New York’s history is largely defined by its waterways. But what about its future? The New York Power Authority recently authorized a $300 million plan to “reimagine” the state’s canals. While it primarily focuses on the Erie Canal, some of the state’s other waterways are receiving small makeovers this winter. WAMC’s Jesse King stopped along the Champlain Canal for an inside look at a lock pumpout.
Whitehall’s Lock C12, the last leading into Lake Champlain, sees some 1,000 lockings from May to mid-October – but for its maintenance crew, the off-season is when things get busy. Having drained all the water from the chamber, employees of the state Canal Corporation are ready to assess its wear and tear.
“We have the hard hats, glasses – wear at all times. We’re also gonna keep our vests on, safety boots…It is icy out there, so be very careful," advises Anthony Santa Maria, part of the crew's safety team.
Visitors may go down into the lock itself, normally for pumpouts, or the 8-foot tunnels used to fill the chamber – but today is too icy, with a wind chill near 20 degrees. So instead, perched along the lock’s edge, Canal Corps Engineer Aaron Mattoon points to a group of hard-hatted workers below, gathered around one of two giant doors, or “miter gates,” at the end of the lock.
“When it comes to the gates, we’re replacing everything that would do a nice job sealing," says Mattoon. "There’s timbers where the miter gates touch themselves vertically, and then there’s rubber seal against the concrete angle on the bottom, and that’s gonna need some significant repair. So there’s gonna be a good bit of concrete work on the miter sill this year.”
Mattoon says the combined damaged at the “miter sill” – the concrete area where the gates close – is this pumpout’s surprise task. Usually crews just remove and rehab the lock’s operational parts, but the weakened sill has led to significant leaking – not enough to be dangerous, per se, but enough to make lockings take longer.
Getting to the sill and the underside of the gate can be difficult, as the 50-ton doors operate on hinges, and the crew lacks the space to crane-lift them out. So Mattoon says they need to get creative.
“The square that’s furthest to the left? It’s timbers, but in between there, sandwiched, is an airbag," Mattoon points to a stack of wooden pallets underneath the miter gate. "They jack it this side a little bit, and then they go over there jack it that side a little bit, and each time they’re coming up and they’re adding new cribbing on there to lift it up enough…You see the white, five gallon bucket? And then a little further to the right there? That’s a pivot point. And up top, the gate will be supported by anchor arms that tie back. [So essentially], you’re all pivoting on that one point.”
The Champlain Canal is almost 200 years old, and the concrete lock is over 100, so parts aren’t easy to come by. Mattoon says they’re made in-house in nearby Fort Edward, where employees also carry out the usual work: rehabbing the lock’s timbers, motors, and tunnel-wide “butterfly” valves.
The pumpout also gives crews a chance to power wash the miter gates and chamber walls, which are covered in tiny, brown-striped zebra mussels. Canal Corps Spokesman Steven Gosset says they’re an invasive species, and the new state plan intends to address them, but Mattoon isn’t particularly concerned.
“They're not a nuisance," he notes. "Operationally they’re not a nuisance for us.”
All of this has to happen before the season resumes in May. Gosset says the Canal Corps funds the work, but since it covers 57 locks statewide, and averages five or six pumpouts a winter, Lock C12 won’t get another makeover for 10 years.
Whitehall clientele has changed somewhat over the years, too, from barges hauling supplies to the now-closed Plattsburgh Air Force Base, to smaller pleasure boats and kayaks. Unlike most on the canal, Lock C12 fills from only one side – a hydroplant next door carries Wood Creek to generate clean energy. Whitehall Town Supervisor John Rozell was among those observing the pumpout. He hopes to see the canal bring more tourists to the area.
“You gotta put some time in, show the Canal Corps that there’s support in the local area. We back their work – and we need their work, so," Rozell laughs.
The Champlain Canal is one of four major canals in New York state. It stretches 64 miles from the Hudson River at Waterford to Wood Creek and Lake Champlain.