The Empire State Navy

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

By Don Sutherland

Of all the waterways in fable and lore, the Erie Canal is famed least for its maritime nature. Lake Superior may have swallowed the Edmund Fitzgerald, and the North Atlantic holed the Titanic, but they sing of the Erie Canal for a mule named Sal. The triumph of the canal was over land, not water. Fully 363 miles long, scaling mountains 500 ft. above sea-level with 83 locks, fording natural rivers on aqueducts or "water bridges," it was a pick and shovel and trowel job of a stupendous scale, so grandiose that some called it madness. Yet the original "Clinton's Ditch" helped write the destiny of North America, so greatly that in return it required expansion and major rebuilding twice, within its first ninety years. The present system, opened in 1918, may yet face a new heyday, as alternative routes once thought its replacement - railroads and paved highways - reach saturation.

Overseeing the Canal's well-being, past and future, takes combined efforts, given its broad impact and implications. It's a land-based construction, so a lot of its nature is defined by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But there's water involved too, whose care and support comes from a division formally called the Floating Plant - nicknamed the Empire State Navy. Composed of an armada of a dozen model-bow tugboats ranging in length from 45 to 77 ft., ten 40-ft. tugs known as Tenders, about a dozen 26-ft. launches known as Buoy Boats, one 96-ft. Midwestern-style towboat (or pushboat), and a variety of floating cranes, four cutter-head hydraulic dredges, ten mechanical dredges/derrick barges, an assortment of deck and hopper scows, and five quarters-barges where crews live on location when working between towns. This fleet wouldn't make Jane's, but it's still more tonnage than some national navies have. The Empire State Navy derives its nickname from its owner (New York is the Empire State as New Jersey is the Garden State) and sees to the maintenance, repairs, and capital improvements as may come up on the New York State Canal System. That's a big system, operated by the New York State Canal Corporation, a subsidiary of the New York State Thruway Authority. Just keeping the Canal at regulation depth takes a lot of attention from the dredges and scows and tugs. The scope of the operation is made the more massive by the malleability of the New York State canal system over 179 years. Though the Erie Canal as we know it today is shorter than the one opened in 1825 - 340.7 miles, compared to the original 363 - Canal Corp's jurisdiction extends to three additional canals composing the system - the Oswego, the Cayuga-Seneca, and the Champlain. This provides a total of 524 miles of waterway, which collectively extend the Hudson River and whatever can reach it to Lakes Champlain, Ontario, and Erie. Besides that, the current system is a lot broader and deeper, following major expansions completed in 1862 and again in 1918, from the original 40-ft. width and 4-ft. depth, to the currently specified 123 x 14-ft.

One Navy's Waters

The Erie Canal entered lore as an engineering feat, yet its most famous construction was demolished, or at least disused, 101 years later and 86 years ago.

In a sense the canal had created a Frankenstein - terminal cities, such as New York, so immense that they swallowed-up everything, and then wanted more. New York was a third-rate town before the Erie, then suddenly leapt into prominence as the exchange point between ocean vessels and those bound for the heartland.

The urbanization that grew the Big Apple also made Motor City and the Second City what they are. Their collective needs outpaced the abilities of canals as such to supply them, even though the Erie's expansions were underway just eleven years after it opened. Railroads didn't become serious until after the Civil War, but ultimately they delivered more throughput. Even so, the bottomless pit of Metropolis needed more, and up sprang the highways. The more cities sprawled, the broader their tentacles grew to satisfy the insatiable. There are no apples grown in the Big Apple, so each one consumed there must be imported. Whether they're fresher when the end-user buys them, depends. Sometimes an apple swiftly trucked to a metropolitan warehouse sits there longer than would take Sal, the mule, to walk it downstate personally. But that's okay - spray it with wax, it looks like new. And perceptions do rule. Articulated semis look impressive tearing down the Interstate, whereas a canal tow barely seems to be moving. And there's more than just perceptions. There's also interchangeability. Alongside parts of today's Erie Canal are tracks used by trains composed of flatcars carrying trailers. Could they as well be containers on barges? Well, that raises questions. How deep is the water, how high the bridges? Can a barge sustain even the posted10 MPH limit if the Erie Canal is insufficiently dredged?

