanded locks, prisms and canal boats and new alignments for the locks and canal have left a rich legacy of canal features scattered around the canal corridor landscape. Rexford is one of the great places to view the past canal and having John as our guide was a chance to learn from a true expert.
The portion of the stone aqueduct that was still standing was part of the Erie expansion of the 1840’s. From John we learned that this aqueduct was built just east of the original aqueduct which was converted to a bridge after the new one was opened. The aqueduct brought the Erie canal from the south to the north side of the Mohawk River if you were heading from Rome to the east. Just west of the new aqueduct were two sets of double locks, still visible in the ground today, with one lock chamber ingeniously adapted to serve as the bay for the marina’s travel-lift. John also described the remnants of the dam and feeder canal we would see when we began our trip west.
John’s explanations and the features still visible were so clear that when I returned to my computer to work on the lecture I was giving at the Fort Plain Free Library, I admit I was struck for the first time to realize that I had a map of the Rexford expansion showing all these features “as built” which had been provided to me by historian Duncan Hay of the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, also one of our principle sponsors. Now because of John’s good lessons and our observations, I could understand exactly how this important Rexford crossing looked in its day.
Thank you John for your gift of knowledge and hospitality.
Anyone who has been following the adventures of the Lois McClure knows that Erick Tichonuk is the schooner’s First Mate, or Chief Mate, as he would be called in the Merchant Marine. Captain Theodore Bartley had no such luxury in 1862; canal boat captains had to be their own first mate (and boatswain and ship’s carpenter and deckhand, etc.) But on the Lois McClure, I can devote myself primarily to the safe operation of the vessel and leave a lot of duties (including helping with the safe operation of the vessel) to Erick.
The other day, as I was steering down the Hudson River, between locks, I glanced over onto the Churchill’s stern deck (she was towing alongside, on the hip), and there was Erick, hard at work with a paintbrush. He was applying brilliant, glossy, red paint to the business end of a fine fire axe!
Now, every tugboat should have a fire axe, mounted in its sheath on the side of the deckhouse. This tool is just expected on a boat that is used for towing. It’s not that we expect to have to cut our way through a bulkhead to get at a fire, but rather that we want to be able to cut the towing hawser fast in an emergency. And it looks, well, cool.
So, when Kerry Batdorf, Ship’s Carpenter (another luxury that we have on the Lois McClure) found a sound fire axe in an antique store in Whitehall, he and Erick had a brief conference, the axe appeared on board the Churchill, and now it is painted to perfection. A perfect precaution.
Waterford, at the confluence of the Hudson and Mowhawk rivers and the Erie and Champlain canals, is a town rich with history. A couple of our crew members took advantage of a chance to experience some of this history first hand by bunking aboard the tug Chancellor. The Chancellor, built in 1938, is a canal tug owned by the Waterford Maritime Historical Society and is currently being restored.
Thank you to John Callaghan for hosting us for dinner, and making our brief stay in Waterford fantastic as always!
Although the official departure of the Lois McClure on the 2010 World Canals Tour wasn’t until July 22nd, we did get underway on the 20th in order to shift berth from the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s North Harbor to the Steamboat Dock at Basin Harbor.And we took the opportunity to go the long way, crossing the Lake to the Westport Marina so that we could empty sanitary tanks (it’s a term I’ve held over from old Navy days, but why does the Navy call obviously unsanitary tanks sanitary tanks?) and fill water and fuel tanks. That done, we re-crossed the Lake, towing on the hip with the trusty tugboat, C. L. Churchill, made more trusty than ever this year by further re-planking and an overhauled transmission.
