New York’s Erie Canal Towns from Troy to Tonawanda

The end of the Erie canal in Tonawanda NY. Tab Hauser photos.
The end of the Erie canal in Tonawanda NY. Tab Hauser photos.

Small Town America along the Erie Canal

By Tab Hauser

Bagel in Locks, Erie Canal.
Bagel in Locks, Erie Canal.

Small town USA cuts across the center of New York State along the historic Erie Canal.

It is a corridor of friendly villages with their free concerts, farmers markets, and street festivals.

Here you will find interesting little museums along with noted places of history that included the revolutionary war, the abolitionist and woman’s movement as well as the 200-year canal itself.   

The canal, built between 1817 and 1825 is 339 miles going east and west from the Niagara River to just north of Troy, New York where it connects to the Hudson River.

The Erie Canal was the transportation wonder that opened the Midwest to the Atlantic Ocean securing New York City as the lead port in the United States.

The canal when opened lowered freight costs by 95% overnight and towns along it sprang up and boomed.

Bike paths beside the canal.

Bike paths beside the canal.Bike, Boat or Car

Ways to visit the area include bicycle, car, and boat.  Bicycle trails along the canal are flat and scenic.  You can start riding in one town, peddling as far as you wish, stopping for the night in a Bed and Breakfast or hotel.  You can end in a town with a train station to take you back to your starting point.

Visiting boats tied up for the night along the Erie canal. GoNOMAD Travel
Visiting boats tied up for the night along the canal.

See www.ptny.org for information for biking as well as their annual July week-long organized ride from Buffalo to Albany riding.

A good way to get a feel for the canal is to charter a boat from www.midlakesnav.com  or www.canalcruises.com.  These companies have cute looking replica barge houseboats that are easy to pilot. Renting a boat for a week will enable you to cover about a third of the canal in the western section at 5MPH. Boats come complete with bedding and cookware.


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renting a barge on the Erie Canal

Visitors by car can leisurely see most of the canal towns via the state roads in just a few days staying overnight at places that interest them.

Taking the scenic road usually added 10 or 15 minutes between towns.  The idea of this trip is to slow down and staying off the highways is a good start.

Going East to West we recommend starting in the rejuvenated city of Troy, New York on a Saturday by wandering around the regions best farmers market.

Then contact Tom Carroll to take his fascinating walking tour. Between the sights and history, ask him to show you some of the best Tiffany glass ever made.  For dinner, we recommend Tara’s and ice cream at the Dutch Udder. website

Flight of Five to Schenectady

After half a day in Troy, drive ten minutes to the locks at Waterford to see the workings of the Flight of Five to get an understanding of what makes the Erie Canal work.  Here you will see up close boats rising faster in the shortest amount of time than anywhere in the world.

Boats lift up or drop by 184 feet in less than 1.5 miles.  Lockmasters are always happy to answer questions about the old but well-maintained machinery.

Schenectady, 45 minutes west, for architecture or history fans, offers an opportunity to stroll their historic stockade district. This district has been lived in for over 300 years and contains many original Dutch and English homes that were surrounded by a stockade in 1661. Contact the Schenectady County Historical Society  to see if you can arrange a walking tour or download a self-walking tour.

For entertainment see if the classic Procter Theatre built in 1926 has a Broadway-style show during your visit. (www.proctors.org).   Opened in 2018 is the Rivers Casino and Hotel (riverscasinoandresort.com) that is walking distance to the stockade area and close to downtown.

Nearly all canal towns have stately historic homes.
Nearly all canal towns have stately historic homes.

Amsterdam 

Thirty minutes west is the canal city of Amsterdam.  This should be a quick stop to see the Mohawk Valley Gateway Overlook pedestrian bridge.  This is a 511-foot “park over the river” pedestrian bridge. It features history, culture, and art. After crossing the bridge continue another five minutes up the hill to the Amsterdam Castle. This former armory built in 1895 has an imposing look.

It went through a five million dollar renovation adding 25 suites along with a large inner room complete with European art protected by two rows of shiny knight’s armor.  Amsterdam has a statue of Kirk Douglas who was born here.  Consider a casual lunch canal side at the Riverlink Park near the bridge. For visitors information visit this website.