"The mandated depth of the federally improved section between Waterford and Oswego," said Capt. John Callaghan, Director of Canal Policy Implementation and Planning for Canal Corp., "is 14 ft. Due to limited resources, the controlling depth is currently 9.5 ft. The mandated depth on all other sections is 12 ft.. The controlling depth for those sections is currently 8 ft., generally speaking."

Plenty Where That Came From

The Empire State Navy's mission includes maintaining sufficient draft, but there's an endless supply of silt to keep them in motion. With the 1918 enlargement, the Erie Canal as Governor DeWitt Clinton conceived it was a thing of the past, at least in the Eastern Section. The land cut was abandoned, frequently lost, became an archeological relic.

"There have been several exciting finds recently in Albany and Cohoes" Capt. Callaghan told us. "Some historic sites have been interpreted or commercialized, like the Erie Canal Village in Rome. Historic Canal sites in Chittenango, Camillus, and other spots show incarnations of the canal in various states of existence as they appeared over the years. In upstate cities, when you are on Erie Boulevard or Erie Street, you are most likely driving over the bed of the old canal. Several excellent remains of the old aqueducts, really amazing structures, still exist. A main road in downtown Rochester runs right over one." Using the natural Mohawk or Hudson rivers instead of chipping your way over the landscape would seem to have had economic advantages even in 1817 - the rivers were, after all, much broader and deeper than the original ditch and, among other benefits, they were already there. Why weren't they canalized in the first place? "The technology in the early 1800s was not what it became a century later. The canal system we operate today benefited from modern engineering" of the early 20th century, when spectacular civic works had already erupted all over the cities of the Atlantic and Great Lakes shores. Clinton's Ditch may have been a madness in 1817 and a triumph in 1825, but the "third Erie Canal" was completed after the Suez and the Panama canals were done deals. "We could finally harness the power of the river. When the Erie and her sister canals were first built, they were all land cut canals. In many instances they used these rivers for water supply, but seldom for actual navigation. That's why the aqueducts - the natural waterways were obstacles."

Mule Sal's towpath was long ago paved-over, and the old obstacles along much of the Eastern section, such as the Mohawk, have become the canal. There are long, narrow stretches that have a handmade look, but there are also broad reaches of powerful river with swift currents rushing by. They gaily carry whatever has poured-in from mile after mile of forest at the banks on both sides. "Sedimentation is much less of a problem in the land cuts," Capt. Callaghan reports. "In rivers It regularly occurs near creek mouths and near pronounced bends where the river tends to slow down." Nature herself pollutes the waterways, and is above the law.

Not beyond regulation, though. Immense steel gates, looking at first like vehicular bridges, help maintain volume and levels in response to runoffs from rains, melting ice or snow. Although closed to navigation during the winter months, the canal's infrastructure is essential yearound. Besides these "bridges to nowhere," there are massive guard gates, like giant steel guillotines, to cut-off rampaging water or floes before they carry away towns on the banks. Helping maintain this infrastructure is part of the Floating Plant's mission, too, as is waterborne support for lock maintenance and repair. Still, on any given day cruising up the Mohawk, when you see the Empire Navy on duty, it's most likely to be dredging.