That berth at the Steamboat Dock at the Basin Harbor Club has a view made famous by the well-travelled Mark Twain, who, when he gazed back toward Westport from the spot where we moored the schooner, called it the best view he had yet seen in all the world. Well, the purple mountain majesties of the Adirondacks, fading, peak by peak, into the distance are a fine sight. We used the place for prosaic purposes: Curtis arrived with a crane truck from Brown’s Welding of Bristol to do the heavy lifting, as we struck the schooner’s rig and stowed spars and sails overhead on deck on their T-braces. Curtis had to lift everything higher than it had ever been lifted before, up over a tent structure on the dock and a tree, so that he could lay it all out on the grass, while the T-braces were set up. He moved the loads slowly and precisely. The only time he hurried a little was at the first rumble of thunder, when he swung his boom right round, shortened it with the flick of a lever, and housed it, just like that. As we waited out the squall, we knew we were in good hands.
The highlight of our loading day, the 21st, was that we got to exchange a modern, patented anchor of the late 20th Century for a traditional, symbol-of-hope anchor, the type that has held vessels for a good many centuries. We love to take any step that will make our replica sailing canal boat more authentic.
So, the Lois McClure’s World Canals Tour commenced on July 22nd. We were not off on an actual circumnavigation, but we were heading for Rochester, where the schooner would be one of the centerpieces, from September 19th to 24th, for the World Canals Conference, a gathering of canal historians, operators, and promoters to share ideas, research, and experiences focused on canals around the world. We were looking forward to showing them a vessel that holds so much canal history from our part of the world.
Towing south, up the Lake, we looked, from habit, for the towers of the Champlain Bridge showing above the trees of Chimney Point. Instead, we saw the tops of large, floating derricks.
Nowadays, instead of the stately bridge, there is an elaborate construction site for a new bridge, crisscrossed by two ferries, running about every fifteen minutes. We were glad to assure their skippers, on the radio, that we would wait for them to cross our bow before proceeding along the marked channel through the underwater remains of the old bridge. It seemed strange not be looking up at our old friend as we went through.
We broke our trip to Whitehall by anchoring for the night just south of Fort Ticonderoga. And a lovely break it was: a quiet cove; the old Fort, and Mounts Independence and Defiance to lend an aura of history; a welcome dive into the Lake to cool off; a sunset and a moonrise that vied with each other for prizes.
Next day, we completed the tow to Whitehall up the narrow, southern part of the Lake. Saw several weed boats at work, contesting possession of the channel with the water chestnuts. Had two interesting maneuvering situations with pleasure boats to remind us that we are travelling the waterway in high season. Went through Lock 12, the first of many on this Tour, to enter the Champlain Canal. We were pleased that our experienced crew picked right up, on all our various maneuvers, with where we had left off last year, as if we had been practicing all winter. But again, our watchword is: “Avoid complacency.”
Whitehall is always a special place for the Lois McClure. The citizens welcome us with plenty of interested visitors and, after the “Closed” sign goes up, with great dinners. This year was no exception. Of course, as a New Englander, I have to be careful to be politically correct, because I was brought up to believe that Marblehead’s schooner Hannah…well, you know, it’s that whole thing about the birthplace of the U. S. Navy.
On July 25th, we continued south on the canal to Fort Edward.
Last year, the Hudson River, upstream and down from Lock 7, had been a scene of intense activity, as a huge fleet of dredges, barges, and tugs worked to remove PCB-laden mud from the bottom of the River. On this day, as we went through the lock, all was deserted: dredges gone, barges moored out of the channel, and tugs hauled out ashore, parked in a neat row. The dredging is to stop for a year. It will be a year of measuring the effects on the water column of stirring up the bottom, followed by a decision of continuing the process, or not.
Last year’s dredging operation had prevented us from going up the narrow bend in the Hudson beside Lock 7 to the Yacht Basin, so it was nice to renegotiate that passage, squeezing under the railroad and road bridges, dodging the mud bank just upstream, and tying up to the fine wall at the park. Fort Edward welcomed us back with a good crowd of visitors and a memorable dinner at Ye Old Fort Diner.
