Billy Murray – "Low Bridge! – Everybody Down" (1912)

L-o-w bridge!

Everybody down

L-o-w bridge!

We must be gettin’ near a town

There are 16 lift bridges on the Erie Canal between Fairport and Lockport – which are about 75 miles apart.  (Between Fairport and Lockport the Erie Canal also passes through Spencerport, Brockport, Middleport, and Gasport – whoever named the towns along the canal wasn’t the most imaginative person in the world.)

Those lift bridges are usually kept lowered so cars and trucks can cross over to the other side of the  canal.  In their lowered position, most of those bridges are only three feet or so above the surface of the canal.  

The Brockport lift bridge in lowered position

But whenever a boat is coming through, the bridge is raised so that it provides 16 or 17 feet of vertical clearance – plenty for the pleasure craft that make up virtually all of the boat traffic on the Erie Canal these days.

When a lift bridge is elevated, red lights flash and warning bells ring as a barrier arm comes down – it’s just like what happens at a street-level train crossing when a train is passing.

If the boat owners remember to call the bridge tenders at the right time, they never have to wait for the bridge to be raised – the boats have the right of way.

A boat passing under the
elevated Brockport lift bridge

I can only imagine how I would feel if I was running late for an appointment, or my child was sick and I needed to get to the school to pick him or her up, and I had to wait at a lift bridge for some swell in a big-ass cabin cruiser to pass.  

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Construction of the 363-mile-long Erie Canal – which traverses New York State from Albany in the east to Buffalo in the west – was begun in 1817 and completed eight years later.  

There were no real civil engineers in the United States in those days, and no power equipment.  The dirty work of digging the big ditch was accomplished by Irish laborers, German stonemasons, and mules – with the help of a lot of black powder.

The original canal was 40 feet wide and four feet deep.  The tolls collected from the freight and passenger boats that used it quickly paid for the cost of constructing the canal. 

 A hundred years later, the state rebuilt the canal and changed its official name to the New York State Barge Canal.  The new canal – which was three times as wide and three times as deep as the original one – couldn’t compete with railroads and trucks, and was not profitable.  

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A few days before I scheduled to drive to Buffalo for a four-day group bicycle trip along the Erie Canal, a car struck me while I was riding on a bike trail near my home in suburban Washington, DC.

The collision was 100% the fault of the driver, who slowed but failed to stop completely at a stop sign and look both ways before proceeding into the intersection I was crossing.  

He was turning right, so he looked to the left to check for oncoming traffic – but didn’t look to the right, which was the direction I was coming from.  (Since he was turning right, he didn’t have to worry about cars coming from the right.)

I assumed he had seen me and would stop to allow me to go through the protected crosswalk, which is what he should have done.  But that was a mistake.  I was directly in front of his car when he rolled into the intersection and started to turn right.  So he hit me squarely, and knocked me off the bike.

You know what they say about what can happen when you assume too much, right?

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I was screaming bloody murder as I fell to the pavement, using every single four-letter word in my vocabulary.  Fortunately, he was going very slowly when he hit me, so he was able to stop almost instantly.

The fall broke the mount for my cycling computer and bent my water bottle cage, but did no other damage to my bike.  More importantly, the fall did no damage to me.  The next day, my son asked me how I felt, and I told him that I felt perfectly fine – in fact, I hadn’t even thought about the collision that day until he asked it about it.

I told my five-year-old grandson about the incident later that day when I picked him up at his Montessori kindergarten.  Jack is already an accomplished bike rider, and I wanted to teach him a lesson about never taking chances when it came to cars.

He listened carefully to my account, then said, “Grandpa, I think we need to forgive him.”

Which is good advice, of course.

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I originally signed up for my Erie Canal group bike tour in 2020, but Wilderness Voyageurs – the Pennsylvania-based company that offers that itinerary and many others – had to cancel it and all their other escorted bike trips due to covid-19.

So I signed up to do the tour in 2021 instead, but had to cancel at the last moment due to a herniated L5-S1 disc (which eventually required surgery).

I was afraid I was going to have to postpone the trip a third time because I found out a couple of months ago that another fragment of that pesky disc had broken off and would need to be surgically removed, but I was able to schedule the surgery for the week after the tour.

Biking is apparently very easy on your back – my neurosurgeon cleared me to ride as much as I wanted to prior to my surgery.

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My car’s navigation app took me straight through the middle of Pennsylvania on US 15.  (Some people call that part of the state “Pennsatucky,” and it’s easy to see why.)  

I arrived at our group’s Lockport, New York, hotel around dusk and found a nearby brewery where I ate, drank, and watched the Yankees hit six solo home runs in five innings off a hapless Cubs rookie pitcher.  (That put him in the record books – no major-league pitcher has ever given up more home runs in a single game.) 

One of those homers had an exit velocity of 119.8 mph, making it the hardest-hit ball so far this season.  The Yankee who hit that homer – Giancarlo Stanton – is responsible for an amazing 31 of the 42 home runs that left the bat at 119 mph or higher.

Giancarlo Stanton
The next morning, I met my two guides and eleven fellow travelers in the parking lot of the hotel at 800a, where we mounted up and hit the trail.

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We covered 25.9 miles, 35.3 miles, 29.7 miles, and 27.4 miles, respectively, on the four days of the trip – just short of 120 miles altogether.  (I could have ridden further each day, but I was VERY glad that I didn’t have to – I rarely ride such distances, and I’ve never ridden that far in four consecutive days.)

Most of the time, we were riding on the unpaved towpath adjacent to the Erie Canal.  That stretch of the towpath is almost perfectly flat – it’s over 64 miles between lock 34 in Lockport and lock 33 in Rochester – and very quiet: there was relatively little traffic on the towpath or in the canal.

I wasn’t sorry when I dismounted my bike as the end of the last day’s ride, but I was sorry to say goodbye to my fellow travelers.  We had spent a lot of time together those four days – on our bikes, eating meals together, and in the 14-passenger Ford Transit van that transported us, our bikes, and our luggage between our hotels and our trailheads – and we got along surprisingly well.

Usually, there’s one pain-in-the-ass in a group like ours – someone who is late and holds everyone else up, or is a high-maintenance type who needs special attention from the guides, or who talks waaaaay too much about himself or herself.  But I don’t think we had anyone like that on this trip.

Unless it was me.

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A lot of people think the title of today’s featured song is “The Erie Canal Song.”

But the song was copyrighted by Thomas S. Allen in 1912 as “Low Bridge! – Everybody Down.”  (It’s not entirely clear that Allen actually wrote the song.  In 1930, a federal court ruled against Allen’s publishing house when they brought a copyright infringement suit against another publisher.  The court apparently believed testimony from two witnesses who said they had heard the song years before Allen said he wrote it.)

Most of the newer recordings of the song – including those by Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen – substitute “15 miles” for the “15 years” in Allen’s copyrighted lyrics.  I think we sang “15 miles” when we sang the song in our grade school music class. (By the way, Springsteen’s recording of the song is especially bad – in fact, it’s almost unlistenable.  Click here if you don’t believe me.)

Click here to listen to Billy Murray’s original 1912 recording of “Low Bridge! – Everybody Down.”  (It includes only verses one, two, and five of the song.)

Click here to watch a very informative video that includes all five verses of the song.