Along the Erie Canal

Directed by Bruce “Pacho” Lane
(37 minutes)


AlonerieFrom Albany to Buffalo, and from 1825 into the 21st Century, the Erie Canal has made American history. Tom Grasso, President of the NY State Canal Society, takes us on a tour of the Canal, past and present, in this videotape.

Before the railroads spanned the continent, waterways were the best way to travel. At Fort Edward on the upper Hudson, and at Whitehall, the southernmost end of Lake Champlain, Tom explains the crucial role of waterways in developing the American continent. A quick map lesson graphically clarifies the importance of the Mohawk river valley, the only water route through the coastal mountains between Canada and Alabama. Overlooking the “Noses” of the Mohawk, we can see for ourselves why the Erie Canal became the Gateway to the West, and so made New York the Empire State.

With Tom, we visit the Ft. Hunter guard lock on the Original Erie, then the Cohoes, Macedon, and Yankee Hill locks and the Schoharie Creek aqueduct on the Enlarged Erie. As Ted Curtis pilots the Sam Patch tour barge, Pete Seeger sings “15 Miles on the Erie Canal.” Musician George Ward acompanies Peter Spier’s delightful drawings of life on the Enlarged Erie, and we see the only mule-drawn barge on the system, Miss Apple Grove.

Starting with the magnificent Lock 17 at Little Falls, Tom visits tug boats and tour boats along the Barge Canal – the third enlargement of the Canal, completed in 1918. With Peter Wiles on his 1920’s yacht Trident, and with Dan Wiles on the Emita II tour boat, Tom tours the Great Embankment and Lockport. As we explore the beauty and history of this great artifical river, we share a vision of its rebirth as a timeless attraction for visitors from around the world.

An Introduction


Order the DVD

The “Along the Erie Canal” DVD includes bonus feature “Carousel Menagerie,”
playable on all Region 1 (US & Canada) & Multiregion DVD players.

ISBN #: 978-1-891813-54-2
UPC: 736899375539


How “Along the Erie Canal” Came To Be Made

In fall, 1991 I moved to Rochester, NY for an academic job at the Rochester Institute of Technology. New York was Manhattan, not Finger Lakes and apple orchards, so Western New York came as a complete surprise to me. But what surprised me most was the extraordinary history of the region in the 19th Century. In fact, as i was driving to Rochester i stumbled on the Hill Cumorah – the site of the mysterious golden plates Joseph Smith “translated” as the Book of Mormon. That set me to thinking…

Settled mostly by New Englanders – the ones who hadn’t made it back home – Western New York is heir to the Puritan vision of a perfect commonwealth, the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. In the early 1800’s, the region was swept like a prairie fire by the most powerful religious revival ever to hit America, leaving “the burnt-over district” in its wake. Among the newly conquered Iroquois, the prophet Handsome Lake started a prairie fire of his own to lead the Seneca to a renewed version of the traditional Longhouse religion. Young Joseph Smith was inspired by this same evangelical fervor to invest his “Americanized” Christianity with an extraordinary “Native American” history. Just a few miles east, the Oneida Community created their version of the Kingdom of God on earth – including serial marriage, common property, and communal child rearing. Two Shaker communities fluorished in the region, and the “Publick Universal Friend” created a visionary “Quakerism” in Penn Yan. The Spiritualist community of Lilydale traces its roots back to the Fox sisters, whose famous “Rochester rappings” mark the birth of “New Age” religion in the US. Chatauqua, just a few miles south of Lilydale, originally a Methodist summer camp for lay education, is now a household word for lectures, music, and art.

This religious radicalism spilled over into political activism. Frederick Douglass wrote and distributed his newspaper, The North Star, in Rochester because of the financial support of the abolitionists in the region. On its way to Canada, the Underground Railroad stopped in Seneca Falls, where the first Women’s Rights Convention was held. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were the founding mothers of suffragism and feminism. Truly, Western New York was “the Bay Area of the 19th Century”.

It was the Erie Canal that transported these radical ideas to Western New York. In the early 19th century, the American East Coast was cut off from the interior of the continent by broad mountain ranges – the Adirondacks, Alleghenies, and Appalachians. Between Canada and central Georgia, there is only one natural corridor through these mountains: the Mohawk River Valley, which runs along the south side of the Adirondacks into the Hudson near Albany.

Thus the completion of the Original Erie Canal – “Clinton’s Ditch” – in 1825 opened up an all-water route from the port of New York through Western New York and on into the Midwest. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Europe, New England, and the Mid-Atlantic states followed the New Englanders along the Canal to the West. Some of them stayed: overnight, factories and mills sprang up along the Canal. Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo grew from backwaters to boom towns in a few short years. The American Industrial Revolution really caught fire in the “burnt-over district”, along the route of the Canal.

It was this mixture of Puritan idealism, industrial development, and immigration which has made New Yorkers so tolerant of, and open to, new ideas, and fostered a vision of America which we are still struggling to achieve: a society with equal opportunity for all, built on a shared sense of stewardship and social responsibility towards the community, and modelled on the early Roman Republic. The Erie Canal flows past with cities with classical names: Rome, Utica, Syracuse. It still stands today to DeWitt Clinton’s vision of the republic as commonwealth.

By the 1840’s you could travel by boat and canal barge from New York City to Buffalo, then on to Cleveland, Cinncinati, Chicago, St. Louis, and down the Mississippi to New Orleans. The industry and immigration which flowed along this extensive waterways system gave the North huge advantages in population, industry and, of course, transportation – advantages that were decisive in the War between the States. But while canals continued to be important transportation arteries well into the 20th Century, by the 1860’s the great days of the Canal were already past. By the completion of the Barge Canal (the third version of the Erie Canal) in 1918, canal traffic was in decline.

Today, there is a canal revival – not for commercial purposes, but as a historical and recreational treasure. Plans are underway to create a “traveller-friendly” Canal, with all kinds of facilities, parks, and trails along the way. Fortunately, the 1918 Barge Canal is in superb shape, as you can see from the film. All it needs is a few good canal-side pubs and lots of private canal barges to bring it to life as British canals have been!

While my original idea was to use the Canal as a way to examine the religious and political radicalism of early 19th century New York, i soon realized that the story of the Canal was more than enougt for one film. Having Tom Grasso as a collaborator certainly made that choice worthwhile. Tom’s knowledge and enthusiasm about the Canal is what makes “Along the Erie Canal” special.

The Fox sisters and the angel Moroni will just have to wait for another film!

“Along the Erie Canal” was funded by a grant from the City of Rochester.