On south to Schuylerville on the 27th. Leaving Fort Edward required spinning the McClure, tug on hip, in her own length, before heading down through the obstacle course. I love to have the Oocher, our inflatable with the 50-h.p. Honda, tie on to the schooner’s bow and pull her right around. But this morning, I got a bit enthusiastic about the maneuver and had to ask Kerry Batdorf and Tom Larsen, the Oocher crew, to push hard against the bow to stop it from continuing to swing. The Oocher showed that she can shove, as well as ooch.
At Schuylerville, these days, we have the luxury of mooring at a fine, floating dock that has been installed at the big park at Hudson’s Crossing, put in, at least in part, to make our visits as convenient as possible. Mercy. Are we ever spoiled! And the word of our Tour seems to be spreading: in our first three stops, we’ve had more than 400 folks on board. Many are stepping on the schooner’s deck for the first time, but many, also, are familiar with the vessel, and are returning to drink in more of the history lessons she teaches.
Kathleen Carney, our commissary officer, is getting worried. She and Elisa Nelson and Barb Batdorf did a major provisioning before we got underway, and we’ve been fed so well by our hosts—Schuylerville included—that we’re not emptying her food lockers fast enough. Not to worry, we are all most grateful for the hospitality we’ve been receiving. (And the Commissary loves having a night off!)
On to Waterford, where the Champlain and Erie Canals meet. This was a five- lock day, and one during which we needed no particular admonitions against complacency.There was a fluky breeze, with little, unexpected gusts from hither and yon. Erick Tichonuk, the First Mate, and I trade off on taking the conn for locking through. This day, between the two of us, I think we used every one of the many fenders we have hanging on the sides of both schooner and tugboat. Oh well, we remind each other; that’s what they’re for.
John Callaghan, Waterford’s premier canal and tugboat man and a great friend of the Lois McClure, not only met us at the wall, where we tied up just ahead of the big towboats Margot and Chancellor, to make sure we had every possible shore facility, but also invited the crew to a great cookout in his delightful backyard. We’ll never eat our way through our stores at this rate.
I write this on a lay day in Waterford, the 30th of July. Tomorrow, we head west on the Erie Canal.
Whenever the Lois McClure enters the Champlain Canal, I look forward to catching up with Bob Foster at Lock 5, Schuylerville. Bob is a boat guy, who now runs a couple of tour boats. There’s his lovely, little, diesel launch, the Nellie, named after a tugboat he operated a “few” years ago. And there’s the Caldwell Belle.
The Caldwell Belle is different. She was launched in 1973 into the Milwaukee River, which Bob claims is smaller than Otter Creek. Several names, owners, and homeports later, she came under Bob’s tender care. He kept the name Caldwell Belle; after all, Caldwell was a big name on the Champlain Canal, so why change it? The thing that’s different about the Belle is she’s a stern-wheeler, propelled by an honest-to-goodness, diesel-driven paddle wheel mounted on the stern. True, a stern paddle wheel on a tour boat isn’t all that rare; what’s rare is that the Belle’s wheel is her only propulsion; the other boats are driven by propellers and bow thrusters, with the paddle wheel dragging along strictly for decoration.
I love to watch Bob bring the Caldwell Belle in for a landing at his tie-up on the corner
of the approach wall to Lock 5. He comes right in at a pretty big angle at a good rate of
speed. Just when you start to worry, he spins that big paddlewheel backwards, the blades
bite into the water with that characteristic slap-slap-slap sound, and the Belle comes to
a quick stop with her bow so close to the dock that the deckhand just reaches over and
grabs the bow line he left behind. As soon as the hand belays the line on the rail at just
the right distance back from the stem, Bob starts his wheel backing down again. As the
strain comes on the line, the Belle starts moving sideways toward the dock. In she comes,
majestically. Stern line on. “All ashore!” All smiles. It’s always a pleasure to watch Bob
at work and then to walk over and take in his latest story about life along the canal.
