I’d had it in my mind the last couple of years to tour the Great Lakes. As a child we took a family vacation to the Sixth Great Lake (Lake Champlain), and I’d seen Lake Michigan a few times flying in and out of Chicago, but I wanted to see them from the ground and the country around them. Lakes Great or not tend to look the same: bodies of water of varying size. The trick to a successful vacation would be to find unique perspectives for each Lake. I also wanted to the extent possible in a week to get a feel for the region. The Lakes are one of the economic powerhouse regions of the US, and Chicago is the region’s undisputed hub, but by the same token many Americans don’t really know much about the area. Most people know that there’s a lot of shipping, there used to be some steel production, and the western part of the region is big on outdoor activities, but that’s about it.
The exploitation of the Lakes was key to the American expansion west of the Appalachians. The French and British controlled the area early in the nation’s history, and the English pretty much kicked the Americans around the Lakes during the War of 1812. We did gain control of Lake Erie, which allowed us to develop the region through canals and the large rivers that flowed to the Mississippi. If you could develop transportation to and on the Lakes, you’d have access to half the continent.
Because I only had a week, I had to design the itinerary to maximize time. Michigan borders four of the five Lakes, so most of my time would be spent there. I decided to visit Buffalo, NY, for a couple of days because it’s near Lake Ontario, and there are some interesting things in the Buffalo area.
On the logistical side I decided to take a red-eye to Buffalo after work rather than the usual Oh-God-30 flights I’ve habitually used to get to the East. From the west coast of the US there are really only a couple of choices for arriving back East at a reasonable hour: late night or very early morning flights. I’ve done the early morning flights for years, and it’s a whole lot of not fun. I took a red-eye to South Carolina earlier this year, and discovered if you can power through the first day fatigue (and maybe get some actual sleep on the plane), taking the late-night flight essentially adds an extra day to the trip.
The flight from PDX to ORD is a bit over three hours, but I was stuck in the middle seat, and my sciatica took the opportunity to act up, so it was three hours of not sleeping or really resting. I managed to get some rest during the two hour layover, or as much rest as one can get in an airport terminal. I was assigned an exit row for the ORD-BUF leg, which would have been really nice on the previous leg. No rest here as I hadn’t seen this part of the country before, so considerable time looking out the window. There was fog in Ohio that morning forming a condensation contour map of the terrain:
Arrived in Buffalo around 0900 Monday for a transit time of under seven hours. The Buffalo – Niagara area is a good-sized metro area, but the airport is not at all crowded. I couldn’t check into the hotel until after 1500, so I jumped right into the itinerary.
I wanted to see the Erie Canal, and the town of Lockport came up frequently in my research. Construction on the Canal began in 1817, and it’s still a functional transportation system. A 200 year-old bit of infrastructure that still does the job is impressive. The Canal was built to facilitate transport between the Lakes at Buffalo and the Hudson River at Albany. On completion the Canal cut transit time from the Buffalo to New York City from months to two weeks. The Canal was so efficient it paid for itself in seven years.
Lockport is where the Canal had to surmount a 60 foot ridge of dolomite forming part of the Niagara Escarpment. The Escarpment is the remains of an ancient shoreline, and the same formation created Niagara Falls. Quite an engineering challenge for a young country that didn’t have any engineering schools. West Point was the closest the US had to an engineering school, but those graduates were all military. For civil engineering and surveying projects, it was a case of whomever thought they could do the job.
You don’t have to go far out of the Buffalo metro area to get into the country, and it’s very flat. Perhaps not surprising given that glaciers covered the area not too terribly long ago. The primary crops are apples and corn. I hope the corn was the second crop, because it wasn’t all that high, and didn’t look great. The apple crop looked good.
The solution to the Escarpment problem at Lockport was to build a ‘flight’ of five locks eastbound and westbound side-by-side. It’s impressive. Sixty feet of elevation gain (or loss) doesn’t sound like much, but we’re talking about moving boats up and down hills:
The modern canal is in the center, the locks on the right are the original width but no longer used, and the road is the original towpath (but not the original surface). The building in the middle on the other side of the bridge is a museum. Folks I talked to said the current mix of traffic on the Canal is 95% recreational and 5% commerce. Considerable money has been spent on restoring sections of the Canal: there was work going on when I visited this section. It’s important to preserve history, but I’m ambivalent about spending tax money to facilitate the passage of pleasure boaters.
A reproduction of the original lock gates. These were hand-operated, and you can see how they are designed to use leverage to move them. Even though water pressure would be equalized, that’s still a lot of mass.
Interior of the museum:
A variety of artifacts, and the chainfall on the left goes to a bridge crane overhead.
