Canals, Narrrowboats and ‘Wideboats’

A few years ago, we were traveling in rural Wales and we visited a friend of my wife’s who was living in this little village. One afternoon, she wanted to take her dog for a walk, so I volunteered to accompany her. We went down the road a couple of miles and then onto a narrow road that led toward the River Usk. We crossed it on an ancient stone bridge that was in such bad shape that only one car was allowed to cross it at a time. We parked by a canalside pub and began to go up the towpath toward a couple of canal locks. There were others either walking dogs or hiking the length of the canal.

Now, I confess to be fascinated by canals. So, I had to see one of those old canals where what the British called ‘narrowboats’ plied. At the second lock, there was a boat going upstream. The owner had the upstream gate opened so as to lift the boat and he was chasing around trying to get a wooden/metal boathook that had fallen in the water before it got caught in his propeller. His wife and another woman were busy adjusting the big wooden doors on the downstream lock, so I helped the guy get his hook back. Then he moved the boat through the lock gates into the upstream canal, leaving his wife to manually open the sluice to let the lock water out downstream. The sluice was opened with an ancient and odd crank and she couldn’t move it. So, I got to open the sluice with ‘mighty’ turns of the crank. It was a close as I have been to original canal operations.

The reason for mentioning this British experience is to contrast it with today’s Erie Canal. Here is William Least-Heat Moon about his experience boating on the Erie Canal:

‘Years ago, engineers moved the canal from the center of Utica, Schenectady, Syracuse, and Rochester so that now the waterway skirts the hearts of towns, making it more a barrier than a boulevard, and the traveler no longer glides right through the nub of gaiety commerce, no longer able to float along and look from a boat deck into shop windows, or see hustling clerks on a street errand, or pick up the scent from a lunch counter, or hear the newsboy’s hark. What was once the Erie through these downtowns is today paved streets; only villages have kept the waterway close.’

Since Least-Heat Moon wrote this, the towns and cities along the Erie Canal have begun to see it as a downtown tourist attraction and a lot seems to have been done to direct tourists to its banks. Even so, over the decades, the canal has been widened to accommodate large barges and yachts. In some ways, the Canal’s fate resembles that of Old US 66. The highway has been bypassed or abandoned in many places where the Interstates parallel its route, the growth in vehicle numbers and sizes dictating a larger and straighter highway. Nobody wanted to reroute the Canal to meet the demand for more intensive traffic, so it was simply widened to accommodate what I suppose could be called ‘wideboats’.