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The Erie Canal Town Museum, Canastota, NY

We’d heard about the Erie Canal Town Museum in Canastota, NY, and late last summer, we decided to give it a try! Boy, we were not disappointed! What a wonderful museum, and what a great tour guide we had.

The drive was very pleasant to Canastota along Route 5. There are numerous little communities strung like pearls down this old “Seneca Turnpike,” as Route 5 was once called. Beautiful, grand old houses, neat yards, sidewalks, trees lining the streets, small shops… this vista of small-town America was such a refreshing sight for a person weary of the cluttered, ugly mill towns and endless political bickering of greater Utica. Canastota is a town in its own right, and it is obvious that the residents have made it a community. Truly a lovely village.

The Canal Town Museum was not difficult to find, although the building is a tiny-looking little thing.

Canal Museum Exterior w Guide

We were the only ones at the Museum. I like that, because we usually get first-class treatment! The curator of this Museum, Mr. Joe DiGiorgio, went out of his way to make our visit one we will never forget. Usually, visitors are self-guided through the Museum’s displays, but Mr. DiGiorgio took on the role of tour guide; and he was so absorbed in his role that he unwittingly kept the Museum open an extra hour!

The Museum looks very small on the outside, but it is two levels chock-full of Canal and Canastota memorabilia. Canastota was founded by Reuben Perkins. His portrait looms over the visitor when you enter the Museum.

Canal Perkins

The Museum has everything. I don’t know where to begin, to describe it. It has maps, the first American-manufactured microscope, trains and boat models, newspaper articles, paintings, tools, farm implements, everything! I think there was even the proverbial kitchen sink! It is quite the museum.

Canal Microscope

Canal Women's Wear

Canal Stove

Canal Trying Out the Fluter

As every New Yorker knows, as every New York student has had its history indoctrinated into one’s head, the Erie Canal was a monumental engineering and transportation marvel when it opened in 1825. Nothing quite like it had been done. It connected the Atlantic Ocean (via the Hudson River) with Lake Ontario. It equipped the state with a convenient and inexpensive mode of transportation of goods, services, and tourists. Some historians claim it was the Erie Canal that made New York the Empire State. Today, a good deal of the Erie Canal is filled in (in Utica, Oriskany Street covers it). The Erie Canal boom did not last long, as far as canals go. Railroads and later the motorcar replaced the canal. I also wonder how New York acquired all that land to run the canal across the state– obviously they used brute legislative and eminent domain force, right?

Canal Pic of Canal

Anyway, the Canal was “good for business.” Canastota, already a longstanding and prosperous community, certainly benefited from the Canal.

Because there was so much to absorb at this Museum, I don’t think I can possibly squeeze in all the wonderful things we found. I will just tell you about the things that stood out to us. The kids each wrote a small essay describing their favorite part of the tour.

Beetle Bailey says: What I liked best at the Canal Town Museum was learning about the Erie Canal’s construction and how it worked. The construction began in 1817, and ended in 1825. An expansion project was in 1837. In constructing the canal, at times the workers needed to get through solid rock. Holes were drilled in the large chunks of limestone– one large section was 60 feet tall and five miles long! That’s a big rock! When the holes were drilled in this rock, the holes were filled with blasting powder. The fuse was lit, and KABOOM! Next, I liked how the canal worked. A packet boat was pulled by two mules walking alongside the canal bank. As the boat went down the canal, it came to a “lock.” A lock had two gates. The first gate opened to let the boat in, and then was closed. Water flooded the lock so the boat could rise up to the level of the canal ahead. The second gate opened, and the boat would continue on.

Canal Boat Model

The Historian says: The Canastota Canal Museum is definitely more than it appears on the outside. For such a tiny building, there certainly is a lot to learn! One can learn the whole history of Canastota in that tiny building! But that does not mean that Canastota has a tiny or insignificant history; not in the least! People often picture New York City when “New York” is mentioned, but Canastota was once one of the leading towns in the state, if not in the nation. Many “firsts” occurred here. For instance, the first American-manufactured microscope was produced there by Charles Spencer, who began preparing the project at 12 years of age. Canastota was a leading “canal town” because it was practically in the center of the Erie Canal. And yes, a native of Canastota, Nathan Morris, was responsible for several aspects of the Erie Canal’s unique design. Canastota was the hotbed of new inventions and major manufactures and industries in New York and in the country. Some of the earlier and more advanced movie projectors were invented and used in Canastota by natives of Canastota. Distinguished glass-art and wagon manufactures were based in Canastota, and during the wars which America experienced during the late 19 and early 20th centuries, Canastota was a leading suppliant of the American military with wagons and motor vehicles.

I liked learning about the history of a once prospering town in New York, and I liked learning how people lived their everyday lives through the hands-on experience and the knowledgeable tourists that the museum makes available to the public.

