by Chris Clemens
As 2017 was the 200th anniversary of the Erie Canal’s birth, it’s been on everyone’s mind more than usual. Most people are aware that the canal we know today is nothing near the size of the original. But, a lot of people don’t realize that this is actually the third version. In between the original Erie Canal and today’s version, there was actually an Enlarged Erie Canal. Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site is the only place where you can experience all three versions in one spot!
Schoharie Crossing just built a brand new, updated exhibit space and the Grand Opening is this Saturday, May 12th, 2018. They let me sneak in a little early to check it out, and to give you guys a preview!
Why Three Erie Canals?
Almost immediately after the Erie Canal opened in 1825, it had reached capacity. Finally in 1834, engineers put together a plan typically referred as the First Enlargement. It meant re-routing the canal in a few places, deepening the canal from 4 to 7 feet, and widening it from 40 to 70 feet. They built some new locks, and in a few places they built new aqueducts. These were bridges that allowed the canal to pass over an existing body of water, like Schoharie Creek in Montgomery County.
The 19th century was booming for canal travel. Even in the latter half of the century when trains rode the rails of competition, things were good for the man-made waterway. In 1905, without knowing the future impact that automobiles and planes would have, they once again enlarged the canal. That version is the one that we know today and refer to as the “Erie Canal”, though technically this third stage was named the New York State Barge Canal.
Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site
The state park at Schoharie Crossing is one of the spots in New York where the canal was re-routed. The original Erie Canal actually passed right through Schoharie Creek. Visitors can still see evidence of that original canal, and a dam in the creek that helped control water flow.
During the second build, an aqueduct was constructed over Schoharie Creek featuring fourteen arches that carried the Enlarged Erie Canal. The 624 foot bridge crossed over the mighty Schoharie Creek, which at 90 miles long is the largest watershed for the Catskills Region. There are only six of the arches in that bridge remaining, but the Preservation League of New York State just added them to their “Seven To Save” list. That great news means Schoharie Crossing will be getting some much deserved support in maintaining what’s left.
In some cases, original infrastructure is still in place. The original Erie Canal featured a guard lock at this location, and they’ve done a great job preserving it. This type of lock didn’t function to help with elevation, but actually to protect the canal from the natural waters of the Schoharie. Today, the East Guard Lock is the only guard lock left in the entire state! Canal nerds will also appreciate seeing Lock 20, which is the only remaining “Lift Lock” from the original canal.
There are miles of paths to walk or bike while exploring the roughly 250 acres that Schoharie Crossing sits on. You can grab a tour from David Brooks, the park’s super knowledgeable Education Director, or you can snag a map and go it alone. They have a lot of great events like live music at the Putman Canal Store at their Yankee Hill lock on Tuesday evenings, a wildlife Wednesday series, and regular history lectures. Checkout their Facebook page for upcoming events, or follow them on Twitter, and Instagram. They also have a really great blog featuring stories about local history.
The visitor center at Schoharie Crossing has had a really informative collection of exhibits since the 80’s. There were maps, and artifacts, and other things you’d normally find at a historical museum. Though they were cool, they were a tad…. dated. Here’s a photo I took from a previous visit a couple years ago.
See? They’re cool. But, not as cool as this!
Last year the crew dismantled the entire exhibit to make way for a brand new build out. The new exhibits feature original paperwork and cool old items from the original canal days. Each of those wall exhibits surround a humongous model of the canal. The grand opening of the new exhibit is this Saturday, May 12th, but it will be on display for many years to come.
This section of the state really is a beautiful one, so even if you’re not a history buff, you’ll appreciate the rolling green hills of the Mohawk Valley. If you’re looking for a view of Schoharie Crossing from afar, one of my favorite vantage points is just across the river at the Auriesville Shrine, just a 5 minute drive.
Have fun on your visit, and tell them Chris says hello!
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens