Afloat on the Erie Canal: Sonar Gear, Ferris Wheel Parts and Beer Tanks
WATERFORD, N.Y. — It has been 200 years since a corps of men and mules started to dig what was known as “Clinton’s ditch” across hundreds of miles of farmland, forests and other decidedly dry terrain in upstate New York, creating the Erie Canal and, with it, a range of prosperous towns from Albany to Buffalo.
The canal’s heyday has long passed, and in recent decades it has been relegated as a recreational byway, drawing pleasure boats, fishing lines and the occasional canal fan.
Lately, however, there has been a curious sight along the Erie Canal and some of its offshoots: commercial shipping — a small rebound pegged to the canal’s use as a niche waterway for cargo whose size or weight make it impossible, impractical or too expensive to haul any other way. All told, the state anticipates more than 200,000 tons of shipping on the canal system in 2017, a milestone not reached since 1993, according to state officials. Still, that is a far cry from the millions of tons of cargo the canal regularly trafficked during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Unlike the frontier farm goods that once headed east to market, these new shipments often have a distinctly modern feel. They have included electrical transformers and turbines, Navy sonar equipment, and huge pedestals to support the New York Wheel, a towering Ferris wheel being built on Staten Island.
And giant beer cans.
Over the past 10 days, 12 enormous beer tanks have been slowly floating on the canal to Rochester, where the Genesee Beer Company plans to use them to brew a whopping eight million bottles of beer at a time. They are expected to arrive early this week.
Like many of the other items seen lately along the canal, the tanks are simply too big for the roads or rails, the company says. So, for the past week, the tanks have been bobbing their way about 225 miles on four barges: a virtual beer flotilla, and an opportunity for canal — and beer — aficionados to see Clinton’s ditch in action.
“This is history,” said Thomas Schlegel, a self-described fan of “Genny,” as the beer brand is known, who came to Waterford to watch the first barge head into the canal. “They should utilize the canal more often.”
That, it seems, is exactly the plan under the New York Power Authority, which operates the state’s canals — all 524 money-losing miles of them.
Gil C. Quiniones, the chief executive of the authority, said the Erie Canal was once critical to economic activity upstate, and could be again, noting its uses in manufacturing, agriculture and tourism. He likened the canal system to the High Line in Manhattan, the West Side freight train track that was converted into a park and now is regularly mobbed.
“There may not be a High Line idea for the whole 524 miles,” Mr. Quiniones said, “but maybe there are sections where we could have a big idea.”
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has repeatedly cited the upstate economy as a priority, including the state’s alcohol industry. The Genesee beer tanks are part of a $50 million project — backed by nearly $10 million in state subsidies — to create an “eco-brewery district” in Rochester, which the governor’s office describes as “a sustainable destination for brewing, tasting and learning about beer.”
But the shipment has not come without criticism, including objections to the use of state money and the use of a Chinese manufacturer in a state where Mr. Cuomo has promoted the concept “Buy American.”
Protesters from Feldmeier Equipment, which has a plant in Little Falls on the canal, chanted at the passing barges last week, upset that their company had not built the giant tanks. Those concerns were amplified in a letter from several lawmakers, chastising the use of a Chinese manufacturer rather than Feldmeier, which makes similar tanks.
“The last place New York State should be taking its business is China,” said Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi, a Democrat from Utica. “Decisions like this one make taxpayers scratch their heads and business owners shriek.”
But Jason Conwall, a spokesman for Empire State Development, rejected the notion that its investment in the brewing center in Rochester somehow amounted to supporting the offshoring of jobs.
“Governor Cuomo and Empire State Development support New York State businesses, period,” Mr. Conwall said, noting that the state had not spent any money on Chinese equipment.
Such sniping, however, seemed a long way from the lazy pleasures that some found in watching the tanks float along. Paul Coffey brought his three grandchildren to see the barge enter Lock 2 at Waterford, just north of Albany, where a series of locks lift — or lower — boats into downstream stretches of the Mohawk River.
Mr. Coffey, a New York history buff who can recall colonial trivia with the best of them, said he was skeptical of any plan to try to return the Erie Canal to its golden past.
“I think it’s wasted money,” he said, adding that he thought “the dams and locks should just be opened and let the waterways go back to their natural level.”
That said, he still admired the moxie of Gov. DeWitt Clinton — who was mocked in the early 19th century for pushing for the canal, but was later celebrated — and the manpower it had taken to make the ditch a reality.
“To sit and think men dug, by hand, a ditch and leveled it, 365 miles, less than 50 years after our revolution,” Mr. Coffey said. “To me it’s just awesome.”