Mules named Sal are hard to find these days along the Erie Canal. But almost two centuries after workers began digging its route across upstate New York, you can still see barges pushed and pulled through what some consider the first superhighway of the U.S.
As the canal prepares to celebrate its bicentennial next July, some are questioning whether the canal is still worth subsidizing.
After the original canal was completed in 1825, the 363-mile waterway was a technological marvel. It shortened the trek from eastern New York to the Great Lakes from two weeks by wagon to just five days on the water.
By today's standards, though, the ride is slow and steady with stops every so often at canal locks that act like water elevators for barges and boats.
"The canal used to be very busy," says tugboat captain Mark Smith, who adds locals didn't used to pay much attention to canal workers like him. "They probably didn't look twice at a tugboat with a fuel barge. Nobody thought anything of it. Now it's kind of a novelty."
"It was really neat to see it happen again. And it's too bad it doesn't happen more often," says Maureen Buechner, who watched Smith's tugboat, the Margot, glide through a lock in Waterford, N.Y., with a barge carrying three electrical transformers headed for a power plant. "That's how everything traveled. Now, you have trucks, trains. This is an old way of life."
But the Margot's owners aren't ready to rule it out yet.
Business is growing for the New York State Marine Highway Transportation Company, according to co-founder Rob Goldman. His crew has found steady work towing barges of stone and sometimes oversized cargo like fighter planes along an expanded Erie Canal, also known as the New York State Barge Canal, that was completed in 1918.
"Let's face it: a barge can't deliver to your front door. A truck can," Goldman admits. "But if we work with the trucks and we work with the rail, we can each be as efficient as possible and use as little fuel as possible because we're efficient."
Efficiency, though, is probably not the priority for most of the people who use the canal. Recreational boats are driving most of the canal's revenue today. Travelers like Art Cohn enjoy taking the scenic route at about five miles per hour.
"That's a really interesting way to see the world. Normally if I'm home, I'm driving, you know, highway speeds and if someone's moving too slow, I'm getting frustrated. Not on the canal," says Cohn, a co-founder of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum who toured the canal this summer to share prints of early paintings of the canal.
Tolls and permits for New York's entire canal system, including the Erie Canal, brought in about $1.5 million in 2014, according to the latest figures from the New York State Canal Corporation. But it took about $55 million to operate and maintain the canals.
Drivers on the New York State Thruway were making up most of the difference. The trucking industry sued the state for using highway tolls to fund the canals and won in federal court in August.
But by the time the judge ruled, state lawmakers had already transferred the canal system from the New York State Thruway Authority to another agency, the New York Power Authority, which has been funding the canals since April.
In a written statement to NPR, the Power Authority says revenue from its hydropower plants, not taxpayers, is funding the canals from now on.
Still, some residents see the canals as a financial drain.
"The state should not get involved in anything like that in my mind. If it can't stand on its own two legs and make money, then we need to understand that," says Joe Shaw, a regular jogger along the trails of the Old Erie Canal State Historic Park near his home in Manlius, N.Y.
Many business leaders are also concerned about the high costs of maintaining the canals.
"It's completely upside down from a commercial standpoint," says Darren Suarez, director of government affairs for the Business Council of New York State. "You will continue to lose money."
Still, Suarez acknowledges the potential for growth in tourism along the Erie Canal, pointing to studies estimating that visitors can generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for the local economy.
One major hurdle, though, is that awareness about this legendary "Gateway to the West" has fallen to the wayside, according to Natalie Stetson, executive director of the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse, N.Y.
"The canal suffers from the fact that people don't know it exists anymore," Stetson says. "They think it's a piece of history."
But it's history that residents like Debbie Cummings of Syracuse still take pride in.
"You think of all the labor that went into digging this huge ditch from Albany to Buffalo," Cummings says, "And it's still here!"
And according to New York's constitution, the working parts of the Erie Canal will stay under the state's "management and control forever."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It has been called America's first superhighway. And it has been celebrated in song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOW BRIDGE")
BILLY MURRAY: I've got an old mule, and her name is Sal - 15 years on the Erie Canal.
GREENE: That was a 1912 recording of that famous song about the Erie Canal. The waterway in upstate New York is turning 200 next year. And some are asking whether it's still worth subsidizing. Here's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang.
(SOUNDBITE OF BLOWING HORN)
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Go up the Hudson River, and you'll see there's still pushing and pulling barges through the Erie Canal.
(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRIC SCREWDRIVER)
WANG: Deckhands here in the port of Albany are prepping this barge not for lumber, coal or hay but for three electrical transformers headed to a power plant. They're pushed along the water by a tugboat named Margot. Her captain on this day is Mark Smith. And their first stop on the canal is just north of Albany.
MARK SMITH: This goes all the way to Buffalo if you keep going west.
WANG: When the canal was first completed in 1825, it shortened what would have been a two-week trip by wagon to just five days. By today's standards, though, it's a slow and steady ride.
UNIDENTIFIED OPERATOR: Erie Lock 2.
SMITH: Yeah, good evening. We're headed your way westbound.
WANG: Captain Smith radios Erie Canal Lock 2 so an operator can get ready to lift the Margot and her barge like a water elevator. It's the kind of thing that Smith says locals didn't used to pay much attention to.
SMITH: The canal used to be very busy. They probably didn't look twice at a tugboat with a fuel barge. Nobody thought anything of it. Now it's kind of a novelty.
MAUREEN BUECHNER: It was really neat to see it happen again.
WANG: Maureen Buechner watched along the banks of the canal with her grandson sitting in a stroller as the Margot glided through the canal lock in Waterford, N.Y.
BUECHNER: That's how everything traveled. Now you have trucks, trains. This is an old way of life.
WANG: But the Margot's owners aren't ready to rule it out yet. Rob Goldman is one of the founders of the New York State Marine Highway Transportation Company. And he says his business is growing with steady work towing barges of stone and, sometimes, oversized cargo like fighter planes.
ROB GOLDMAN: Let's face it. A barge can't deliver to your front door. A truck can. But if we work with the trucks, and we work with the rail, we could each be as efficient as possible and use as little fuel as possible because we're efficient.
WANG: Efficiency, though, is probably not the priority for most of the people who use the canal.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)
WANG: Lil' Utopia passing us by.
ART COHN: That's right. Little pleasure boat - but high-enough profile to need the bridge lifted.
WANG: That was Art Cohn, resting outside of Rochester in Fairport, N.Y. He's a co-founder of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. And he toured the canal this summer on the museum's tugboat at about 5 miles per hour.
COHN: That's a really interesting way to see the world. Normally, if I'm home, I'm driving, you know, highway speeds. And if someone's moving too slow, I'm getting frustrated - not on a canal.
WANG: Recreational boats are driving most of the canal's revenue today. But tolls and permits for all of New York's canals only bring in just over a million dollars every year. It takes about $55 million annually to maintain the canal system. So who was making up most of the difference? Drivers on the New York State Thruway.
How much is the toll?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Just 20 cents.
WANG: Twenty cents.
But the trucking industry sued the state for using highway tolls and won. By the time the judge ruled, the canals were already transferred to another agency, the New York Power Authority. It's using revenues from its hydropower plants to fund the canals now. Still, some residents, like Joe Shaw of Manlius, see the canals as a financial drain.
JOE SHAW: If it can't stand on its own two legs and make money, then we need to understand that.
WANG: But others, like Debbie Cummings of Syracuse, are proud of the canal's longevity and see potential for growth.
DEBBIE CUMMINGS: You think of all the labor that went into digging this huge ditch from Albany to Buffalo. And it's still here.
WANG: And it's protected by New York state Constitution. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Erie Canal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.