By Courtney Deeren
Generally, when people think of New York they imagine impressive glass skyscrapers, sprawling city skylines and grey giants towering over the sparkling blue Atlantic. But for those living in Upstate and Western New York they know the hidden beauty of the rest of the state and don’t associate New York as just the home to the city that never sleeps.
One of the fixtures many people who live upstate know well is the Erie Canal. Snaking its way 363 miles through the state’s capital and several small port towns, the Erie Canal connects the Great Lakes to the Hudson River, eventually leading out to the Atlantic Ocean. Not all native New Yorkers know the small waterway that has become touted as a “national treasure,” but those who do, know the history very well.
Growing up in or near any of the port towns, as they are called, meant likely taking a ride on the Sam Patch Boat Tour as a field trip in school or as a fun outing with one’s family. These tours teach about the history of the canal and demonstrate the navigation of the locks. Some of the people living in these towns even know of their own family ancestors who immigrated to work on the canal.
Tammy Smith, a Brockport native who grew up on the canal, is one of these people. Her great-grandfather came to Brockport from Italy to work on the canal and her family settled here ever since.
“I grew up on the canal,” Tammy Smith said. “Our winters were a lot worse so the canal pretty much froze over for the whole winter and we would ice skate and play hockey. I used to be able to ice skate all the way up to Redman Road [from Erie Street].”
Tammy Smith moved away from Brockport for a few years but has returned to be close to family.
“Of course back then they didn’t have the trails, they just had a grass path on both sides that was mowed, Tammy Smith said. “But now they have that nice paved path and it’s nice to be able to ride bikes and do all that, it’s definitely easier.”
The “engineering miracle” has undergone a great deal of changes since its debut in 1825, including two enlargements to fit larger boats. But the changes to the canal’s size aren’t the only changes. Those living in Brockport and the surrounding areas might have already started noticing some differences during their stroll along the canal path.
Director of the Brockport Welcome Center, Susan Smith, has been a part of the planning for many of the new changes coming to Brockport’s section of the canal in 2020.
“In the works for 2020 is the installation of new lighting (to complete the lampposts on the canal front), signage and a ribbon cutting on our native plants-pollinator garden beds, that were installed at the end of 2019 and will be in bloom this year,” Susan Smith said.
While these changes serve to beautify and enhance the quantity and quality of life for native pollinators — something any environmentalist would approve of, there are other projects that pertain to practicality and accessibility.
The installation of a Board Safe Docks adaptive dock and launch will enable anyone, including those in wheelchairs, to independently launch and land a kayak. The Brockport Welcome Center will be the first canal port to offer this adaptive dock.
“Anita O’Brien and Rochester Accessible Adventures (RAA) received a grant to put in the Click-a-Launch portion of the dock system in conjunction with Camp Abilities dock located in Commissary Park,” Susan Smith said. “The college [SUNY Brockport] decided not to take on that project at this time, so RAA was given permission through the funding agency to donate it toward the purchase of the dock system for the Welcome Center. The Click-a-Launch is one of 7 components to the full Board Safe Docks system being installed at the Welcome Center. This amenity will enable all people to participate in and enjoy kayak experiences in the Erie Canal.”
There is also a performance pavilion in the planning stages to go in near the Welcome Center to further serve the Brockport community through family friendly events.
“The performance pavilion is still in the design phase and is planned to have architecture that will compliment the Welcome Center,” Susan Smith said. “A permanent electrically equipped covered pavilion will allow for more flexibility for performers. This amenity will enhance our annual events, that include Low Bridge, High Water, Summer Serenades and Brockstock performances.”
Even SUNY Brockport is getting in on the adaptations to the canal. With the new Brockport Loop Project announced and funded.
But as much as we depend on and enjoy the canal, it also depends on us. It’s fairly common in today’s fast paced life to neglect the spaces we love and use regularly. That’s why many groups in the various port towns do the Canal Clean Sweep event every year including an Earth Day celebration.
“The Clean Sweep is a statewide program sponsored by the New York State Canal Corporation and Parks & Trails New York that aims to clean up the Erie Canalway Trail on an annual basis,” Assistant Professor of environmental science and ecology at SUNY Brockport Courtney McDaniel, PhD, said.
McDaniel said these events happen all along the canal, and it’s not specific to just Brockport.
“Individual groups organize clean-up events from the beginning of the Canal in Albany to its endpoint in Buffalo. Groups of volunteers gather at these events across the state to help keep the canalway trail (an important recreational trail) clear of litter.”
McDaniel also notes the event now includes over “150 community organizations, municipalities, and businesses.”
This event, in its 15th year, has been canceled due to the concerns arising over the Covid-19 outbreak.
The Erie Canal has served the communities nestled on its shores since it was built, increasing accessibility to the rest of the state and essentially leading to New York City’s growth. For those living near the canal today it serves as a place to walk the dog, fish, boat, bike, or even camp along the trail and has become a popular location for concerts and festivals.