The first leg of the trip through the Champlain Canal has been particularly special for me. Not only are we traversing familiar ground in our “home” canal and seeing old acquaintances and friends, but my daughter, Emily, has been able to travel with us. I cherish our time together and being able to share the things I love such as the great communities along the canal and the joy of being on the water.
In addition to our duties aboard, all the crew finds some time for exploration while in port. Today, Emily and I walked to the Schuyler House, a National Park Service site that’s part of the Saratoga park.
This magnificent country house was hastily erected in late fall of 1777 after retreating British forces under General John Burgoyne burned Schuyler’s more elaborate and palatial estate. We had a thoroughly enjoyable tour with Park Ranger Danielle, who showed us all of the incredibly well maintained rooms. I look forward to returning to the Revolution when I go back to LCMM for our Rabble In Arms reenactment.
We are at our berth at the Hudson Crossing Park, Schuylerville and it is great to be back on the canal. It’s different this time as we know the lock keepers and people in all the communities we have been thus far. That will change when we head west out the Erie where we are stopping mostly in communities we haven’t visited before.
I’ve begun re-reading Captain Theodore Bartley’s journals, the most complete picture of life on a canal boat we have encountered. This year I have begun during the 1876 navigation season and find almost each entry providing a gem of knowledge about his life, travels and family. It’s May, 1877 and Captain Bartley has just left Larabee’s Point after unloading the coal he brought up from Newburgh. While there, twelve year old George fell overboard and had to be rescued. They leave Shoreham in tow of the tugboat Reed to St. Johns, Quebec where Captain Bartley has developed relationships with sawmills to haul their lumber to New York City.
The opportunity to travel these same waterways and visit the same communities with Captain Bartley’s 140-years ago perspective has been one of the most extraordinary aspects of this remarkable experience.
One of the great things about returning to ports we’ve visited in the past is that we get to see old friends. Last night in Fort Edward, Darlene DeVoe and her husband, Adam, hosted a super dinner for the crew at Ye Old Fort Diner owned by John Webber. We couldn’t decide which was better—the fries (the old-fashioned, real thing, and heaps of ’em) or the pie (lemon coconut, chocolate cream, butterscotch, apple–all homemade).
Today in Schuylerville, Darren Tracy, a volunteer crew member from the 2005’s Grand Journey to New York City, saw us from across the canal and dropped by to say hello. Later, as the tour boat Caldwell Belle set off for a sunset cruise, there were calls of “Hi, Art!” “How ya’ doin’ Lenny?” and even, “Where’s the guy with the ponytail?”—that would be First Mate Erick, except he somehow knew what a hot summer this was going to be and lopped it off.
All along the way, we’ve traded greetings and good-natured jibes with the lock keepers who’ve helped us along this route so many times. Now, the Lois McClure isn’t just another boat passing through, she’s become a part of the Champlain Canal. That’s really special.
On Monday morning Erick, Emily, Molly and I had the rare opportunity to visit an active archeological dig. We accompanied Neal Orsini, our guide and owner of the Anvil Inn (and also the 30,00th visitor on board the Lois in 2007), to the Sutler’s House site adjacent to old Fort Edward.
All of us were impressed with the size of the project and enjoyed watching the archeologists painstakingly scrape away in the active pits as they uncovered bits of chert(flakes from the
production of projectile points) as they worked. Perhaps the biggest find was by Molly, who found a curious lead object outside a groundhog hole. Site archeologist David Starbuck suggested that it would take hours of research to determine what it could be.
Following our brief tour of the dig we went to the Rodgers Island Visitors Center where we were able to see their fine exhibits and visit the conservation lab. In the lab we viewed many objects recovered from the dig. This special opportunity to get a first hand look at the 18th century history of Ft. Edward made our stop here very memorable.
Jeff is a history teacher at Champlain Valley Union High School during the school season. He has worked as a captain for the Lake Champlain Transportation Company, as well as volunteered for many years at LCMM. He joins the crew of the Lois this year as second mate.