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Part 1: New York, New York The Antique Boat Museum at Clayton View Slideshow Part 3: The St Lawrence and Saguenay Rivers Part 4: Quebec and Montreal

2014: Autumn Colours in the American Northeast

From New York to Montreal, by canal and river

Part 2: By canal to the St Lawrence River

Speed limit sign

Boats on the Erie Canal travel faster than those on the British canals!

The Erie Canal was originally built to dimensions similar to many British canals, but has been enlarged twice since then. Many of the original locks now serve as by-washes for today's large locks, and the canal now makes good use of several lakes (hence the speed-limit sign above) and is fed by the Mohawk river which it follows closely. There are numerous guillotine-style stop-gates which serve to protect the canal when the river is in flood; these gates are only opened when a ship wises to pass. The new locks each have a much greater rise than their predecessors, speeding the traffic by reducing the number of lock transits; the locks at Waterford for example, claim to be the steepest flight in the world with 5 locks providing a 150ft rise which originally needed by 16 locks.

 

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The original locks at Waterford remain as a by-wash for their huge modern replacements
Enormous guillotines serve as stop-gates against the Mohawk River
The autumn colours were starting to appear as we started up the canal

After good weather so far, our walking tour of Troy had ended hurriedly when it had started raining heavily. It continued raining hard as we travelled the Erie Canal, and we were glad that we could just remain in the lounge and admire the scenery through the windows. It was also a good opportunity for the Captain to call a practice emergency-drill, which concluded smoothly with us all laughing at how we looked in the rather old-fashioned life-jackets that were provided for us. By now also we were becoming good friends with many of the 80 passengers; they were without doubt a great bunch of people with whom we would happily cruise again! By now we were getting used to being the only two Brits on board, having to  adopt the role as representatives of the previous Custodians of this upstart colony which we might have to consider reclaiming.

We stopped late that night, to be joined by a Dixieland Jazz trio who entertained us after dinner; evenings throughout the trip alternated between musical performances by local groups, and a series of absolutely fascinating lectures by local historian Hallie Bond, all of which we thoroughly enjoyed. We also enjoyed entering the ship's daily quizzes, especially as we won ourselves a bottle of wine on two occasions.

Most of the other passengers left us the next morning, taking a coach from the canal company's depot at Fonda to spend a day at the National Baseball Hall of Fame instead of having to spend the day passing through all the locks. We of course preferred to stay on board as the ship continued its climb along the canal; a climb which was delayed at Lock 14, which blew a fuse as we approached and had to wait for an engineer to fetch a replacement from back at the Fonda depot. As we were then behind schedule, the captain made arrangements for the returning coach party to meet us at a different lock from usual; a further delay was the result, after the coach driver got lost!

 

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A lovely old crane at the depot
One of the canal maintenance craft
Close-up of the boring bit
We hurried to make up lost time

The ship had about 3ft of clearance in the width of the locks but nearer 100ft in length. Some of the locks had a tremendous rise including the one at Little Falls which raised the boat by about 45ft. For strength the upper lock chamber extends across above the lower guillotine, and the gate has to seal only the lower part of the chamber.

 

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Lock 17 appears in view beyond the road bridge
It is extremely impressive as you approach
The guillotine drops behind us, sealing the lower part of the chamber
The lock chamber is about 50ft tall
Looking back over the bottom gate, the roadway is now well below us

The Erie Canal continues all the way to Buffalo, not far from the Niagara Falls, but we were to leave it after about one-third of its length and turn on to the Oswego Canal which would lead us down to Lake Ontario. On the way we saw a Bald Eagle (but I didn't have time to get a picture of it, as my camera had started to misbehave and kept re-setting itself) and also numerous herons which seemed to excite many of the other passengers but which to us were commonplace. As it was my birthday, everyone sang "Happy Birthday" over breakfast (and in the evening the cook had even made me a birthday cake).

The Oswego Canal had originally been constructed IN the river by the apparently simple technique of just building a wall parallel to the bank and about 50ft from it. This was quite a quick way to build a canal, and ensured that there was usually a good supply of water, but the wall was often washed away by the river which frequently flooded. The canal now instead uses the river itself for most of its length, but much of the original still remains in place to provide moorings for pleasure boats. Oh, and if you go to the Oswego, don't try looking for Lock 4, during the canal's construction a slight change to the designs of locks 3 and 5 meant that they didn't need lock 4 at all, but they didn't bother to re-number the remaining locks.

