COMPLETING THE CIRCLE
by Bill Monson
To anyone from the Galesburg area, the names of towns in New York's Mohawk Valley seem very familiar-- Kirkville, Oneida, Augusta, Yorkville, New London, Whitesboro.
Galesburg founder George Washington Gale was a Mohawk Valley resident and so were most of the underwriters who met in Whitesboro, N.Y. to pool their money and plan a college and community in Illinois. Many of them were to start west on the Erie Canal which ran through the Valley from Albany on the Hudson to Buffalo on Lake Erie.
The Canal was 363 miles long with 83 locks and 18 aqueducts. It was a pet project of Governor DeWitt Clinton and was called "Clinton's Ditch" as a result. It was all dug by hand and cost $7-million in 1825; but it soon paid off its cost in tolls as it became a chief route for immigration from New England to the Midwest. When the railroads arrived in 1850, the Canal fell into disrepair; and in 1903 it was incorporated into the New York State Barge System. You can still ride on some of the old Canal, principally at Lockport ten miles east of Niagara Falls--so that's where my wife Polly and I headed on a sunny June 8 west on the New York Tollway.
We got off at Route 78 and passed mile after mile of malls as we drove north. Lockport is an old but thriving town, part of the Buffalo-Niagara- Tonawanda megaplex. We arrived at Lockport Canalside, a 200-foot steel and stone building at 210 Market Street, shortly before noon. Canalside has a cafe and pub and a veranda banquet room plus a gift shop and outside picnic grove right on the Canal. It's also the headquarters of Lockport Locks and Erie Canal Cruises; and we bought two tickets for the 12:30 locks cruise, then had time for a light lunch. Little did we know that fifty school kids were coming along with the two-dozen adults!
Our boat was a diesel-driven two-decker, and the kids got the top deck in the sun with their chaperones while we adults stayed downstairs in the shade. The kids were well-behaved anyhow, even singing Erie Canal songs which we joined in. People along the Canal smiled and waved as we "locked through" Canal locks 34 and 35 to rise to the level of the Niagara Escarpment 49 feet above. We then passed under what Lockport calls "the widest bridge in the world." Seemed like a tunnel to me--and the kids loved screaming in it!
Once past the locks, we cruised by the site of a new bridge going in and out into a gorge where we eventually turned around. The kids were dropped off and the adults took over the whole boat as we "locked through" 34 and 35 down and eastbound to pass under two lift bridges so low that they barely cleared us. I could touch the bottom of one with my hand! Another short cruise to the country east of Lockport, then we returned under the bridges to dock back at Canalside about 2:30.
The cruises run twice a day spring and fall, three times in summer: 12:30, 3:00, 5:30. The season is from mid-May to mid-October. Adult tickets are $12.50 (but there are discounts) and children 4-10: $8. No fee for parking.
On our final day, we made one last attempt to get me a carrousel ride. The village of Olcott where Route 78 dead-ends at Lake Ontario advertised one-- so we went to see. It wasn't open. Neither was most of Olcott.
We drifted west along the lake to Youngstown, which is a spot on the Niagara River near Lake Ontario where sailing boats and private yachts moor. A pub, a snack bar, a cafe, a musty-smelling restaurant. An old restored hotel and two shops. The kind of place you usually pass by on your way to somewhere else.
We debated going out to Fort Niagara State Park where the river meets the lake, but we'd already visited one restored fort; and while we debated, two large busloads of noisy school kids went in that direction. Scratch Fort Niagara! We chose instead to have lunch in the pub then backroad southeast on Route 93 through rolling farmland and attractive homes to Lockport and down to Buffalo International Airport where we checked into the Best Western Norstar--the spot where our adventure had started. They even gave us the same room!
A gale force wind was blowing out of Canada, and it took the two of us to manage our luggage cart. Late in the afternoon (after watching some of the Reagan State Funeral on TV) we rushed to a nearby Denny's for a club sandwich and chocolate shakes. As we ate, it got darker and darker outside. We just managed to get back to our hotel as a storm front marched in from Canada and rain began to fall.
We wrapped souvenirs and packed for our California return while we watched Reagan's remains ride the caisson up Constitution Avenue. Thunder storms rolled over that night as we tried to sleep, but they were gone Thursday morning as we took off for Chicago.
However, they left O'Hare's flight schedule in a mess; and we were late out of Chicago and even later out of San Francisco where morning fog had completely disrupted commuter service on United Airlines. By the time a taxi delivered us to our home in Pismo Beach, we were really jet-lagged--and would be for two days!
But we were home, we'd had a good time (for the most part) and our ocean-to-ocean circle was complete.