Sunday, August 9, 2009

An engineer's holiday

A month or so ago Betsy took us to a book fair in Philadelphia. Although it wasn't the bonanza of bargain books we were hoping for, we did come away with Backroads of New York, a guide to some of the lesser known attractions of New York State.

So last week, on our way north to spend a few days at Lake Champlain, Dave consulted the book and we ended up winding our way around Waterford, just north of Albany. There where the Mohawk River meets the Hudson is the entrance to the Erie Canal. An engineering marvel of its day, the first five locks lift boats a staggering 169 feet.

We continued our trip by following the Lakes to Locks Passage along the Champlain Canal. That waterway uses the Hudson River, with locks to bypass non-navigable rapids.

The New York State Canal System is touted as the most important inland trade route ever created, opening up the Great Lakes by linking them with the Hudson and St. Lawrence Rivers, and pushing the frontier westward past the Appalachian Mountains. Through the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries, mega-tons of raw materials and completed goods traveled through the canals.

Times change, technologies advance, and the premier transportation system of yesteryear has become obsolete. Today the canals are mainly used for pleasure boating, though in the past few years trade barges are again traveling the waters, a "green" mode of transport that has the added advantage of being substantially more economical than trucking.

The vision of the canals, once so important, left me with a bittersweet taste, a yearning for simpler times. Then the temperature rose and I gave thanks for modern miracles as I turned on the air conditioning.

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