Erie Canal: if you build it, they will come

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If You Build It They Will Come

To understand how America came to be, you only need to join Parks & Trails NY’s 400-mile ride from Buffalo to Albany following the Erie Canalway — a multi-use trail repurposing the original tow path along the 353-mile canal, with a side trip to Seneca Falls to add in the story of Women’s Rights. It’s 400 miles and 400 years of history.

This was my second time doing the Cycle the Erie.

Once again, it was a revelation of how the synergy between infrastructure and innovation is what made America “great,” a world leader, a superpower.

I recommend the ride to Donald Trump, who doesn’t have a clue about what it takes “making America great again” — simply declaring Infrastructure Week and Made in America Week doesn’t get it done.

The first Erie Canal, derogatorily called “Clinton’s Ditch,” was a mere four-feet deep and 40-feet wide.

The first shovel was put in the ground in Rome, New York on July 4, 1817, 200 years ago.

The canal, stretching 363 miles, with 83 locks was the longest artificial waterway ever completed in North America, the most ambitious engineering project of its day and still an engineering marvel (which you only appreciate as you ride the trail).

The technique, technology and engineering had not been invented when they began construction — the inventions happened along the way. It was finished in 1825 at a cost of $7.7 million — equivalent of $125 billion today — and expanded and rebuilt three more times.

The effect of the Canal was both immediate and dramatic, and settlers poured west.

The explosion of trade prophesied by Gov. Clinton began, spurred by freight rates from Buffalo to New York of $10 per ton by Canal, compared with $100 per ton by road.

In 1829, there were 3,640 bushels of wheat transported down the Canal from Buffalo.

By 1837 this figure had increased to 500,000 bushels; four years later it reached one million. In nine years, Canal tolls more than recouped the entire cost of construction.

Within 15 years of the Canal’s opening, New York was the busiest port in America, moving tonnages greater than Boston, Baltimore and New Orleans combined.”

The Erie Canal was also called the “Mother of Cities” — Syracuse went from being a tiny outpost with a population of 250 in 1820 to 11,000 by1 830 and 171,717 in 1920.

There were similar population booms in Rochester and Buffalo.

But the bigger lesson of the Erie Canal, as we ride through these old canal towns, many of which are reinventing themselves with new industries, including business incubators and tourism, is how the Erie Canal fostered innovation and invention, spawning new industries.

The Erie Canal did not just spawn cities in its day, but continues today.

At Mile 23 on Day 7 of our 8-day, 400-mile ride, we come to the new, $16 million Bridge over the Mohawk, basically a walking/biking park over the Mohawk River (much like the Bridge over the Hudson), connecting South Amsterdam with Amsterdam on the other side.

Amsterdam used to be the capital of carpet manufacturing; those factories have long since closed.

But the new bridge has revitalized the area — there are business incubators moving into the old Victorian-era buildings, a new spirit in the city.

We meet Michelle Eggleston on the bridge, who with her mother are the welcoming committee for the Cycle the Erie riders, says there are now concerts that draw a thousand people; her daughter started a kayak rental business, there are new restaurants. People are moving in because of the quality of life living on the riverfront.  “It’s given the community a sense of place, pride. People are seeing Amsterdam as a great place to live; other businesses are seeing that, too.”

Indeed, all along the Erie Canalway — in Buffalo, Rochester, Pittsford, Fairport, Cohoes — we see beautiful new housing (in Cohoes, the old factories have been repurposed into condos).

Much in the same spirit as Gov. Dewitt Clinton who overcame such naysayers to build his Ditch that transformed New York into the Empire State and New York City into a commercial and financial world capital, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been extremely good for revitalizing the state’s infrastructure and industry.

We will soon have a new Tappan Zee Bridge, a new LaGuardia Airport; a third track on the Long Island Railroad’s southern lines and a new spur to Grand Central on the north shore lines, indeed, a $21 billion program to upgrade roads and bridges across the state.

He is also spending $200 million over the next three years to create the Empire State Trail Network — essentially 750 miles of interconnected multi-use trails that will connect the Erie Canalway to north-south trails that start at the very tip of Manhattan and eventually will let you bike or walk or skateboard up to Canada.

Cuomo has also shown how to repurpose and preserve historic structures, funneling $3 billion of investment in historic commercial properties since 2013.

And Cuomo also is investing in clean energy technology, in medical research, in business incubators that link up with state colleges — all of which give new lease on life in communities which are repurposing these wonderful historic structures to accommodate 21st century needs.

But just as Trump has deposed United States from leadership in Europe, in Asia/Pacific, in the Mideast — leadership that is based upon economic superiority which in turn was built largely on America’s ability to innovate — he is making sure that other countries take the lead in technology, in clean energy, in medical advances.

“We’ve never had a president who’s deliberately made decisions the effect of which is to tear down America’s standing in the world,” former Vice President Al Gore said on NBC’s Today show.

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