It has been 200 years since a corps of men and mules started to dig what was known as “Clinton’s ditch” across hundreds of miles of farmland, forests and other decidedly dry terrain in upstate New York, creating the Erie Canal and, with it, a range of prosperous towns from Albany to Buffalo.
The canal’s heyday has long passed, and in recent decades it has been relegated as a recreational byway, drawing pleasure boats, fishing lines and the occasional canal fan.
Lately, however, there has been a curious sight along the Erie Canal and some of its offshoots: commercial shipping — a small rebound pegged to the canal’s use as a niche waterway for cargo whose size or weight make it impossible, impractical or too expensive to haul any other way. All told, the state anticipates more than 200,000 tons of shipping on the canal system in 2017, a milestone not reached since 1993, according to state officials. Still, that is a far cry from the millions of tons of cargo the canal regularly trafficked during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
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