Erie Canalway Trail

Sep 2 - Albany

Our bicycling portion of the trip ended in Albany. After we picked up our car at the Amtrak station in Rensselaer, we drove back across the Hudson River and stayed at a Hampton Inn in Albany. We had originally planned to spend two nights and do some sightseeing in Albany and then drive to Niagara Falls and stay another night. But both of us were eager to get home and sleep in our own beds (and stop packing and unpacking), so we changed our plans and started home on Thursday, Sep 2.

Before we left Albany, though, we stopped to look at a couple of sights which interested us. Earlier this summer, I did some more research on my Irish immigrant ancestors, looking for records to document their presence in New York. I could not find much - just bits and pieces. New York state census records confirm the presence of Bridget Swift (sister of my great-grandfather) and her husband Thomas Quinn in Albany. I sent an email inquiry to the diocese of Albany for their marriage records and also asked about a record for the marriage of Martin Swift and Mary Gavin, whose marriage occurred in Troy, NY in 1856, according to a newspaper article about their 40th wedding anniversary. The diocese found a record for Bridget and Thomas - married at Saint Joseph's Catholic Church in Albany on Feb 11, 1855. But they had no record of a marriage for Martin and Mary.

As for my great-grandpa, John Swift, there are even fewer records for this time period. His daughter, Martina, wrote in her memoirs:

After landing [in America] my father stayed in New York State and worked there for various farmers, then traveled up the Hudson River to Albany or Troy and finally to Buffalo, New York. There he drove horses or oxen along the Erie Canal. The driver walked along the bank of the canal pulling the barge or boat. This work was very new to him but he knew his horses and therefore was successful.

When winter came and the canal froze he returned on foot to the place where he had left his sister, Little Aunt Mary. It may have been New York City but we do not know for sure. Mary would have been seventeen and the poor little thing was so small I often wondered of what great fear she must have had living in this country. She was by herself, except for a brother miles apart. Dad tried to find odd jobs during the winter. We do not know if Dad and Little Aunt Mary found Martin and Bridget in New York State or not. We think that all four would have been in the same state at the same time.

I rather think that all the Swift siblings were in touch with one another in those years, but I cannot prove it. There is a record of a Mary Swift, "servant", age 18, in the 1855 New York State Census, living in the household of James A. Putnam and family in Albany, NY. But Mary Swift is such a common name and there were thousands of Irish immigrants living in Albany at this time, so I cannot be certain that this is indeed Little Aunt Mary.

Some of the sights we saw before leaving the Albany area:

pedestal of statue of Philip Schuyler

Pedestal of a statue of Philip Schuyler in Albany, NY. He was a member of the Continental Congress, a general in the American Revolution, and a second cousin 8x removed to Travis Stannard (Molly's nephew-in-law). Numerous places around the country are named in his honor, including Schuyler County, IL.

statue of Philip Schuyler

Statue of Philip Schuyler, erected in front of City Hall, Albany, NY, in 1925. Some have called for removal of the statue on the basis that Schuyler kept a large number of enslaved persons. Click here for more information about Philip Schuyler.

City Hall, Albany, NY

City Hall, Albany, NY, with statue of Major General Philip Schuyler in front.

bicyclist carrying lots of stuff

Bicyclist in Albany, hauling empty bottles

St. Joseph Catholic Church

The deconsecrated Saint Joseph's Catholic Church in Albany, NY. Built in 1855-1860, it was the second church in Albany by this name. The first one, built a short distance away, is likely the church where Molly's 2x great aunt, Bridget Swift, and Thomas Quinn - immigrants from Ireland - were married in 1855. That church (no longer in existence) was much smaller, and by 1842 was not large enough to accomodate the city's growing Catholic population. The diocese built a new church (this photo). To meet financial obligations, the diocese sold the church in 1981, and it passed through the hands of several owners. Its last use as a church was in 1994. Parish members of Saint Joseph were absorbed into another Catholic parish in Albany (Sacred Heart of Jesus in North Albany). Several attempts were made to restore Saint Joseph's Church, but it is now essentially abandonded and belongs to the city.