There’s another museum close by:
There’s a $5 admission, but it’s pretty well worth it. There’s a movie presentation with a bit of a twist. You start watching in one room, and at a point a character invites you to step into the movie. The screen slides back, and you enter a new set where the movie continues.
The screening room:
And the second set:
I do not know why these photos are in this building. It’s like seeing a Transporter on a WWI base.
There’s a lock simulator. It’s fun:
There’s a railroad bridge down the canal that’s touted as an ‘upside down’ bridge. Curiously TripAdvisor mentions the bridge without mentioning the locks. A textbook case of Missing the Point. Anyway, the bridge is an upside down truss.
Unusual, but not nearly as interesting as the locks.
After a very enjoyable and too brief Canal interlude in Lockport, I turned my eyes to seeing Lake Ontario. There was a shore side state park up the road through more of rural New York. Wilson-Tuscarora State Park is a well-equipped and good-sized park on the shores of Lake Ontario. I’m noticing that New York state parks tend to be nice places.
Ontario is the smallest of the Great Lakes, and yet no opposite shoreline visible.
The next planned stop was Niagara Falls, but there was something else to see. Signs pointed to Fort Niagara, and being the sucker for history I am, I followed.
Fort Niagara dates from the French-Indian War, and there is a continued military presence with Homeland Security, in case, you know, Canada decides to invade. The British took the fort during the War of 1812. This is the backside of the fort, but I’d spent my budget for old forts this year. What was free was the lighthouse.
There’s a spiral staircase to the top. It’s only 60′ high, but not for the faint of heart (literally). A volunteer camps out on the penultimate level to warn folks the last pitch is steeper than those preceding. There is a view:
Even at 23 miles away, Toronto is plainly visible, and those who know relate that on clear nights the stoplights are visible. It’s similar to viewing Tampa from St. Petersburg. I have to say that everywhere I went in this region, I couldn’t help but think but what things look like in November. Most Americans know that western New York gets lots of snow, and the people I talked to didn’t want to think about it. By the way, when the lighthouse was built, the trees weren’t there.
Off to Niagara Falls.
I was looking forward to Niagara Falls. Never been there. I believe the approach from the east is superior, because you’re seeing things the way travelers from back east saw them. The first stop on the way was a powerhouse:
The US and Canada suck a lot of water out of the Niagara River for power, and this is the latest installation. That’s Canada on the opposite shore. An older installation is the Schoellkopf Power Complex. This is offered as a a self-guided tour at the Niagara Visitor Center. In 1956 a landslide took out an entire power installation.
The debris at the base of the cliff is what remains of the power station. Plenty of artifacts visible. The shaft at left is the elevator that takes visitors to the base of the cliff. The Maid of the Mist homeport is on the left. You can see the mist from Niagara from here, but curiously can’t hear it. It doesn’t help that there are tourist helicopters in the air. Along the way are signs pointing out wildlife in the area, and I saw a native millipede:
There’s also a cable car crossing the gorge:
I believe this started in 1908, and hasn’t failed in the meantime. In the same area is the Whirlpool Basin:
The rapids are Class VI, but there is at least one ship on record as having navigated them.
The Canadian side is more developed than the American side. Let no one say the Canadians can’t do commerce:
I talked to a volunteer who opined that for the Canadians the Falls are more of a background for commercialization, while for the Americans the Falls serve as a focal point.
But I wouldn’t find out this day. It was after 3. I hadn’t eaten since the previous evening, and had been up for over 36 hours with minimal rest. I was tired and hungry, and exploring Niagara Falls looked to be at least two hours. Even with the spray of the Falls visible, I decided to bag it and come back the next day.
From this point to the hotel was given as 20 miles. In Portland during weekday rush hour this would be over an hour. In Buffalo, the computer said 35 minutes, and that’s about what it took. Along the way I was treated to the sight of truckers coming over the Peace Bridge through Customs:
My hotel was the Adams Mark, and it’s located smack in downtown Buffalo.
The immediate neighborhood:
The building at center is mounted by a replica of of the Statue of Liberty, and a beacon shines (well, flashes) at night. The hotel is nice enough, but is built along Soviet lines in that it’s a glorified concrete block. This is evident in the hallways and the rooms:
No matter. A shower and nap were the order of the day.
Afterwards time to get something to eat. I realized a couple of days ago that I’d be in the hometown of Buffalo wings. I checked and the originating bar was still in business. So a short drive to the Anchor Bar on Main Street to order wings.
The view as you enter. Service is quick, and the food is OK. It’s chicken wings. I expected prices to be inflated, but they aren’t that bad. And between you and the lamppost, I’ve had better. Back to the hotel bar for Monday Night Football.