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Barge Traffic Increases Along Erie Canal


The Erie Canal was cut through upstate New York almost 200 years ago. It opened up new shipping routes to the West and proved to be an economic lifeline for the Great Lakes region. The canal fell out of favor as faster transportation methods, like the railway, became available. But lately, it's been getting a second life.

Here's Ryan Delaney of member station WRVO.

RYAN DELANEY, BYLINE: On a rainy morning, the tugboat Margot is preparing to head down the Oswego Canal. This waterway is part of a network of canals ultimately connecting New York City with Buffalo and the Great Lakes to the west.

DENNIS WASIEWSKI: The Margot, lock 8.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (unintelligible)

WASIEWSKI: Good morning. We're looking to go southbound here in about five minutes.

DELANEY: The Margot will be pushing one of two 15-ton barges full of corn it brought across Lake Ontario from Canada the day before. It's this Canadian grain that's driving the resurgence in traffic on the canals. The Margot has had a busy spring. And Captain Dennis Wasiewski just got word its orders will double.

WASIEWSKI: Last year, we got real busy and this year we're getting a lot busier. We're over 50 percent more this year than we were last year this time.

DELANEY: Wasiewski has found more work on the canal as business has increased. He started working the tug full-time this year.

WASIEWSKI: Slowly coming back, hopefully. We get everything right, some nice commerce on here again. That's what this was built for - commercial.

DELANEY: The Margot will pass through three locks this morning. Much of the corn is destined for an ethanol plant five miles inland, though the trip takes about two hours. Despite the slow going of canal travel, moving freight by water has its advantages, namely fuel costs. What can be moved 60 miles by truck on a gallon of fuel can go more than 500 miles by tug and barge.

The Erie Canal opened in 1825 and upstate New York's biggest cities grew up along it. Freight passing through the 500 miles of narrow waterways and locks peaked at five million tons at the middle of last century. Once the interstate highway system and competing St. Lawrence Seaway to the north opened up, that number dropped way off.

As commercial shipping slowed to just 10,000 tons a year, recreational boats became the dominant user of the canals. They still are. But more and more barges are traveling through the locks again. Last year, the canals saw four times their average freight. And this year, the Canal Corporation is expecting to see more than 100,000 tons shipped through New York's waterways.

Canal Corporation director Brian Stratton says as more crops come in from Canada, thanks to new laws governing the industry, the canal just happens to be in the right place again.

BRIAN STRATTON: This system is still here. So it's an opportunity really to go back to what made this state great. And to use a tremendous infrastructure that 189 years later is still going strong.

DELANEY: At the end of the Oswego Canal, on the windy shore of Lake Ontario, the Port of Oswego has been increasingly busy, too. Director Jeffrey Daniels says for a long time, the canal got away from what it was built to do. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The executive director of the Port of Oswego is JONATHAN Daniels.]

JONATHAN DANIELS: I think the canal was kind of marginalized at that point. They've done a good job of resurrecting that and bringing that and putting focus on it and realizing that it is a viable part of the waterway system. I mean, that was the superhighway. That opened up the West and it's still viable today.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Lock 7 (unintelligible)

WASIEWSKI: OK, thank you very much. Appreciate it.

DELANEY: Back down the canal, Margot captain Dennis Wasiewski is finding out the canal is being shut down due to high water levels. That means the Margot will only be making one of its two scheduled trips today. So the tug will be idle for a few days. But the crew is still expecting a busy summer.

For NPR News, I'm Ryan Delaney in Oswego, New York.


MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: July 1, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
We give an incorrect first name for the executive director of the Port of Oswego. He is Jonathan, not Jeffrey, Daniels.