In the early decades of the 19th century a network of canals was built
alongside of decidedly non-navigable eastern waterways; its purpose was
singular - commerce. With the lack of passable roadways there simply was no
better way to move huge quantities of lumber, coal and produce into the cities.
Well, no better way that is until the railroads took hold just a few years later.
Unfortunately, rail lines, often utilizing the very same routes, were operational
even before the last shovelful of dirt was being tossed up out of the canal's
shallow ditch. The canal's exclusive usefulness was short-lived.
Today only a few of the eastern canals are still operational. The St. Lawrence
Seaway, of course, has retained its commercial importance, but the Delaware,
Delaware-Raritan, Erie, C&O, just to name a few, have all turned recreational.
And recreational use of the canals is where I come into the picture.
If you love to walk or bicycle, like I do, then there is nothing better
than finding a 50 or 60 mile long ribbon of trail alongside of a quiet "river".
Think of it, a trail where there are no cars, no trucks and in many cases,
no other people to contend with! If you plan your treks carefully, you can
enhance your leisurely day by stopping at one of the small towns along the
banks for an hour or so to rest, consume vast quantities of food and then
have an obscenely high calorie dessert. "After all", you justify to yourself,
"I've burned well over 1000 calories just getting here." Then you recheck
your math, claim a huge error in your calculations, and then order another
dessert - this time with a double dollop of whipped cream. " Ah… that's much better!!!"
Once back out on the towpath you contemplate the beaver damage that you've
seen along the way and wonder: why haven't I seen any beaver dams? Do
beavers live somewhere else and just come down to the canal bank to chomp on trees?
And every once in a while you'll spot an odd bird like the Pileated
Woodpecker or a Belted Kingfisher displaying its unusual step-like flight
pattern. If you are really lucky you might even encounter the oddest of odd
birds - the long distance jogger. You'll recognize the unmistakable field
markings instantly: dripping wet jersey, $800 tennis shoes, and that tortured expression on their face.
For the less actively inclined among us, some canals have interpretative
signage along the roadways. You can drive from lock #16 to viaduct Q12
and actually get out of your car for a second and look at 175 year old concrete.
"Oh", you proclaim, "I get it, VIADUCT - a bridge like structure which allows canal
water to pass over obstacles such as streams and gullies….hmm…" Make no mistake though,
the signage is always first rate.
Some canal groups, like the one associated with the Erie, have even gone
so far as to reconstruct and restore large portions of old canal villages,
complete with archeological digs. Their work there has unearthed tremendously
important artifacts. Sunken canal boats and even a working dry-dock have been
excavated along the old Erie. All national treasures.
In both Easton and New Hope, Pennsylvania, you can enjoy a 2 mule powered barge
ride and experience for yourself the sights, sounds and (oh boy) the smells from
our historic transportational past.
The National Canal Museum, also located in Easton, is the place to go if
you are either truly interested in researching the development of the
American canal system or, if you are just curious about the canals
themselves but are too damn lazy to get out there and take a look at the real thing.
Text and pictures copyright by L. James Meyers.
No reproduction is permitted but bring cash
and we'll talk.