FIND RENEWS FAITH IN CANAL RESTORATION FIGHT

LYDIA POLGREEN Staff writer
Section: CAPITAL REGION,  Page: B1

Date: Wednesday, November 22, 2000

To the untrained eye, the narrow pit in which two Union College professors were mucking about looked more like a grave than an archaeological dig. But the two men, anthropologist Denis Foley and civil engineer Andrew Wolfe, knew they had unearthed a vital piece of Albany's industrial heritage: the first weigh lock on the Erie Canal.


``This is a great day for Union College, a great day for the city of Albany and a great day for Professor Wolfe and myself,'' Foley proclaimed as he beamed down at the limestone blocks that formed the walls of the lock.


Using old city maps, Foley and Wolfe located the site, which lies -- appropriately enough -- at the corner of Erie Boulevard and North Lawrence Street. They found a few feet underground the eastern end of the 200-foot-long lock and the redbrick foundation of the toll collector's office. Ships entered the lock, Wolfe said, and the water was drained out. As the water level dropped, the vessels settled onto a set of balances that indicated their weight.


``Just like your doctor's scale,'' Wolfe said. The ships were taxed based on cargo weight before they made the journey up the 363-mile canal toward Buffalo and the shores of Lake Erie. Wolfe estimated the weigh lock was used from the 1840s until 1918.


``This is spectacular,'' Foley said. ``If you look at the historical register it says the canal was destroyed from Cohoes south. But clearly it wasn't.'' Foley and Wolfe hope their discovery will add to the growing movement among city officials and historic preservationists to restore the 175-year-old canal as a cultural and historic site. The weigh lock sits in what is now the warehouse district in North Albany, not far from where Wolfe and Foley hope to find Lock 1, the gateway of the canal, buried beneath nearly a century's worth of rubble and dirt.


``We can make the canal a living museum,'' Foley said. ``This (discovery) shows that the canal is in great shape and in all likelihood can be restored with minimal effort.''


Even with just a hole in the ground, the two professors attracted the attention of passersby. A CDTA bus stopped to let off a passenger near the unearthed weigh lock, and bus riders risked blistering cold whips of wind to peer out at the piece of history before them.


Wolfe is working on a $1.4 million excavation and restoration of Lock 23 in Rotterdam, one of the canal's busiest locks. That project may include a museum, a workshop and a classroom. He hopes their discovery could spark a similar project in North Albany that would complement the $14.2 million plan to build parks, a footbridge, a fishing pier and other amenities to encourage access to the river.