Location: Chittenango, New York
Webpage: Private museum
General Description: Construction of the original Erie Canal or Clinton’s Ditch was begun in 1817 and was completed in 1825 for a cost of $7 million. It was 363 miles long, 40 feet wide, and 4 feet deep. Before the canal it would cost around $100/ton to ship goods from Buffalo to New York, but with the canal the cost dropped to around $10/ton. Within the first year of use the canal was over capacity and New York’s debt was already paid off. It was already obvious that a wider and deeper canal was needed. By 1862 the entire canal had been widened to 70 feet and a depth of 7 feet. In some sections the original canal was modified with new locks and in others a new canal was dug along with aqueducts across the major streams and rivers. The Erie Canal not only vastly increased trade but was also a magnet for local businesses all along its length. One such industry were dry docks where canal boats could be repaired and built. One such location was at Chittenango Landing, constructed in 1856 along with other near by dry docks at Newark, Albion, and Middleport. The dry dock at Chittenango consisted of three docks where boats could be floated in and once the water drained to settle the boats in their cradle, they could be repaired and sealed. There was also a facility to build new canal boats as well. In support of the dry docks there was an extensive sawmill, blacksmith, carpentry shops, stables, and general store. Other industries also located nearby the dry docks including a pottery factory making fine china, a cannery, and ice storage harvested from the canal during the winter. After the large canal was ceased operation the land was used for agriculture and the buildings largely savaged for other construction including the dry dock walls taken for construction of the New York Thruway. In the 1980s a small group of came upon the rock strewn and grass covered ruins. With the help of old maps and photographs they were able to locate the dry dock facilities and began the archeological work to uncover the ruins. Today the dry dock facilities have been rebuilt along with most of the buildings that supported Chittenango Landing including the sawmill, country store, stables, and blacksmith facilities. In addition, they have created a small museum and an 80% reproduction of a canalboat that is opened up on one side so visitors can see all parts of the boat.
1) The museum and gift shop at the entrance to the facility is very small with just a few exhibits about the construction and life on the Erie Canal. They do have a nice short video about the reconstruction work that has been done at Chittenango Landing.
2) The reconstructed canal boat looks real from one side and the front, but as you walk around you realize it has been “cut open” so you can see inside the boat. Since the area they have was limited they could only make an 80% reproduction, but you can still get a good understanding of how life on the boat functioned. Having the boat open was ingenious as you can understand its construction, as well as, how the different parts of the boat would be used. While we were there they had a groups of grade school children visiting so there were interpreters on site to provide additional explanation. Of course, this explanation was simplified for the age group, but we still learned things about the site we would have missed otherwise.
3) I found the sawmill and wood shop to be especially interesting, being a forester. Although the sawmill they had was not from the site, it was from this time period. Especially since they had a log positioned that was partially cut, it was easy to understand how the mill operated. They also had a number of other wood working machines including a band saw, table saw, planer, lathe, and drill press. I even found a model of how they “felled” the trees along the canal route. Instead of cutting the trees down, which was too slow, they tied ropes to the top and then winched them over using mules and horses to provide the power. Supposedly this method could either uproot or break a tree off in a matter of a few minutes.
4) The reconstructed dry docks were interesting along with a clear description of how they operated provided in their guide. The dock would be filled before opening the gates to pull in a boat. Then the gates would be closed and a side gate opened to drain the water out into a small ditch that fed back into the canal downstream of the landing. The boat would settle into a wooden cradle, after which the repairs could be done.
5) The general store has also been rebuilt on the original site parallel to the canal. They have collected a number of period pieces including cans, bottles, and sacks, so you can get a sense of what it would have looked like inside. They are also using the general store as the main museum for the landing with multiple exhibits about the canal and industries the sprouted up in the area. You can learn quite a bit about the different types of canal boats and barges used on the canal as well.
6) Finally, there is a short path along the canal to a still working aqueduct over a small stream. We have seen the remains of a few larger aqueducts along the canal, but this is the first one that is still intact with water flowing in it. It is strange to see a 7 foot deep canal of water flowing over the existing stream with a towpath along one side.
7) This is one of those “finds” that we run into on our travels from time to time, that we are thankful for. We heard about the museum from a local that was staying at the same campground when we were discussing the importance of the Erie Canal to the region.