By Wally Elton, Parks & Trails New York
Bringing new life to communities along a 200-year-old industrial corridor.
The first colorfully-attired bicyclists wheel into downtown Albany, NY, by late morning on a breezy July day, the vanguard of some 500 riders who are part of the annual Cycling the Erie Canal bike tour. In a way, like many who followed this route in an earlier century, they are pioneers, representing a new wave of travelers who have “navigated” the famous canal corridor for 360 miles from Buffalo along the Erie Canalway Trail. In doing so, they have experienced firsthand both the allure of a new vision for a historic transportation corridor and the challenges of bringing this vision to reality.
Almost 200 years ago the opening of the Erie Canal fulfilled a vision of a waterway connecting America’s seaboard with the growing interior of the young country, bringing economic vitality to many communities along its route and making New York City our major port. Adjacent to this early canal, of course, was the towpath— a trail, really— trod by mules, and the “hoggies” who drove them, pulling the packet boats and freighters at an astounding four miles per hour!
Though initially derided as “Clinton’s Ditch” (after its best-known proponent, NY Governor DeWitt Clinton), the canal was an immediate economic success, cutting the cost of shipping grain from western NY to Albany by 90%, making Rochester the fastest growing town in the country, and giving rise to numerous new businesses and towns. By 1882, it had returned a profit, above construction, maintenance and operating costs, of $42 million.
Yet, even then, newer visions were emerging that would soon undermine the canal’s vitality. In 1831, just 6 years after completion of the canal, New York’s first railroad line (some say the first steam-powered railroad in the U.S.), the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad (later part of the New York Central system) paralleled the canal between Albany and Schenectady. With faster and more comfortable railroads and later modern highways, first passenger and then freight traffic on the canal began to decline.
As steam-powered vessels replaced mules, the towpath became obsolete. In many places it was buried by commercial development or built over to make railroads or roads. In addition, the canal itself was relocated over nearly half its length during subsequent enlargements, resulting in the abandonment of miles of the original canal and towpath. Elsewhere, an upgraded canal replaced the no-longer-needed towpath.
By the mid-20th century, ownership of much canalside property and abandoned sections of the early canal had fragmented, much of it ceded to or purchased by local municipalities— towns, cities and counties. Tonnage shipped on the canal peaked in 1880 at over 4.5 million tons and more than 30,000 shipments. Although modest freight traffic continued into the 1950’s, completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959 essentially ended the canal’s usefulness for commercial traffic. In recent years nearly all canal use has been recreational; in 2007, just 15 freight shipments occurred.
In the 1960’s, with commercial traffic all but gone, communities along the canal began seeking new ways to benefit from it. Where the towpath still existed or could be restored, some built trails as a recreational resource for residents. Interest in canal history also was growing, and in 1966 New York State (NYS) acquired 36 miles of abandoned original canal between Syracuse and Rome as a linear state park. Development of a trail on the old towpath began soon thereafter. To the east, ironically, the state purchased the abandoned New York Central railroad bed, including the segment that was the first canal competitor back in 1831 and, in collaboration with several municipalities, in the 1970’s began converting it, along with a remnant of the old canal towpath, into a 35-mile multi-use trail.
No doubt the idea of a cross-state trail along the entire canal corridor arose during these localized efforts. The first formal public presentation of the Canalway Trail concept, however, came in 1995 when the NYS Canal Corporation, which operates and maintains the canal system, issued the NYS Canal Recreationway Plan. Recognizing that the canal no longer served a major commercial purpose, this plan called for new investment to reposition the canal corridor as “a linear park ... for boating and other recreational use... to enhance the economic development potential of the canal regions.” Among its recommendations was the creation of an end-to-end trail “providing significant recreational opportunities, ... enhanced access, and linkages to other trails.”
Today, 15 years after the release of that plan and nearly 40 years since initial trail construction, the Erie Canalway Trail is about 75% complete, with 270 miles of off-road pathway in place.
