Take a Walk Along the Towpath in the Old Erie Canal State Historic Park

The significance of the Erie Canal to American history cannot be overstated. In addition to providing an economic boost by allowing transportation of goods at a fraction of the previous cost in less than half the previous time, the Erie Canal led to a transformation of the American economy as a whole. Because of the canal, New York City’s port enjoyed a strong advantage over all other U.S. port cities and helped shaped NYC into being one of America’s most important cities — some would say, “most important city.”

The Erie Canal also offers a plethora of daytrip destinations — offering numerous tourist attractions and daytrip opportunities all along its 363-mile length through upstate New York.

Maryland’s Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (known locally as the C&O Canal), which runs 184 miles along the Potomac River, sparked my interest in the Erie Canal. What this Marylander didn’t realize is that there’s the Erie Canal, the Old Erie Canal and segments of former canal referred to as “Clinton’s Ditch,” or simply, “the Ditch,” and numerous feeder canals making up the Erie Canal system.

So in addition to a boat ride on the canal, checking out some museums, one of our goals for a trip up to Oneida Lake was to explore the canal on foot. One such place to do that exploration is the Old Erie Canal State Park, a 36-mile stretch of the original Erie Canal, stretching from the town of DeWitt, east of Syracuse, to just outside Rome.

The Erie Canal stretches east–west through upstate New York, creating at the time of its building a navigable water route from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. Completed in 1825, it was the second-longest canal in the world and spurred the development and economy of many major cities of New York, including New York City, Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo and numerous smaller villages and towns as well as the United States as a whole.

 The canal also spurred a population surge in western New York and opened regions to settlement farther west. It was enlarged between 1834 and 1862. In 1918, the western part of the canal was enlarged to become part of the New York State Barge Canal. This re-route of the canal allowed the creation of the New York State Historic Park.

Today, the reconfiguration of the canal created during the First Enlargement (between 1834 – 1862) is commonly referred to as the “Old Erie Canal,” to distinguish it from the canal’s modern-day course. The remains of the 1825 canal abandoned during the Enlargement are officially referred to today as “Clinton’s Ditch” (which also was the derogative nickname for the entire Erie Canal project during its original construction).

We briefly walked along the canal at two sections: near the Chittanango Landing Canal Boat Museum and at the Pools Brook Picnic Area, where we also enjoyed a chilly picnic. The towpath is paved or groomed with a fine, firm chip gravel, making it navigable for strollers and wheelchairs, but also good for bicycles — we saw a number of them, even on a chilly autumn weekday morning. I think it would be really fun to ride the entire length!

What we learned along the stretch near the Canal Boat Museum was that the contributions the canal made to local industry. Although ruins now, we walked by a former ceramics factory, a cannery for the fruits and vegetables produced in the area and of course, the boat building industry that the Canal Boat Museum teaches about. Periodically along the path, historical markers talk about key aspects of the canal, from discussion local industry and landmarks to talking about packet boats carrying passengers or explaining what life was like working on a canal barge.

Getting there: Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum is located at 717 Lakeport Rd, Chittenango, NY; I couldn’t find a street address for the Poolsbrook Picnic Area, but both GoogleMaps and Waze were able to map it.
Hours: daylight
Website: Old Erie Canal State Historic Park