A side door of St Joseph's church

A side door of Saint Joseph's Church, boarded up and plastered with a grafitti figures, showing newlyweds leaving the church.

Closed Saint Joseph church

Closed Saint Joseph Catholic Church in Albany, NY.

Cohoes Falls on the Mohawk River

Cohoes Falls on the Mohawk River. The rocky and meandering course of river, dropping several feet as it heads toward the Hudson, was the waterway leading westward through the gap between the Adirondacks and the Appalachian plateau. The builders of the Erie Canal knew they would need to conquer the challenge of getting around the falls.

Sign about the Mohawk River

A sign explaining the use of the Mohawk River at Cohoes. The river was dammed to harness the water power for mills. Harmony Mills, when it opened in 1872, was the world's largest cotton mill complex. The mills ceased operations in after 1988, and many of the larger buildings have since been renovated to house luxury apartments - The Lofts at Harmony Mills.

Mohawk River, looking downstream from Cohoes Falls

The Mohawk River, looking downstream from Cohoes Falls. The river course meets the Hudson River a few miles to the south.

Cohoes Falls

Cohoes Falls, with a very low water level at this time. The pool was dropped in anticipation of heavy rains from two hurricanes that passed through the region. We had a good view of the rocky flats below the falls and watched gulls and an eagle fishing for their lunches. In springtime, when the water levels are higher, Cohoes Falls is comparable to the American side of Niagara Falls in its width and water volume.

Reflections on Our Trip

Prior to any multi-day bicycle trip, I usually experience a little anxiety and a bout of the "what ifs," and this time I struggled with more than the usual amount of self-doubt and worry. I suppose it can be attributed, in part, to living in social isolation because of the pandemic and other factors. But I am an introvert by nature and generally thrive on having lots of alone time. Increasing my time with others would have made me even more crackers. I was looking forward to the miles on the bicycle with Steve because I knew that both the exercise and the togetherness with my best travel partner would be the cure. And it was. The worries melted away as soon as we pedaled away from our starting point in Buffalo. That's not to say that we didn't encounter changes of plan or detours, but bike riding just lightens my mood and always has. The time spent together on the trail was mentally healing and restorative (even while my muscles and tendons disagreed).

Steve and I both were pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of practically everyone we met. Shopkeepers, pub owners, other cyclists we met on the trail, even mere bystanders were remarkably welcoming and encouraging toward us. Many wanted to know where we had started our journey and how far we were going that day as well as the planned endpoint of our trip. Several offered little kindnesses such as a refill of water bottles or tips for avoiding hazards and navigating detours. Even passing encounters, such a person on a park bench as we rode by or an oncoming cyclist or jogger, might shout out to us. "Safe journey!" As we were on our bikes outside the hotel in Syracuse, ready to pedal off to the next place on a hot day, a woman leaving the hotel saw us and exclaimed, "Oh my God! You guys are so brave! Have a nice life!" We did not expect to encounter so much positivity, and it was really heartening.

The prices for nearly everything - but especially fast food - were higher than we expected. Two sandwiches, fries and drinks at McDonald's or Burger King cost us around $20. We did better when we purchased sandwiches or salads at a convenience store or grocery. We generally used bottled or filtered water each day because we know from past experience that water from the hotel tap or from a kindly pub host can have a lingering taste. It might just be a little too much chlorine or some other minor "off" taste, but it gets annoying when that's something you're drinking for the rest of the day. And of course, hotel lodging is not as cheap as camping in a tent, but it suits us and keeps us happy. For this trip, I splurged and reserved a larger room when possible because we generally bring the bicycles into the hotel room with us (they would get lonely if we didn't). We estimated that our spending came to an average of around $220 per day for food, lodging and incidentals. Many communities along a popular bicycle route have figured this out and make an effort to educate their community about  the meaning of "bike friendly." We patronized such businesses when we could.