As a fairly experienced navigator I personally found the buoyage system on the Oswego rather confusing. In America it is customary to leave red markers on your right-hand (starboard) side when travelling upstream on a river, which is of course the opposite system to that used in Europe; the mnemonic 'Red Right Return' helps Americans to remember this (returning from the sea you are, of course, travelling upstream). On the Oswego I noticed that although we were heading downstream we were still leaving the red markers on our right-hand side, so I asked the Captain if he could explain this. He said that although we were heading downstream, the buoys were consistent with our travelling inbound from the USA towards the Great Lakes. I said I preferred my own explanation that the Oswego was still under our British jurisdiction!

 

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A hire-boat on the Oswego Canal is not unlike many British canal boats
A very elegant weir on the Oswego
You'd surely obey this sign which is on the side of a small nuclear power station!
The lighthouse that marks the mouth of the Oswego for ships on Lake Ontario ...
... is depicted on a nearby mural with an appropriate poem.

It was here that I learned a new word, 'Hoodledasher', which refers to a train of empty canal boats lashed to the loaded ones so that a single team of mules could pull them all. It seemed only fair to offer the Captain the word 'Gongoozler' from our vocabulary in return.

Passing the town of Phoenix (which ironically burned down in 1916 was then rebuilt), we reached the port of Oswego on the shores of Lake Ontario. We were to spend the afternoon in Oswego while the crew raised the wheelhouse back to its normal position on the top deck, so we had plenty of time to explore this town. This was lucky because at lunchtime a tooth crown had fallen off and I needed to find a dentist who could re-attach it. The cruise director arranged for a helpful driver to take me to a local practice, where luckily they could see me straight away and after half an hour (and a surprisingly small bill) I was able to re-join the rest of the passengers in town.

Oswego was a good place to catch up on some shopping, including buying some Hershey bars for our daughter and a number of hand-made chocolate novelties for the rest of our family. Everyone we met seemed extremely friendly, especially when they heard our English accents, and all the candy-shop owners, chocolatiers, cake-makers, bakers and similar traders were particularly anxious that we shouldn't pass by without sampling their wares!

 

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Now that we had reached the end of the canal, it was time to put the wheelhouse up again.
At Clayton on the St Lawrence - but what's at the end of the jetty?
Ah yes, it's a marker light with a bird's nest on it
This sign explains it all

Before we were awake the next morning, the ship set off across Lake Ontario. Next morning the Captain apologised to us for the rough crossing, but the waves had been only about 4ft and scarcely moved the ship at all. In fact we had welcomed the slight motion which helped us to sleep really well. At breakfast time we were overtaken by a number of really spectacular thunderstorms, but by the time we entered the St Lawrence River it was calm and sunny again.

We moored at Clayton (still in New York State) and spent the morning being shown around the Antique Boat Museum; we saw everything from birch-bark canoes (and I learned that you have turn the bark inside-out so it is smooth on the outside with all the knobbly bits on the inside) via vintage engines to record-breaking speedboats. I've put the full collection of my pictures from the museum on my Flickr account here which you can view as individual pictures or - by clicking on the icon - as an automatic slideshow.

Emerging from the Boat Museum with over an hour to spare before the ship was due to sail, we set off to look at the town but we didn't get very far. One of the first houses we passed had a sign outside that said "Brewery" so we just had to investigate it! Although it was only mid-morning, we were surprised to find that it was full of people so we asked the landlord. It turned out that they had only opened recently and were filming a commercial to extol the virtues of their home-baked pizzas; and to make us Brits welcome he said that our first beer would be on the house. We chose an excellent IPA to start with, and perused the extensive menu for something different to follow it with. We certainly found it too: they were selling a "Chocolate milk-shake porter" which I just had to try. It was so amazingly good that I just had to have another, and buy a "growler" (a 4-pint glass flagon) to take away with me as well as buying the T-shirt. Meanwhile we enjoyed watching the filming, especially when after several takes the demonstration pizza had become so hot that it burst into flames in front of the camera, and chatted to all the staff and other customers so enthusiastically that we suddenly realised that we would have to sprint back to the jetty to catch the ship before it departed without us!

