As both the bicycle and the Erie Canal celebrate their bicentennial this year, we thought it would be fun to highlight one of the earliest bicycle trips taken along the Erie Canal 120 years ago. Earlier this year, Dave Patterson of Missoula, Montana found a detailed travel log of his grandfather’s bicycle trip during the summer of 1897 between Albany and Buffalo and shared it with Parks & Trails New York. “From Albany to Buffalo: An Account of a Pleasant Wheeling Tour Across New York State” describes in detail the sights, route, amenities, and difficulties of the earliest known end-to-end trip along the Erie Canal. To the thousands who have followed in their tracks since then, the experience holds some familiarity.
Austin Patterson and his riding companion Frank Chew left Albany in the early evening of June 21, 1897, with the goal of reaching Buffalo in less than two weeks. Almost immediately, they experienced mechanical issues. Undeterred, they “made a good start on the fine cycle path that extends, with but one poor stretch, clear to Schenectady.” Aside from battling an uncooperative chain, Austin lost a pedal and his tool bag somewhere on the dark trail between Albany and Schenectady. As anyone who knows about the perils of early bicycle touring can attest, these mechanical issues didn’t stop after the first day. Austin faced everything from a stubbornly persistent flat to a crash involving another rider from Utica near Clyde.
Similar to today’s experience, Austin and Frank encountered accommodations that varied from the “fine” Edison Hotel in Schenectady (“our money was plenty then,” Austin writes) to the 25-cent-a-night Franklin House in Amsterdam, where Austin writes that he “lost sleep that night on account of mosquitoes or – something.” People living along the route also opened their homes to the touring cyclists, including one memorable host in Clyde, Henry Barton. Austin writes that for only 75 cents, they stayed in a “neat room with a double bed…and in the morning, enjoyed a plentiful country breakfast with amiable Henry B., his large wife, pretty dark-eyed daughter, and bright-faced boy.”
The similarities start to disappear, though, as soon as you read about the food they ate along the way. Now when most touring cyclists seek out a hearty meal to refuel, they eat granola bars, fruit, and carbohydrate-loaded meals like bread and pasta. Almost every day, Austin and Frank subsisted on pastries, cakes, candy, and milk. On June 29, Austin writes that “we reached Palmyra a little after 2 PM. Our dinner had been entirely of cherries, so we got some cake and ice cream to back it up.”
Another difference between End-to-End touring in 1897 and 2017 is the route between Buffalo and Albany. While the Erie Canalway Trail did not exist as a 360-mile off-road route in 1897, Austin and Frank did take advantage of a variety of off-road paths. Outside Utica they encountered a “fine cinder path built by local wheelmen.” These private paths appeared across the country during the late 19th and early 20th centuries to provide cyclists with a smooth place to ride in an era when paved roads were just starting to make their debut. They usually required club membership or a toll to take advantage of the privilege of riding on the equivalent of a modern-day multi-use path. “In spite of the many placards hinting that those who did not help pay need not ride, we sailed along with easy consciences, believing that as visiting wheelmen we were entitled to all the privileges of guests,” Austin wrote. Other separated paths existed between Albany and Schenectady, in the Mohawk Valley between Little Falls and Herkimer, and an early-day rail-with-trail between the railroad tracks through Mohawk, Ilion, and Frankfort. Today, much of the Erie Canalway Trail uses the abandoned towpath, with cyclists, hikers, runners, and dog-walkers sharing the historic path. In 1897, during the Erie Canal’s heyday, cyclists using the towpath had to contend with a different definition of multi-use. Austin writes that despite taking advantage of a better riding surface than the adjacent roads, “we had to be on our guard against being thrown into the canal by the mule-ropes.”
The most relatable experience Austin documents comes at the end of his trip, 11 days after he left Albany: “the last fourteen-and-a-half miles were asphalt and over this I rode down into the heart of the city of Buffalo—the goal attained at last.”
Click here to read Austin Patterson’s “From Albany to Buffalo. An Account of a Pleasant Wheeling Tour Across New York State”
Do you have an Erie Canalway Trail End-to-End story to share? Visit our website to register as an End-to-Ender and tell us about your journey.