A Unicyclist along the path beside the Erie Canal.
A Unicyclist along the path beside the Erie Canal.

Canajoharie

This historic town 30 minutes from Amsterdam has two things worth a stop. One is the glacier created boiling pots natural swimming holes that are off Floral Avenue. (bring a towel and bathing suit). The other is the Arkell Library and Art Museum (www.arkellmuseum.org ).

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This little gem of a museum has works by Winslow Homer, George Innes, Andrew Wyeth, and other American artists as well as one of the best copies of Rembrandt’s Night Watchman.

Little Falls

Little Falls is a small city of 5000 people 30 minutes west.  It has a long Main Street with its classic brick design.  A place worth a short stop is the small commercial area in the restored Canal Side.

Start your visit by calling ahead to the historical society at www.lfhistoricalsociety.com.  They can open up their little museum and tell you why this place was the cheese capital of America in the mid-1800’s.

Lunch can be at the Copper Moose Ale House or the throwback diner Little Place on Main Street run by a young family. If you are here for dinner make a reservation at the Canal Side French Restaurant for one of the better meals in the region.

Try to visit during their annual cheese or garlic festival.  The cheese festival brings in 100 vendors from the region that offer samples and cheese for sale. For information go to www.littlefallsny.com or www.explorelittlefalls.com.

Mining for Diamonds

Next, deviate from the canal by heading 10 miles north to the Ace Diamond Mine. Here you can smash stones to find the perfect translucent multifaceted type of quartz known as the Herkimer diamond. We found that two hours of “hard labor” was more than enough time here for the several diamonds we mined.

Old and new locks in Lockport, NY.
Old and new locks in Lockport, NY.

Rome

Rome is one of the bigger cities on the canal just 45 minutes west.   Two interesting places her are the Fort Stanwix and the Rome Historical Society Museum.   This downtown fort was reconstructed in 1976 on its original location using blueprints from England.

The original was completed in 1762 by the British who abandoned it several years later only to have colonial army use it.

During the revolutionary war, it was the only fort not to surrender and won a decisive battle.  Not to be missed across the street is the Rome Historical Society Museum which is one the best regional museums on the canal.

Nearby are streets with impressive older homes and other historical buildings that the museum staff can direct you to stroll to.

For dinner, we visited the Copper City Brewery and enjoyed their visiting food trucks along with a flight of eight different beers.  Nearby visit Little Italy’s the old style deli called Rocco Gualtieri in Little Italy for authentic sliced Italian meats and cheeses.

Sylvain Beach

The Erie Canals opens up here into Oneida Lake near the middle of New York.  Sylvain Beach is a small resort town with a petite amusement park and a beach where you can swim in the lake. There is a lively bar scene here on weekends.

Glacier made swimming hole in Canajoharie near the canal.
Glacier made swimming hole in Canajoharie near the canal.

Lyons

Lyon’s is a good place to catch a movie at the Ohmann Theater. The Ohmann, built in 1915 is New York’s oldest theater still owned by the same family.  It has been completely restored and brought back memories of going to a movie with one show playing and optional balcony seating. Before the movie starts, the lights are turned up so you can see all the restored workmanship.  Lyons was the peppermint capital of the world. Information to its museum can be found at www.lyonsheritagesociety.org

Palymra

This is another pretty brick historical town.  There are five museums here including a re-creation of a general store and print shop. (closed Sunday).   It is where The Book of Mormon was written and printed in 1830. Palymra is one of the ten places in the world with a church on four opposite street corners.

Fairport

Fairport is all about the canal and its history.   When you arrive go to the old Box Factory building on the north wall to get local information from the merchants association.  We used

their self-guided map to see several of the older and grander homes, some with leftover hitching posts and dismount steps.

The lift bridge here is in Ripley’s Believe It or Not for being an irregular ten-sided structure having no two angles the same and lifting and crossing the canal at a 32-degree angle.

A restaurant worth visiting is Mr. Dominic located in an old mansion built in the 1880’s.  The Moonlight Creamery is calorie worthy for ice cream.

Brockport

Brockport is a lively college town incorporated in 1829. The welcome center is staffed with volunteers and can lend you a free bike.   Brockport has placed historical plaques around town for what they call “a museum without walls”.  We recommend downloading a self-guided historical map. 