Our advance planning and conversations with other cyclists paid off - we made a couple of changes in our plans, and we were glad we did. In one case, we opted to use a detour route that saved us from a longer route with more climbing. And after talking to another cyclist who recommended the lodging at the Amsterdam Castle, we changed our reservations to stay in that place. It saved us from riding up a long, steep hill at the end of the day, and we thanked ourselves repeatedly for that.

Steve is a perfect travel companion for me on a self-supported bike trip. In the mornings, I am generally focused on thinking about getting everything back in the panniers and getting equipped for the day. While he's still absorbing his coffee, I would go fetch enough ice and bottled water to pack all our water bottles. At the end of the day, we're both physically pooped, but the fatigue generally makes me (extra) stupid, and I can't seem to plan even the simplest stuff. Steve always organized a dinner plan for us - telephoning a restaurant for a food delivery or scanning Google Maps for nearby options of carry out. Even if the plan involves getting me to go fetch the food from a grocery, I can handle the fetching but just can't wrap my mind around the organizing of the plan.

We found that we had different paces for cycling when we began to tire or get overheated. My inclination is to put my effort toward a steady pace which is a little faster than Steve can do. While he might fall behind if I ride ahead, I found that trying to ride at his slower pace didn't provide enough movement to keep my back from aching. So we leapfrogged. I would ride ahead and pause in the shade (if the mosquitoes weren't too awful), and we would both rest our legs and backs when he caught up. During one of the days when we were doing this, Steve came up with a song, to the tune of Air Supply's "I'm All Out of Love":

I’m all out of gas.
I’m so far behind you.
I can’t get my legs
To do what they should do.
I am all out of gas.
I’m inching along here.
My lungs have no air
And heart rate is just so wrong.

I had hoped that the Erie Canal Museum and other opportunities to learn the history of the canal might shed some light on my great-grandfather's experience. I learned that the "hoggees" who drove the mules (or horses, or oxen) generally stayed with a particular canal boat from one end of the canal to the other (though it might depend on the boat company for which one worked and whether or not they hauled cargo or passengers). I thought of Great-Grandpa many times as we moved along the canal. I know that in the nine days we were on the towpath trail, I must have pedalled in the places where he walked.

Some final thoughts, summed up by this poem by Gio Evan, poet and songwriter (translated from Italian).

Try to travel, otherwise
you may become racist,
and you may end up believing
that your skin is the only one
to be right,
that your language
is the most romantic
and that you were the first
to be the first.

because if you don't travel then
your thoughts won't be strengthened,
won't get filled with ideas.
Your dreams will be born with fragile
legs and then you end up believing in tv-shows,
and in those who invent enemies
that fit perfectly with your nightmares
to make you live in terror.

because travel teaches
to say good morning to everyone
regardless of which sun we come from.

because travel teaches
to say goodnight to everyone
regardless of the darkness
that we carry inside

because traveling teaches to resist,
not to depend,
to accept others, not just for who they are
but also for what they can never be.
To know what we are capable of,
to feel part of a family
beyond borders,
beyond traditions and culture.
Traveling teaches us to be beyond.

otherwise you end up believing
that you are made only for a panorama
and instead inside you
there are wonderful landscapes
still to visit.

Aug 22 and 23 - Getting to the starting point
Aug 24 - Buffalo to Lockport
Aug 25 - Lockport to Brockport
Aug 26 - Brockport to Palmyra
Aug 27 - Palmyra to Weedsport
Aug 28 - Weedsport to Syracuse
Aug 29 - Syracuse to Rome
Aug 30 - Rome to Little Falls
Aug 31 - Little Falls to Amsterdam
Sep 1 - Amsterdam to Albany
Sep 2 - Albany and reflections

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If you enjoyed the account of this self-supported bike trip, you might also like the travelogs of other trips:

Molly on the Marne
Molly on the Main
Great Allegheny Passage Trail