Waterways are silting-in all over the place. If there's no forest primeval nearby to do it, there's urban construction or that final base fact, everything erodes. Excepting aqueducts, most waterways are downhill from their landscapes, and gravity herds everything in their direction. If the waterway's the size of the New York State canals, it's quite a sandtrap to clean. Canal Corp. now has a backlog of nine million cubic yards of dredging to do, to come up to regulation. "That's the amount of material we would have to remove to dig the canal to its project depth of 14 ft. from Waterford to Oswego, the federally improved route, and 12 ft. elsewhere." The gap continues to widen, as the stuff's coming in faster than it's being dug out. j4Dredging requires permits, of course, even in your own canal, and Canal Corp. has agreed to phase out such practices as wet dumping. Equipment of types that have served since the First World War, maybe longer, are still used, but their days are numbered. To come into compliance, the Empire State Navy has some upgrading to do.

"The clearing of the channel is the most important branch of the State's work since the efficiency of the canal and the success of the transportation ventures depend on it. Liberal allowance will need to be made by the Legislature ... " So wrote Charles L. Cadle, the Superintendent of Public Works in 1922, before there was a Thruway Authority. He was addressing a system then open only four years, "but due to the condition of isolated places, I did not recommend the loading of boats to greater than 10 ft. draft." Some of the equipment at the Superintendent's disposal 86 years ago is still nipping away today.

Digging Through Time

Canal Corp.'s Capt Callaghan tells us that the dredge named "Chief" in the Superintendent's report is substantially the same machine as the DB4 used today. "The hull dates to the late teens, as best we know," he told us, "and was probably built to accommodate equipment used in building the canal. It was steam powered until the mid 1970s." Indeed the engine room does seem unusually spacious within, such as steam engine and boiler would call for. But from the outside, the DB4 looks like a prop in some Disneyesque Dredging World, in a re-enactment of how things used to be.

Nope, this is the real deal, still playing its cards.

Not far from Lock Six, where DB4 sat munching bottom mud one bucket at a time, depositing it carefully into the hoppers of the antique scow, three boats completed a diorama that could have been set almost any time since 1922, when the Superintendent was writing his report. The term "canal tug" or "canaler" can mean different things, depending on whether you work inside or outside the canal system proper. To the industry as a whole, at least in the northeast, a canaler is a purpose-made retractable-house model-bow tugboat whose specs were comparable, more or less, to harbor tugs of their vintage, but were scaled for the canal. A number of 1950s and 1960s Busheys and Jakobsons of this type continue in operation around New York and Boston. Two, the Cheyenne and the Crow, continue in canal service for Empire Harbor Marine, based in Albany. (We climbed the Waterford Flight with the Crow and a tank barge not long ago, which we'll describe in detail in a future report.)

But Crow was built in Brooklyn. By another definition, a "canal tug" would be one indigenous to the canal - not only designed for, but built there. Such is the case of most Tenders, built to a common pattern in the Canal's shops at Syracuse beginning around 1925. The stately Buoy Boats were similarly homegrown. Did the people in Syracuse know boats? The 79-year-old Tenders are fast, strong, and can turn in almost their length. Though designed as the equivalent of yard tugs, they're also seen doing heavy work, such as pushing loaded dredging scows. Assisting generally in our museum display near Lock 5, shifting the ancient hopper scows between shore and the DB4 a few dozen yards off, was the 40-ft. Tender 3, built in 1926 as a perfect mini-tug. Two larger tugs, the Governor Cleveland and the Grand Erie, shuttled the dump scows between the dredge and the wet dump site a few miles west. The Governor Cleveland, though not canal-specific, was built as a steamboat for the Department of Public Works, with icebreaking duties in mind. Along with her sister, the Governor Roosevelt, she remains the largest (77x19.6x11-ft.) model-bow tug in the Empire State Navy. The broad, squat, good-looking Governors, repowered at 510 hp each, are the beefiest model-bow boats in this state's Navy. Alternating with the Governor Cleveland shuttling scows from DB4 was the anachronism in the 1920s exhibit, the Grand Erie. A western pushboat from 1952, she's the longest (96-ft.) and most powerful (640HP) of Canal Corp.'s boats. Her skipper told us they'd cut down her house to clear the low bridges, after buying her for a mere six grand. At age 52, the Grand Erie is the newest of Canal Corp.'s working workboats. The model bow tug Waterford is second-youngest, as a 1951 build originally for the canal by Erie Iron Works. Powered by a 235HP Waukesha, she's one of four sisters - Erie, Lockport, and Pittsford are the others - deployed in various sections of the State Canal System. j4Two more canal tugboats, the Reliable and the Syracuse of 1934, were designed and executed in-house. The 67-ft. Seneca, built by a division of Electric Boat in Boston, 1932, was acquired in the mid-1960s from the U.S. Navy. The Oneida and the Eleanor Roosevelt (no relation to the Governor) are classified as Tenders but built from different designs,

