Syracuse, NY: The Erie Canal Museum

After leaving the disappointing Women’s Rights National Historic Park, we headed over to Syracuse for the Erie Canal Museum. I was super excited for this mainly because of my love of the “Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal” song (apparently its real name is “Low Bridge”) which we learned in elementary school, and which I still catch myself singing at odd moments; but also because I grew up near the remains of the Ohio and Erie Canal, and spent a lot of time walking the old towpaths that have been turned into hiking trails (usually not walking by choice. I was not an outdoors kind of kid. Or adult).


We found parking in a lot nearby and headed on in, as we only had a little over an hour before the museum closed. We were already enticed by the canal boat inside we could view from the street, and the excellent mural painted opposite the entrance. Admission to the museum is free, though they do recommend a $5 donation, and we were the only visitors for most of our visit, which was lovely, though probably not great for the museum. The museum is housed in an original 1850 weighlock building, the last building of this type standing.


The layout reminded me a lot of the museum I work at, sort of narrow and labyrinthine, but the contents most definitely didn’t, because this museum was actually kind of fun! They had quite a few interactive things where you could see how a canal works, and even a computer game where you had to weigh various canal boats and then assess fees based on the weight. Unfortunately, the game that looked like the most fun, pictured above (badly, because the lighting was not conducive to taking photos without glare), was out of order, but at least we got to enjoy most of the things. As you might expect, the museum was primarily about the building and operation of the canal, which was completed in 1825. Labour standards not being great at the time, conditions for the men building the canal were horrendous, particularly when building through the Montezuma Marshes, which we had visited earlier in the day, but conditions for passengers were mixed, based mainly on how much money they had to spend. Some of the boats actually looked pretty luxurious.

We got to experience canal boat lives a bit ourselves by boarding the replica canal boat that we had glimpsed from outside the museum. Though accommodations on this model were spartan, the boat felt more open than a proper seafaring ship, and there was definitely a lot more head room! Of course I plopped myself down on the privy so I could show you my patented fake pooping face (again). On canal boats, men and women were typically forced to bunk separately, even if they were all part of the same family, though since canal boats weren’t all that large, they would have usually been in the same room with just a curtain pulled across the middle. The canal originally ran between Albany and Buffalo (though later canals would pass through Pennsylvania and Ohio and link up most of Lake Erie), and took about a week to travel in a boat pulled by mules, about half the time of the overland route.


The upstairs floor of the museum was all decked out like ye olde Syracuse, and you know I love a fake historic town. Disappointingly, you couldn’t actually walk through the shops, as you were separated from them by an alarmed rail, but it was still pretty OK. My favourite thing up here was the sign on the saloon till reading, “All Nations Welcome but Carrie,” which was a total history nerd joke I had to explain to my brother (Carrie Nation was a famous temperance advocate who was famous for smashing up bars with a hatchet). There was music playing in the background – all songs about the Erie Canal, though “Low Bridge” didn’t come on, at least not whilst I was standing there.


The last room of the museum contained a temporary display on the different types of canal boats, which felt a little half-assed to be honest, as it was just a handful of sign boards in the middle of an empty room, but I did enjoy looking at the images of people travelling along the canal (especially the boats that had become completely snowed in, because New York gets lake effect snow just like Ohio). I also enjoyed trying on hats in the hat corner, even though I wasn’t totally sure if you were supposed to.


My other favourite thing in the museum, which had nothing to do with the museum itself, was the poster advertising the “Eerie Canal Run” – you guessed it, fifteen miles on the Erie Canal! I hate running more than most things, but if I lived here, I would had to have done it. Halloween and Erie Canal puns? Yes please! The shop, though small, had some rather charming merchandise, and I couldn’t resist the Christmas ornament painted with a very crude mule. For some reason I always thought “Low Bridge” was written from the perspective of the mule, though the museum taught me it was meant to be the guy leading the mule singing it. Either way, I really like canal mules, so lucky for me that there was a statue of one right across the street from the museum! I thought this museum was totally fun and interesting, and the fact that it was free made it even better (it’s not a very big museum, but to be honest, it was bigger than I was expecting). 3.5/5.


    1. It’s a very good sign. Carrie Nation was the subject of a question on University Challenge this week. Paxman asked what she famously used to smash up saloons and I was screaming, “hatchet!” at the TV whilst the team captain was like, “uh, a baseball bat?” C’mon!

  1. I’m surprised you aren’t hunching at all in your fake pooping pose 😏
    I also enjoyed the Carrie Nation joke. People don’t get that one? Education in this country has just gone to hell.
    I would want to pose with a mule, too. All looks like fun!

  2. When I worked in Newark, NJ, I lived in Hoboken and was intrigued by the name on the rail terminus “Erie & Lackawanna”; I bought a book on its history and, if I recall correctly, the 1,000 mile long railway superseded the canal, as was the trend with England’s canals (with some canals disappearing altogether and having railways built on top of them, such as the Surrey Canal). There was a suggestion to build a canal alongside the river Wandle, but a horse-drawn railway was built instead.

  3. My old college stomping grounds! Moving from the DC area to Syracuse was a bit of a culture shock – this and the art museum were the only museums in town. But I do credit my years in Syracuse with teaching me to dress for arctic conditions and drive in the snow. However, I do have good memories of walking on the canal. PS I now have that song stuck in my head. Unfortunately, I only know that one line!

    1. I can imagine! I’ve gotten to the point where I feel like I can’t ever leave London because there’s not this many museums anywhere else.
      There’s also a museum of science and technology in Syracuse, but we didn’t go as it looked quite child-orientated.
      I don’t remember the entirety of “Low Bridge” but I do know the chorus and one of the verses.

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