When here call ahead to see the Morgan Manning House built in 1854 (www.morganmanninghouse.org).

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This is a restored large two-story Italianate brick mansion decorated in period furnishings. Brockport has coffee shops, café’s, bars, microbrew and the Lift Bridge Book Shop that is browse-worthy.  For the best wings on the canal go to 58 Main where they smoke, flash fry and finish them off over the fire in their sauce. It is also where we tried something called a garbage plate.

Medina

Medina is a wonderful little canal town with some of the best 19th-century architecture.  Here you can see a few of the downtown buildings made with Medina stone. This stone came from local quarries and was used in diverse structures like the Brooklyn Bridge and Buckingham Palace.

Medina is a wonderful little canal town with some of the best 19th-century architecture.  Here you can see a few of the downtown buildings made with Medina stone. This stone came from local quarries and was used in diverse structures like the Brooklyn Bridge and Buckingham Palace.

We shopped in the English Rose Tea Shop and Della’s Chocolate shop where we tried sponge chocolate. We also sampled mead wine at 810 Meadworks. For delicious baked goods go to the Bread Basket.  Lunch is recommended at Zambistro.

Future home of the Woman's Hall of Fame, Seneca Falls on the canal
Future home of the Woman’s Hall of Fame, Seneca Falls on the canal

Lockport

Lockport is an interesting stop because of the side by side locks. Here you can see the original small five locks that looks like a staircase on one side.  On the other side, you can see how two new large locks replaced the five older ones that were there. While here visit the Erie Canal Discovery Center, the Lockport Cave, and the Underground Boat Ride and the Flight of Five Winery next to the lock

Seneca Falls and Woman’s Rights

The pretty town of Seneca Falls on the Seneca-Cayuga Canal south of the Erie Canal was one of our favorite stops.  This place claims the start of the woman’s rights movement with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848.  The Woman’s Rights National Historical Park is a must-see museum. It starts with life-size statues of notable people as if they are walking to the convention.

A rental houseboat barge on the Canal.
A rental houseboat barge on the Canal.

The park ranger did a nice job “introducing” us to them on a personal level.  There are two floors of exhibits and the original meeting building next door.   Down the block is the Woman’s National Hall of Fame.

This storefront is wall to wall with plaques having pictures and biographies of its honorees dating back over 200 years.

Other places to visit should include the Seneca Museum of Waterways and Industry; the It’s a Wonderful Life Museum (www.wonderfullifemuseum.com) dedicated to the movie filmed here and the old mansion at the historical society (www.sfhistoricalsociety.org).

Before leaving stroll the peaceful Ludovico Sculpture Trail along the canal.  For a special evening stay overnight at the well-situated Belhurst Castle on Lake Seneca (www.belhurst.com).   At Belhurst we enjoyed their paired wine tasting in their wine and beer showroom. We also had an excellent dinner at the castle with a nice view.

Farms abound along the Erie Canal in New York State.
Farms abound along the Erie Canal in New York State.

The Tonawanda’s (The End)

The Tonawanda’s ends the canal. These two towns are exactly a 20-minute drive in between Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

Here we met Ned from the Historical Society of the Tonawandas (www.tonawandashistory.org). Ned walked to the end of the canal explaining the towns booming history while pointing out historic places.

Back in the day, nearly everything in the Midwest was transferred to barges here to be sent to New York City.  We concluded by walking nearby streets with beautiful homes dating back 170 years.  If you stroll around on your own, follow some of the historical signs on the south side.

Do not miss the Herschel Carrousel Factory Museum (www.carrouselmuseum.org) where you can take a ride on a 100-year-old carousel, see a workshop in progress and hear an original Wurlitzer self-playing piano.

This town produced over 3000 carousels. Both sides of the canal have good restaurants to choose from. North Tonawanda has more character of the two towns.

While you can explore the canal from Troy to Tonawanda in a few days, you can return to your starting point via the New York State Thruway in under four hours.

Tab Hauser

Tab Hauser is embracing his passion for writing and photography. When not at his home on Long Island’s North Shore, he is traveling the United States and the world visiting all seven continents and 46 countries so far.