Many of us know that when we are driving on State Street in Binghamton we are driving over the old Chenango Canal. Did you also know that when you tee off on the 6th hole of the Chenango Valley State Park Golf Course you are also "driving" over the Chenango Canal? (That's assuming that you clear the water hazard!) That's right, the long straight "moat" that runs through the golf course is actually a remnant of that 160 year old canal. But you don't have to be a golfer to have a close encounter with this relic of our earliest mass transportation artery.
This stretch of the canal through the golf course is part of a three mile stretch where you can walk the towpath once used by mules and horses towing barges on the canal. You will see the remnants of the canal prism which carried the water and floated commerce between Binghamton and Utica where it connected to the Erie Canal. It's the one place in Broome County where original stone work for aqueducts, erosion control and locks can still be found over 160 years after completion.
The tow path walk between Chenango Valley State Park and Chenango Forks is becoming increasingly popular with walkers, bikers, cross country skiers, nature lovers and history buffs. Although this walk can be initiated from either end it is usually easier to find at Chenango Valley State Park. Park in the beach area parking lot. Your encounter with the canal has already begun! The road that parallels the beach parking area is built over the filled in canal bed.
Start by walking, or biking, north, which is to your right as you face the Chenango River. About 100 yards north of the parking lot you will find a new historical marker sign on the west side of the road. From the sign you learn about the aqueduct under the road which was built to carry the Chenango Canal over the outflow from Chenango Lake. Over 160 years after it was built by Irish stone masons this structure continues its original purpose by allowing water to pass under the road where there once was a canal. You can't see the structure from the road so go down the driveway to the small parking lot by the Interpretive Center where you can
get a good look at the meticulous craft work. About ten years ago a concrete plug was place inside the stone arch to prevent further deterioration. That means that the original structure lasted about 150 years before it needed major help, not bad. While you are down in this parking area between the road and Chenango Lake some of you more "experienced" readers may remember when there used to be a fish hatchery here instead of a parking lot. There is still a concrete bowl or pond about 6 feet in diameter that I think was used to display fish. But I digress, return to the road and continue following the towpath.
The road turns right, up the hill, but of course the canal didn't. The towpath follows the dirt road, left, along the Chenango River. At first youll think it is just a dirt road (don't worry about the "Do Not Enter" signs, they are for cars and motor bikes, not you). The river is to the west (left) and the canal bed (prism) between the road and the hill to the east. For decades the state park used the canal bed as a convenient place to dump dirt an other fill. Consequently you have to walk for a few hundred yards before the shape of the canal begins to emerge. But eventually through all of the trees and fill the unmistakable shape of the canal becomes visible. Then it disappears again as you approach the golf course.
You know you've reached the golf course when you see a sign that says "...use caution, tee on left, do not leave path." The towpath is about the cross the eighth fairway (the real short one with the elevated green). These close encounters between hikers and golfers need to be handled with discretion and consideration. Years ago the sign used to say "NO ONE ALLOWED ON THE GOLF COURSE WITHOUT A TICKET!" Now it says use caution and stay on the path. That's a great improvement.
Once on to the golf course the canal appears before you. Between the eighth fairway and the fifteenth tee the canal prism is filled with water and if you squint your eyes you can almost see draft mules towing canal barges. Of course it has been 120 years since it was in use so the water is shallow and trees have grown but it's still there. Another sign warns you of the sixth tee so keep your ear cocked for the cry of "fore!"
As you leave the golf course you pick up a powerline right of way for the electrical lines that follow the canal right of way. The right of way access road ends when the power lines tee and connect to some lines that cross the Chenango River. It almost looks like you've come to the end of the trail. But if you follow the foot path through the brush you will emerge on a narrow trail which is again the towpath and the canal prism will again become visible below the path, opposite the river. Along this section the towpath will gradually become wider until it becomes a dirt road which provides access to private property between the state land and Chenango Forks. The posted signs you will see along this section do not prevent you from being on the towpath/roadway, which is a public right of way.
This final stretch of the towpath will take you all the way to the route 79 bridge in Chenango Forks. Along the way you will see stone work which kept the canal in shape and prevented the river from eroding the banks (some of the stones have been used by past property owners to build driveways across the canal bed). At Chenango Forks you will see the confluence of the Tioughnioga and Chenango Rivers from whence comes the village name (I spotted a great blue heron, a kingfisher and an osprey along here on my last trip).
Then you will come to a structure that to me is more impressive, although less well maintained, than the aqueduct back at State Park. The only remaining cut stone canal lock in Broome County stands as a monument to the craft and determination of the pioneers who transformed this area in the early 1800's. Abandoned for 120 years, ignored for most of that time except when used as a dump site, most of the stones are still in place. You can see the cuts in the rocks where the huge vertical timbers went. The rusted bolts that held the timbers are still there. The cut recesses that canal gates would fold into when they were open are still there. Of course without maintenance deterioration is inevitable and some of the east wall is starting to cave in.
In the last few years the land around this lock has been donated to the State Park and the trees and underbrush have been cleared away. If you look on the river side you will discover that there was another lock there that connected the river into the canal. There was a dam at the river here so that you could lock between the river and the canal. This dam and lock combination also provided water for the canal's journey down to Binghamton.
Well if you continue past the locks you will shortly come to the route 79 bridge. Once there you can see how to approach this trail from the north. Most persons park at the locks if they start at the Chenango Forks end. North of route 79 the canal fades from view with occasional sightings on private property. I know of nowhere else where you can walk the canal towpath for three miles on public property and rights of way and see remnants of the canal that has been little disturbed for 120 years.
Getting to Chenango Valley State Park is a cinch. Get on Interstate 88 and get off at exit 3, Port Crane (a "port" on the Chenango Canal in case you were wondering about the name). Follow the signs to State Park on Route 369 North. When you enter the park follow the signs toward the beach.
It's an easy walk/bike on level terrain, full of nature, engineering and history. What a great place to live!
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