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Lock 19 bridge to unlock piece of history (with video)

Thursday, August 16, 2012
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Lock 19 of the Erie Canal in Clifton Park will be getting a new pedestrian bridge through the combined effort of local officials and businesses.
Lock 19 of the Erie Canal in Clifton Park will be getting a new pedestrian bridge through the combined effort of local officials and businesses.

— Lock 19 of the old Erie Canal in Clifton Park was shut down in the early 1900s, but in a couple of months, it will once again be open for business — to foot traffic, not boats.

Shenendehowa Central School District students and local businesses have teamed up to design and build a pedestrian bridge that will span Lock 19

so people can better see the double lock, which dates from 1842, when the original Erie Canal was expanded into a larger waterway.

The canal was abandoned about 10 years after the Mohawk River was dammed in 1907 to make it more navigable, said Clifton Park town historian John Scherer.

For a time after it was abandoned, there was still water in Lock 19. Even in the 1970s, people could still canoe through the lock, Scherer said.

But now, since part of the canal was filled in to make a road and parking lot for people visiting the Vischer Ferry Nature & Historic Preserve off Ferry Drive, only about a foot of water sits stagnant in the bottom of the lock.

The lock’s stone construction has held up well, but none of the wooden structures around the lock survive.

The new wooden pedestrian bridge will allow people to see the double lock from above. People on foot, in wheelchairs and on horseback will be able to traverse it, the students who designed the bridge say. It will be built on land next to the lock, then lifted in place by crane, most likely in October.

Pedestrian bridges built over the locks in the mid-1800s were iron with plank floors, so this one isn’t like its predecessors, said Barb McHugh, town community development director.

But it will be “historically sensitive,” though “not necessarily historically accurate,” said Pete Bardunias, president of the Chamber of Southern Saratoga County.

“The new design will be up to modern standards and codes,” he said.

The original concept of the bridge was drawn by a team of 10 students at Shenendehowa High School. Five teams competed for the winning bridge design.

“It was an arduous process,” said senior Sarah Yang, adding that it took her group two or three months. The project was not for credit and was done on a volunteer basis.

GE Energy worked with the students to develop the bridge concept and design firm SMRT developed blueprints. Turner Construction worked on clearing brush from the area and will build the bridge with materials donated from Curtis Lumber. Momentive Performance Materials also worked on the project.

The bridge will have an observation deck and a picnic area is planned at the site.

The Vischer Ferry preserve is a popular place for people to run, stroll or walk dogs along the Mohawk Towpath Byway.

“Whenever my wife and I come down here, there are always other cars here,” said Clifton Park Town Board member James Whalen.

Still, the lock was hidden behind brush off the walking path atop the old towpath, unknown to many.

“Not too many folks that drive by on this road knew that this old lock was back here,” said Brian U. Stratton, director of the New York State Canal Corp.

Many people knew of it 150 years ago.

In 1865, about 265 boats passed daily through the double lock, which was built to handle two-way traffic efficiently, Scherer said.

“It was a busy place.”

Some boaters got impatient waiting their turn to use the system of raising boats or lowering boats to get upstream or downstream.

“They would get into fistfights to see who would go into the lock first,” Scherer said.

The fights didn’t exactly speed up their journey, as the men were then hauled in to the justice of the peace in Vischer Ferry, where they often gave fictitious names in answer for their crimes, according to justice of the peace records that Scherer has seen.

Also along the canal in that section were barns where tired mules could be exchanged for fresh ones, and a dry dock for repairing canal boats or building new ones, he said.

The entire area — 600 acres that includes part of the preserve, the lock and the hamlet of Vischer Ferry — is on the National Register of Historic Places.

 
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