Talk the talk and walk the lock
Canal Heritage Park is an adventure into the past
Port Byron Old Erie Canal Heritage Park
1575 Rooker Dr., Port Byron
After a hundred years without a canal, Port Byron Old Erie Canal Heritage Park restores the culture that surrounded the waterway and gives us a taste of nineteenth century living.
In 1819, Bucksville, New York, saw the first boats wind through its brand-new Erie Canal. Five years later, in the midst of the enormous success, the town renamed itself after the late poet Lord Byron. Until 1917 it served as one of New York's powerhouses, supplying the state with critical resources and aiding in New York city's evolution.
About an hour east of Rochester by car, the small town of Port Byron still exists, albeit stripped of its booming industry and winding canal.
Luckily, Port Byron's golden age is memorialized in the Old Erie Canal Heritage Park. With preserved buildings and relics from the nineteenth century , "it's an adventure into the past," says park manager Mary Riley. Visitors can walk around the massive stone rock ruins and tour the villlage built around it for an experience akin to that of touring the Genesee Country Village & Museum bu ton a smaller scale.
The Old Erie Canal Heritage Park opened for 2019 on May 1. “Although the weather did not cooperate, we had twenty eight visitors plus many of our volunteers," Riley says, "It ended up being a very nice day.” This is a big year for the park, and for Riley—for one, it’s her first full year as park manager. The visitor center also flooded in the off season, resulting in renovations that replaced the floor, added displays,and updated the layout.
The visitor center now also features a new gift shop, where they’ll sell books, maps, and magnets, along with new items to be added throughout the season. Lastly, the Canal Society got its hands on the exact tollbooth that sat atop the canal all those years ago. “We are very excited about this acquisition,” Riley says. “We’re looking forward to starting restorations during the season.” The New Berlin Lock Tender Shanty, which had been sitting on somebody’s land for decades,was on the verge of being repurposed for firewood when the Canal Society caught wind. “They said if we could pick it up in twenty-four hours, it was ours,” Riley smiles. “Somehow we were able to gather the resources to transport it safely.
The original “Clinton’s Ditch” lock, which measured ninety feet, could no longer accommodate the massive boats that the 1850s introduced. “In 1853 the enlarged canal lock, the remains of which are in our park, opened and the first boats were moved from the original Erie Canal to the enlarged canal,” Riley explains. The enlarged lock is large enough to hold boats up to niety-eight feet.
Aside from the visitor center and lock remains, there are three more buildings to explore—the blacksmith shop, mule barn, and Erie House. Once a month, local blacksmith Dale LaQuay, along with his family and friends, sets up a blacksmithing demonstration in front of the blacksmith shop. “This year Dale is planning on including students that will demonstrate the art of blacksmithing while he talks to the visitors and describes what they’re making,” Riley says. “As items are forged, they’ll be displayed throughout the season for visitors to see.” Demonstrations are slated for July 20, August 17, September 21, and October 19.
The largest building with the richest history in the park is the Erie House. After emigrating from Italy in 1895, Peter Van Detto built the inn and tavern to offer tunes and tonics to locals and merchants. Riley and her team have restored the building, bringing its vibrant history and Italian-style wood paneling back to life. Though some of the antique furniture isn’t native to Port Byron, key pieces like the bar and cash register present just as they did over one hundred and twenty years ago. After the canal was redirected out of Port Byron in 1917, Van Detto’s daughters lived in the Erie House until they passed away in the 1990s. The Canal Society has owned these properties since 1994, but it wasn’t until ten years later that a partnership was forged with the Thruway Authority to open a museum.
“Our partnership with the Thruway Authority is unique,” Riley says. It’s one of the only places, she explains, that a traveler on the Thruway is able to pull off, park, and explore the area without paying a toll. New York State and the Canal Society split ownership over the site. “Two sections of the park—the visitor center and the enlarged lock remains—are owned by New York State. The third section is owned by the Canal Society. Don’t want to pay a toll just to visit the museum? “There is also a parking lot and entrance into the park from Route 31,” Riley says. “The turnstiles in the Visitor Center have two purposes: to count the number of visitors from each entrance and to make sure the visitors exit at the same location that they entered.”Like the original canal builders, Riley and the Canal Society have lofty aspirations for the dried-up port. Their eyes are set on neighboring historic buildings that may go up for sale, and they want to expand their interactive exhibits. “We would love to have an outline—or even a restored or reconstructed boat—right where the canal used to be,” Riley says. “The possibilities are endless.”
John Ernst is a lifelong Rochesterian and (585)’s editor-at-large. You can see more of his work at johnmwrites.com.