Canal Mouse Traps

InJane says: Our trip to the Canal Town Museum in Canastota turned out to be longer and more informative than I expected. We learned about some people who engineered some of the construction of the Erie Canal and others who made successful industries in Canastota because of the canal. I was surprised by all of the huge industries started in Canastota. It was neat to see some of the inventions that were patented by folks in Canastota, such as the first American-built microscope, a kind-of movie projector, tire chains, the fluting machine, and Mrs. Pott’s iron.

I thought it was interesting how the canal locks worked, and the history surrounding the construction and use of the Erie Canal– including how eventually steamboats and railroads were beginning to replace the canal boat method. It seems strange how people would spend so much time, money, and trouble to build this canal, and then later it would be unneeded because of railroads, and then just be refilled. Probably the most interesting features to me were the many invention that originated in Canastota, and the travel and transportation that the canal was used for.

Canal Washing Laundry

Sniffy says: My favorite part of the Canal Museum was all about the inventions. I thnk it’s neat how the contraptions like the old-fashioned washing machine works. Another display I really liked was the safe in the basement. If you pushed aside a certain “bead,” on the safe’s door, a hole revealed the keyhole. (But shhh don’t tell anybody). I also liked a sort of contraption that was like a flip book, except it was shaped like a fan, so when you cranked the wheel, it looked like moving pictures.

Canal Cool Safe

The kids talked about all the inventions by Canastota residents. The ingenuity of the residents is truly staggering. The most interesting invention, IMHO, was the mutoscope, by Herman Casler (Sniffy describes it in his essay as a “flip book”). There was a room full of displays of these inventions in an amazingly inventive era. Truly fascinating.

It was a great visit, well worth the $3.00 admission fee (and the gracious Mr. D gave us a discount, too!) Should you make the wise choice of visiting the Canal Town Museum, give Mr. D our regards!

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About the Author

I've been traveling throughout New York State since I got the travel bug after touring the Herkimer Home on a school field trip as a youngster. We've been blogging about our travels since 2006 and have visited over half of New York's 62 counties so far.

Comments (9)

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  1. That area is so distinctive, nothing compares.

  2. NYCO says:

    I always wondered if that museum was worth going to. Thanks for the report.

    Several years ago I rode my bike from Dewitt to Canastota, but by the time I got there it was 4 pm and I had to turn right around and go home! (alas, my right knee has never recovered…)

  3. Bruce Krupke says:

    I visited the museum recently, June 2009 and I thought it was very good. It had everything you would expect, modern and times exhibits. They do a great job. You can see everything in 45 minutes, I recommend it if you are in the area, you’ll learn a lot about our society and how upstate NY was formed.

  4. mike golch says:

    thank you for this posting the state of Oghio has several different Canal Museums along the Ohio and Erie canal and the Miami and Erie canals as well.Maybe I do a series about these canals on my site as well.

  5. Kathy says:

    I grew up in Canastota and lived on Canal St. Now living in Charlotte, N.C., people here can’t imagine that I ice skated every winter on the Erie Canal, right across from my home. Skating was not always the best; if it was real windy when the water froze, the ice was not very smooth, but we made the most of it. In later years, my parents had the Towpath Ice Cream Parlor and hosted a skating party one winter. It was so much fun. The safe that is in the museum (shown above) belonged to my dad, Gene Pavone, and he got it from his dad who originally lived at the home at 186 Canal St. He and my grandmother had a restaurant there. Story goes, when he bought the house, it was down near where the Key Bank sits. They moved the house to its present location on the ice. I’m so glad that they have that museum and many thanks to the people who run it.

  6. Ann says:

    I am currently residing in Canastota and I am doing some very in-depth research on this area. I think this town is a lovely town though it does have it’s ups and it’s downs but that is mainly because of certain people in this town. This town is not distinctive thank you very much Dave. This town is here full of life for 200 years and will continue to be full of life for like another 200 years to come and every does compare too.

  7. Dave says:

    Oh Ann, why be so miserable and blase about where you live? And why single ME out for being a little nostalgic for places I’ve traveled?
    A) Every place is distinctive, that’s how we distinguish one place from the next

    B) Nothing lasts forever so you HOPE it’ll be there for another 200, in the meantime, let’s recognize it’s history and commend all the effort that went into the preservation effort

    C) I said “area” not “town”

    What? It took me like 6 months to come up with all that…

  8. jERRY DECIRCE says:

    wHAT ARE YOUR HOURS AND DAYS OF OPERATION FOR VISITERS

  9. Susan says:

    Thanks for the information! I just found out Reuben Perkins is an ancestor and I cannot wait to visit and enjoy the museum and the town!

    P.S. I’m so glad you took a picture of his portrait.