The Crooked Lake Review

Fall 2005

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Camillus Erie Canal Park

Preserves Waterborne Heritage


Richard Palmer

Nearly 35 years ago, the Camillus Town Board asked local resident Dr. David Beebe to look into the feasibility of the town purchasing a seven-mile strip of the abandoned Erie Canal, consisting of 164 acres stretching from Warners Road to Newport Road. It had been abandoned since 1917.

At the time, Beebe, now a retired dentist, was president of the local chapter of the Audubon Society. "I volunteered and they appointed a committee to work with me. At the time I didn't even know where the canal was," he said "The town board couldn't have picked a better group for me to work with. Many of them are still on our board," Beebe said.

When Beebe and his group found there indeed was an old canal almost totally hidden in the brush, "we discovered it was an opportunity of a lifetime," he said. As a result of the committee's recommendation, the town board unanimously voted to purchase the property. Beebe and his committee, later joined by a small army of volunteers, set about the task of creating a linear park.

Even local Boy Scouts joined in the effort that included the removal of abandoned cars and other junk from the canal bed. A local contractor volunteered his services to excavate a channel with a drag line so water could flow in from the west. Eventually the old Nine Mile Creek Feeder was also cleared of debris so water could flow in. Tons of underbrush and trees were also removed and the old towpath on the north side of the canal and the berm path on the opposite were cleared and walking trails created.

Picturesque scene along Camillus Erie Canal Park.

The next project was construction of replica of the Sims Canal Store, originally located where Warners Road crossed over the canal. The original structure, built about 1856, burned in 1958. It was decided to build the replica at Devoe Road where there was more room. Such stores were located every few miles along the canal, and essentially were general stores geared to canal traffic.

Sims Store is a recreation of a typical canal store where boatmen purchased provisions.
It houses a gift shop and museum. The original Sims Store was located two miles to the east.

The store was largely built by volunteers an opened in 1977. It now houses the park's gift shop, museum, snack bar and meeting room. Subsequent additions have included a replica of the the tender's shanty at Lock 52 in Jordan, and an oldtime rural privy.

To the west of Devoe Road, a nature and historic site area has been established around the foundation of the old Dill mansion. A steam engine museum is located on the south side of the canal near Devoe Road. It houses a large soon-to-be-operational Corliss steam engine once used to generate electricity at the old Smith Corona plant in Syracuse. This building, on East Water Street, was later Midtown Plaza. When it was demolished several years ago, the engine was donated to the canal park.

From the beginning, Beebe and his volunteers have worked toward having the 1841-vintage Nine Mile Creek Aqueduct restored to operational condition. This primarily would consist of reconstruction of the wooden trunk that carried the canal over the stream. Beebe said the stonework is in perfect condition.

Centerpiece of the Camillus Erie Canal Park is the aqueduct over Nine Mile Creek.
Started in 1838 and completed in 1841, it replaced the original aqueduct built in the 1820s
on a slightly different alignment, off Thompson Road. Plans are underway to restore
the trough that rested on the lower stone walls and carried the canal over the creek.
The arches on the far side carry the towpath.

The original intent was to replace the original woodwork with steel, with a wood veneer, but this was rejected by the state Office of Historic Preservation. The canal park has the promise of a $31,000 federal Intermodal Transportation fund grant, and plans to have the rest of the required funds soon, Beebe said. Instead of steel, 88 wooden or pressure treated "Gluam" timbers 34 feet long and 18 inches thick will be used to fashion the trunk of the aqueduct. "The wood structure should last at least 50 years," Beebe said, as compared to the normal 10-year life span of traditional oak and hemlock.

"We will then have the only operational aqueduct on the old Erie Canal," Beebe said enthusiastically.

In the public view, the park is best known for its popular and highly successful dinner boat that operates during the summer between Devoe Road and Newport Road. It just completed its 14th year of operation. The park has hosted many special events throughout the years, including being a stop on the path of the Olympic Torch run in 1996. The highlight of this year's season was the creation of an Erie Canal trail across the state by the New York State Canal Corp. The towpath along abandoned sections of the canal was widened to 10 feet, laid with 10 inches of run of crush stone, and covered with stone dust. Now one can walk the entire distance from Route 173 (Warners Road) to Route 31 in Jordan.

The Camillus Erie Canal Park has an enthusiastic cadre of more than 100 volunteers who show up in all kinds of weather to do their part in preserving a piece of America's heritage.

Beebe said the eventual plan is also to do additional archaeological work to detect the remains of various portions of the original Erie Canal or "Clinton's Ditch," including the original aqueduct off Thompson Road, and the site of a boat yard just west of Sims Store around Stevenson's Pond.

Photographs and captions supplied by Richard Palmer.
© 2005, Richard Palmer
Index to articles by Richard F. Palmer
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