 

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The Wood Boat Brewery
The brewery is behind a window at the back of the bar
Filming a commercial
Their magnificent Chocolate Milk-shake Porter
Two thirsty Brits

That evening we decided to share the discovery of the amazing Porter with some of the other passengers. Everybody who tried it had the same reaction; a look of quizzical puzzlement ad they prepared to take a careful sip, followed by a look of amazement at how good it tasted, followed by a look of delight and a request to have a little bit more poured into their glass. Other passengers contributed unusual things that they had managed to buy during the previous few days, including a delicious horseradish cheese, and once again we had our own little party in the lounge that evening!

Sadly we finished our "growler" of Porter and, realising that it was unlikely to survive our journey home, we gave it away to one of the crew-members who collected such things instead.

We were in the Thousand Islands area of the upper St Lawrence now, which was once definitely the summer playground of rich and famous families from New York such as the Astor and the Rockefellers. There are apparently more nearly 2000 islands here, according to the definition of an island as having two or more trees growing on it (if there is only one tree, or none, it is not an island just a rock), and most of the larger islands have grand houses or even castles on them. We passed the magnificent Heart island with the superb Boldt Castle on it, which was to have been the largest private residence in the USA but was left unfinished when the wife of the owner (George Boldt, manager of the New York Waldorf-Astoria Hotel) died unexpectedly. The workmen were transferred to work on Singer Castle, the summertime home of Frederick Bourne the Singer sewing-machine magnate, which was also to be our next port of call) after an overnight stop at the small town of Alexandra Bay where I was delighted to see a large otter playing on the bank-side near to where we were moored.

 

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Just a few small examples of the thousand islands
By local standards this is a very modest little house
The house on this island retains its privacy by hiding amongst the trees
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The "Play-House" at Boldt Castle would surely have kept the kids happy for hours
This is the power house for the island's generators
Boldt Castle itself is largely hidden by the trees; it is being finally being renovated for use as a hotel

Singer Castle is an amazing house, now entirely open to the public as a tourist attraction. There are some wonderful original furnishings and of course a very fine collection of Singer sewing machines, as well as a rather eclectic mix of recent additions including (as it was October) a lot of rather tacky Ghost-themed Halloween decorations.

 

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Singer Castle is an impressive sight from the water ...
... but has a rather forbidding approach from the land.
One of the many Singer sewing machines placed haphazardly around the house

Unsurprisingly perhaps for the head of a sewing machine empire, the Frederick Bourne was obsessed with the latest household gadgets, and we were shown such wonders as the "Electric Light Bath Cabinet" which to me looked extremely dangerous, and a desktop lamp that incorporated a set of electrically-driven rotating blades in the lampshade to slice up any flying insects that may be attracted to the light.

I was also intrigued by the way that the roof-top weather vane was linked to a pointer in the lounge ceiling, so that Frederick Bourne could see the wind direction without having to go outside. I guess this is important if you live on a small island - particularly if (as happened during the "Prohibition" years) your island is just to the US side of the mid-river national boundary but you also own a small island half a mile away on the Canadian side of the boundary, so that your drinks can be left on the Canadian island and then secretly ferried across to your house by one of your staff in a small boat.

 

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Decorations included not just sewing machines but randomly placed Halloween items such as this broom
This item of bathroom-based health equipment looked quite frightening ...
... although its advertisement claims health benefits in a variety of areas including Nervous Disorders
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This time a sewing machine is accompanied by a fake suit of armour
On top of the castle is a weather vane ...
... which is directly linked to this pointer in the ceiling below

Next we joined the big ships going down the St Lawrence as far as the Saguenay river where we spent an afternoon whale-watching.

 

Growler

 

 

Part 1: New York, New York The Antique Boat Museum at Clayton View Slideshow Part 3: The St Lawrence and Saguenay Rivers Part 4: Quebec and Montreal
Go to Allan's Page Our Home Page Holidays Home Page British Canals Page Go to Deb's Page

 

 

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