In getting to this point, trail advocates have faced several challenges:
Length. The shear distance spanned by the trail (if it were complete now, it would be the nation’s longest continuous multi-use path) has posed challenges in finding the financial and human resources needed for construction and maintenance.
Multiple ownership/management jurisdictions/interests. About 70% of the Canalway Trail corridor is owned by two state agencies, the Canal Corporation (40%), and the Office of State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP) (30%). The remaining 30% is divided among more than a dozen counties, cities and towns. Furthermore, OPRHP has delegated management of about half of its portion to municipalities through which it passes. Finally, the trail traverses more than 200 communities, all of which— regardless of ownership— have an interest in the design, location and management of the trail. This has resulted in inconsistencies in signage, surface and permitted uses.
On-road connections. Currently, about one quarter of the trail is on-road, and parts of it may remain so indefinitely. In these locations, often no entity has addressed continuity, safety, or signage specific to Canalway Trail users.
Fragmented local advocacy and promotion. Because of the trail’s length and the multiple jurisdictions involved, local advocates have not always delivered consistent and coordinated messages on the importance of completing the trail or recognized and promoted its potential as a statewide tourism resource.
In addressing these challenges, key stakeholders have collaborated on ways to bring more consistency to trail management, raise the profile of the trail, and create a more unified voice on behalf of trail completion.
In 1997, following release of the Canal Recreationway Plan, the Canal Corporation and the not-for-profit organization Parks & Trails New York formed a committee to assess options for guiding the continued development of the trail. From this committee emerged the structure for an organization— the Canalway Trails Association New York (CTANY)— able to apply an overarching consistency to trail development and management while simultaneously retaining a grassroots, community-based orientation to address issues at the local level when needed.
Formed in 2001, CTANY has a board of directors responsible for guiding implementation of statewide vision and standards. The directors are elected by Regional Canalway Trail Groups, typically representing counties, thus ensuring close links with local advocates and groups. In addition, the board can elect up to three at-large members with particular expertise. Staff support is provided by Parks & Trails New York and the Canal Corporation.
CTANY initiatives have included:
Adopt-a-Trail program. Organizing volunteers is essential to consistent maintenance along a trail of this length. Through the Adopt-a-Trail program, local businesses, civic groups, and even families sign up to clean and monitor specific trail segments. Regional Canalway Trail Groups oversee implementation of this program in their areas. Adopt-a-Trail groups are acknowledged by signs on the trail and year-end letters of appreciation from the CTANY president and the directors of Parks & Trail New York and the Canal Corporation. Major maintenance needs are reported to the Canal Corporation or the appropriate managing entity. For simplicity, initial efforts have focused on the 40% of the trail owned by the Canal Corporation.
Canalway Trail Ambassadors. In 2008, CTANY and Parks & Trails New York collaborated with one Regional Canalway Trail Group, the Friends of the Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike Trail, to test the feasibility of using volunteers to provide trail patrol on part of the Canalway Trail. In addition to cleanup and monitoring activities, these “Ambassadors,” because they were on the trail frequently, also offered directions, assisted with mechanical problems, and raised awareness among local users of the larger trail vision. The project will be expanded this year.
User counts. Since 2005 CTANY volunteers have conducted user counts at points along the trail. Using an extrapolation protocol developed at Indiana University, the most recent counts indicate up to 200,000 annual visits to the trail in some locations.
Many Erie Canalway Trail enthusiasts believe that it has the potential to become a world-class bicycle tourism destination given its link to well-known history and its length. In addition, unlike many other long-distance trails, this one brings people into the hearts of numerous communities, each to some degree a canal town, offering almost limitless opportunities for trailside exploration, from art galleries and historic sites to farmers markets and a multitude of shops.
Yet the existence of the trail until recently has not been widely known. Even in trail towns, residents can be unaware that “their” canalside trail extends for hundreds of miles. In 2000, broader recognition of the trail corridor received a boost when Congress formed the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, a public-private partnership among the National Park Service, canal municipalities and not-for-profit organizations.
