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Historical Context: The Recreationway Plan

F. Daniel Larkin, SUNY Oneonta

In June 1995, the Smithsonian Institution conducted a tour of the Erie Canal from Syracuse to Buffalo. It was a fascinating and informative experience. As the scenery passed at a leisurely eight miles per hour, it was easy to observe the detail and diversity of the canal and its environs. Wildlife in the canal and along the water's edge seemed undisturbed by the tour boat as it steadily made its way west. The landscape frequently changed to reflect the variety of forests and fields so picturesque in upstate New York Without the noisy rush of car traffic, it was easy to imagine what travel was like when canals were a principal mode of transportation. 

The opportunity to glide along the waterway by tour boat is only one of the many benefits New York canals have to offer as a tourism and recreation resource. Others became apparent as the tour boat continued its westward journey. Passengers encountered fishermen frequently, angling from boats and from the canal banks. The Erie literally abounded with fish — passengers could see them jumping from the water. Cabin cruisers, sailboats, and charter boats passed. The charter boats, some resembling the old packet boats, varied in length from 30 to 50 feet and could accommodate up to 12 people. 

As the tour boat neared larger communities along the Erie Canal, it passed dinner boats out for an evening. Passengers on these craft could relax over a meal while taking in canal sights during two- or three-hour dinner cruises. 

A few miles east of Rochester, the tour boat approached Fairport. There a canal-side commercial area served tourists both on and off the waterway. There were numerous shops and restaurants, as well as canoe and rowboat rentals offering on-the-water recreation. Such areas are reminiscent of the “canal towns'' and 19th-century commercial areas that sprang up to serve the canallers. 

Examples of the state's historical past are ever-present along New York's artificial  waterways, especially the Erie Canal. In addition to the special canal sites themselves — such as the series of old locks at Lockport that parallel the modern locks, or the remains of the Schoharie Aqueduct at Fort Hunter — there are many places of historical importance that can be seen from the boats or accessed easily from the canals. The Mohawk Valley section of the Erie Canal, for example, is rich in Colonial and Revolutionary War history. Since the Mohawk River played a crucial transportation role in the state's early period, some of the relatively rare buildings that predate the struggle for independence in that region are on or near the canal banks. The areas near the Erie Canal west of Rochester are significant to the history of the post-1790 period of New York, as is the eastern region between Albany and Rome. 

New York's canals have considerable tourism potential. To better emphasize this asset and to develop the canals more fully as recreational facilities, a New York State Canal Recreationway Plan was prepared in 1995. The plan set forth three fundamental goals: to preserve the best of the past, to enhance recreational activities, and to foster appropriate and sustainable economic development. To create the recreationway, planners recommended a four-part program: First, develop a network of canal landings to provide activities; second, develop enhanced opportunities for recreational boating; third, complete the end-to-end Canalway Trail and associated recreational improvements; fourth, designate a scenic byway on roads along the canals and provide other access improvements. 

The plan calls for building canal landings to provide tourists and local residents better access to services and activities. Several harbors are to be constructed and existing ones improved. The principal harbors are planned for Whitehall, Waterford, Little Falls, Syracuse, Oswego, Seneca Falls, Rochester, and the Tonawandas. Also, 96 port and lock locations are to provide sites for visitor services between the principal canal harbors. 

It will take time and considerable state and private-sector financial investment to carry out the Recreationway Plan. The canals are an existing resource, however, with an almost unlimited potential for tourism and recreational use.