Ribbon of Water on a Shoestring

Building in-house and adapting the hand-me-downs from other services has been a way of life since the Floating Plant was formalized. Before that, maintenance was undertaken by private contractors, and it's generally assumed that the first craft of the Empire State Navy were acquired from them. Several of the existing barge hulls and scows are thought to have arrived by this means, with the canal's shops adding or modifying cranes and houses as needed. Other utilities were scavenged as opportunities arose. A New York City ferryboat, the Wards Island, had been built for the State Department of Mental Hygiene in 1929. Her life as a ferryboat was spectacularly short - listed as abandoned in 1937 - but for the next 60 years or so she succeeded on the Erie Canal, with her upper works removed and a crane on her deck.

While 60 or seventy years is a lot for a workboat, conditions on the canal support longevity. This is all fresh water, of course, which helps a lot. But also, in those long, cold winters, the permanent employees of Canal Corp. have to keep busy. What better than to maintain or improve their vessels, as required? If the Empire State Navy is anything besides old, it is clean.

Well yes, it is picturesque too, a point which management considers valuable. Why shouldn't there be an aura of history and nostalgia about the canal? The one used today may be relatively new, as the world's major canal systems go, but its traditions go back to the early years of the nation. The tenders and the small tugs are serious, but they're also charming, all decked-out in the State's official blue and gold. And charm sells. Salesmanship has been needed on the Erie Canal. There have been those who thought that such valuable right-of-way could be paved-over, and return more profits in automotive tolls. Of course, there have also been concepts to enlarge the canal anew, recreating the impact of the original Erie on a mega scale. Whatever the design of the canal system's future, it's an existing resource now. It must earn its keep. Commercially speaking, the canal system peaked in 1951. That was the same year the New Jersey Turnpike opened. High-speed, nonstop interstate vehicular transport got on peoples' minds. The New York State Thruway, authorized in 1942, began taking traffic in 1954. The railroads were in financial trouble, but were moving plenty of freight. The postwar boom was on, and people were buying cars and consumer goods like never before. There was more stuff to move around than ever, and everyone was in a hurry. People were buying pleasure craft too, of course, and looking for places to go in them. It would be easy to spend an entire summer snooping around the canal and stopping at all the attractions along the canal system, and plenty of people do just that. And people who do that sometimes are upscale. Whatever the fees they pay for transiting the canal - and the price is modest enough - they bring their wallets to the once-industrial towns of upper New York State. For recreational boaters touring old forts and factories, the picturesque craft of the Empire State Navy are part of the historical panorama. But they're more than decorations. They're the caretakers of a resource. The Canal Corp. reports a mild increase in commercial traffic in recent times, particularly for oversize and overweight cargoes. And the increase in Canal traffic predated the advent of $2.00-a-gallon gasoline. The trade-off between economy and speed in transport may be due for re-examination, now that the depth of the troubles in the Middle East are common knowledge. The apple that arrives in New York City costs more, commensurate with the cost of fuel to transport it. The rule-of-thumb worldwide is that one tug pushing one barge moves the equivalent of sixty 18-wheelers. The Empire State Navy, still the spiffiest navy in the hemisphere, may become a combatant in a spiraling economic war.

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