30 years ago, my second grade class was huddled in the school’s music room. We sat in a many rowed semi-circle. I clutched a flimsy and well-thumbed illustrated song book where two-tone line drawings of happy kids danced about. The dancing kids were just like us except that their clothes had been out of fashion for at least a generation. My best friend since first grade, Perry Nelson, sat beside me and squinted at the open page. In front of me and to the right sat Amy Knoedel. Amy was far and away the cutest girl in class. (Many years later she would ascend the Prom Queen’s throne. I knew her when.) The entire class sang with atonal gusto, a battered upright piano jangling out the tune. I don’t recall the song’s title nor do I remember any of the stanzas. But I have never forgotten the chorus, and it goes exactly like this:
Low bridge, everybody down,
Low bridge, ‘cause we're coming to a town!
You can always tell your neighbor,
And you’ll always know your pal,
If you've ever navigated on the Erie Canal
Just the other week in Lockport , NY , Diane and I boarded a boat called Lockport V. While Captain Mike took the helm, we passengers went topside to soak in the sun and take in the view of the Erie Canal.
Captain Mike’s voice boomed over the P.A. and his patter was as entertaining as it was practiced and informative. I balanced my notebook on the rail, tried to follow along, and snapped a few pictures.
The Erie Canal an actual living legacy of a bygone era. Proposed in 1808 and completed in 1825, the Erie Canal links the waters of Lake Erie in the west to the Hudson River in the east.
An engineering marvel when it was built (using only muscle power and surplus powder left over from The War of 1812), the Erie Canal runs 363 miles, dropping one foot per mile, from Buffalo, NY to Albany, NY. It was built to open the country west of the Appalachian Mountains to settlers, and to offer a cheap and safe way to carry produce to a market. More people traveled to the west on the Erie Canal than later went through Ellis Island .
Originally, 83 locks were used to raise and lower the boats. Lockport , NY is the location of the famous “Flight of Five” double locks that allow Buffalo-bound boats to travel up one set of locks while Albany-bound boats travel down the other.
In order to keep pace with the growing demands of traffic, the Erie Canal was enlarged between 1836 and 1862; and again in the early 1900s. The "Enlarged Erie" is 70 feet wide and 7 feet deep, and can handle boats carrying 240 tons.
After all, the world’s greatest artists, leaders, and thinkers once called this region home. While these people are long gone, the artifacts that testify to their greatness are everywhere.
Shuffle down the road in
A bold statement, I know. Likewise, some vestiges of our past are salvaged and even worshiped to the extent that even the smallest detail is preserved, while others are ignored even as they fall into decrepitude. These choices seem to be arbitrary to the point of decadent (speaking of, try the “Suicidal Wing Sauce” at the Anchor Bar). Which is to say, the same city that plays host to the great Erie Canal, one of the greatest works by one of
So we’re stuck with these rusting temples to a defunct industry, museum-like relics that once stood proudly as a family’s residence, and entire cities that are no longer gateways through which American prosperity flourishes. I’m not overstating this. This leaves us with an interesting set of choices. We can choose to embrace our rust bucket cities and do our best to make them livable (I’m not saying that these places are going to come back to their former glory, but we can make them ready for future generations to reconfigure). Or we can turn our backs and enter into a utopia of plausible denial.
These notions of rhetorical enlightenment, like an oxbow river, bring me back to Captain Mike’s voice booming over the P.A. system of the Lockport V. His patter finished, Captain Mike serenaded us with grainy recordings of folk songs from a bygone era. As you might imagine, one tune in particular had an all-too familiar ring. I put aside my notebook as we approached a creaking drawbridge that spanned the
And it occurred to me (there in the cool shade under that low bridge, music playing, everybody down), that perhaps when the great roaring engines of American enterprise fall quiet and are replaced again with the neighborly force of muscle power, then maybe, just maybe, working artifacts like the Erie Canal will again breathe with life and the once-great cities along its route will regain their place at the hub of the American experience. The