Thursday, September 26, 2013

Herkimer (or is it Hermiker?)

As the fall foliage nears its peak season, we found ourselves wandering into the foothills of the Adirondacks, specifically staying in Herkimer, New York. (Or is it Hermiker? We were always confused as to how to say it!)

Before I launch into a narrative about the fun things we did in Herkimer, I would be remiss if I didn't comment on the natural beauty of the area. It had been so long since I last experienced an autumn this far north that I had completely forgotten how breathtaking the scenery can be during this time of year! The gently rolling hills; the shallow bubbling creeks; the migrating Canadian geese; the yellow, orange and fiery red leaves which cover the hillsides - all of it causes a man (like *ahem* Steve) to say, "I want to stay here forever!" It truly was spectacular.

Although our stay in Herkimer was short, we enjoyed two noteworthy - and unique! - activities.

During the morning of our day, we went to the famous Herkimer Diamond Mine and tried our luck at mining for diamonds. ("Herkimer diamonds" aren't actually true diamonds. They are what's called "double terminated quartz crystal", and this is found in natural abundance all throughout Herkimer County, New York.)

The younger boys did some sluicing instead of mining. They got to pour bags of dirt into a screened box, lower the box into the water, sluice it around, and see if anything appears out of the muck. I'm happy to say that they each discovered some Herkimer diamonds, a few other gemstones, and a several fossils. My 7yo is convinced that he's rich now!

Steve and the four teenage boys went into the quarry with hammers and bags, and they spent several hours chisling away at the earth - and had very sore arms to prove it! It was all worthwhile in the end. Besides some interesting geodes, they all found some of the diamonds. One of my 17yo's stash was assessed at $45 of value, which pleased him quite well!

After our time at the diamond mine, we ate lunch then headed into the Mohawk River Valley to ride a cruise on the famous Erie Canal. (Sing with me: "I've got a mule and her name is Sal, fifteen miles on the Erie Canal...")

What an educational ride that was! Did you know that there wasn't just ONE Erie Canal, but rather THREE? The first canal, opened in 1825, was shallow and narrow, and mules pulled the barges up the canal. But it forever changed the landscape of America; the Atlantic Ocean was now connected to the interior Great Lakes. The Mohawk River Valley was chosen as the location because it is naturally flat and the only natural passage through the Appalachian mountains. The original canal was only 40 feet wide and 4 feet deep, and ran from Albany to Buffalo (363 miles).

Since this became the first and only available water route to the western side of the Appalachian mountains, the canal's popularity spread quickly. New York City became a very prosperous port city, population quickly spread into western New York and western Pennsylvania, and traffic on the canal boomed. In 1834, construction began to enlarge the canal in order to keep up with all the traffic.

The second canal, known as the "Improved Canal", did not follow the exact path of the first, but it was very close. Locks were put in place to raise the barges with "water elevators" instead of using brute force of mules along a towpath to move traffic along. The canal was enlarged to 70 feet wide and 7 feet deep. However, with the advent of the railroads, passenger traffic ceased on the canal by the late 1800's even though cargo traffic continued to thrive.

In the early 1900's the third canal was built. Under the governorship of Theodore Roosevelt, the state of New York established the New York Barge Canal. This canal put controls on the existing rivers in the area and utilized them as much as possible. As with the first renovation of the canal, prior existing sections of the canal were abandoned.

Once again, the canal hosted unprecedented amounts of cargo barges, until the beginning of the interstate highway system in the 1950's. All at once, water was no longer the cheapest way to ship cargo. The trucking industry dethroned the Erie Canal, and it would never be the same. Today the canal is used mostly for private recreational water vessels.

On our cruise of the canal, we learned all this history and more. We were able to experience going through Lock 18 on our journey, and the captain of our tour boat allowed our boys to pilot the boat for a short distance. Not many kids these days can say they steered a boat down the Erie Canal!

Two wonderful and unique experiences in one day in Herkimer, New York.