Recognizing the interrelationships among increased trail use, local awareness, and political support for trail completion, Parks & Trails New York, CTANY and the Canal Corporation have launched several efforts to raise the trail’s profile across the state (and beyond):
Cycling the Erie Canal bike tour. Ten years ago, Parks & Trails New York started an annual, 8-day, end-to-end bicycle tour from Buffalo to Albany to focus attention on the trail and its potential. This ride, which now fills to capacity and draws riders nationally and internationally, receives widespread advance publicity and also generates local coverage as it progresses along the trail. Riders, who themselves have helped boost trail visibility through stories in hometown media, have time to explore communities and attractions, and Parks & Trails New York engages local officials and community groups in providing food and entertainment at overnight stops. The tour is sponsored by the Canal Corporation, the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor and several businesses.
Guide book and website. Parks & Trails New York has produced an end-to-end guidebook, also called Cycling the Erie Canal, that includes detailed maps and lists of accommodations, bike shops and festivals and other special events along the route. Purchasers of the guide reside in every state and many other countries. Most recently, Parks & Trails New York has unveiled an interactive website (www.ptny.org/bikecanal) that allows users to tailor a tour to their interests. Earlier this year American Trails named this website the “Best Travel and Tourism Site for Trails."
Bicyclists bring business workshops. Parks & Trails New York and the Canal Corporation have collaborated to develop and deliver workshops designed to help businesses and community leaders understand how to attract trail users and become “bicycle friendly.”
Coordinated local/statewide events. The Canal Corporation and Parks & Trails New York developed two annual promotions consisting of locally-organized events that are coordinated and promoted statewide. The Canal Clean Sweep, held in conjunction with Earth Day, is a series of “spring cleaning” events to prepare the canal corridor for the new season, while the Canalway Trail Celebration on National Trails Day in June, sponsored by the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, connects people with the trail through bike rides, walks, historical tours, festivals and other activities. Both of these events have grown in participation each year.
To realize its potential as a tourism magnet, and therefore as an engine of community economic renewal, the trail must be completed. This means that it must be off road wherever possible. Where not possible, the route must be selected carefully and marked clearly and consistently.
Parks & Trails New York and the Canal Corporation have pursued this vision since 1995. Between 1998 and 2002, for example, they completed ten Gap Assessment Reports evaluating possible alignments and opportunities and constraints for each of the missing trail segments. Based on these reports, they also have secured planning and construction funds from within the Canal Corporation budget and the federal Transportation Enhancements Program (TEP).
Despite the current economic climate and budgetary constraints, progress is being made. At least one trail project will receive federal stimulus funding. In addition, two projects partially funded previously though TEP but lacking the local match are now moving forward thanks to support from the Canal Corporation, and another has received funding through the most recent round of TEP grants. But more needs to be done.
Parks & Trails New York, in collaboration with CTANY, is leading a “Close the Gaps” campaign to bring together stakeholders at all levels to establish a plan for constructing the remaining segments. One immediate focus has been freeing up funding for two projects approved by voters in 2005 as part of a statewide transportation bond measure, but which have been temporarily frozen due to budget constraints.
With its statewide board and local presence, CTANY is well positioned to both shape a consistent message on the need to complete the trail and generate constituent pressure on local public officials to move forward. Drawing on the user counts, Parks & Trails New York and CTANY also are educating state legislators about the status of the trail and its potential contribution to economic revitalization of the Erie Canal corridor. Next, they envision convening public officials, business leaders and civic-minded residents near each of the remaining gaps to map strategies for closing them.
Building and managing a 350-mile trail with multiple owners is not easy, but it can be done. At times the challenges seem daunting and the pace of progress can be discouraging. The antidote, however, is to remember how far we have come – and perhaps to keep in mind that 100 years passed from the first proposal for an Erie Canal to the “wedding of the waters.” With perseverance and growing public support, the Erie Canalway Trail will bring renewed attention and economic revitalization to this historic corridor and serve as the spine of an expanding trail network throughout the state.