Schenectady County

Landmarks: Schenectady Yacht Club spans history of state canal system

To be truthful, the building isn’t really that much to look at, and it’s probably not nearly as old
Retired New York State Canal System director John Jermano points to an old photograph, showing exactly where the Backwater Pub is located on the grounds of the Schenectady Yacht Club.
Retired New York State Canal System director John Jermano points to an old photograph, showing exactly where the Backwater Pub is located on the grounds of the Schenectady Yacht Club.

To be truthful, the building isn’t really that much to look at, and it’s probably not nearly as old as most people think. But if the walls could talk, what a history they could tell.

The Schenectady Yacht Club’s clubhouse, just off Balltown Road on the north side of the Mohawk River by the Rexford Bridge, is reputed to be nearly 170 years old. But, according to unofficial club historian John Jermano, the building — a popular stop along the old Erie Canal — is probably closer to 120 years old.

“We believe that one portion of our building was the foundation for the original lockhouse, which first appears in the 1850s,” said Jermano, a club member and former director of the New York State Canal System. “When the site was altered again for the third time around 1890 is when our building probably started looking like it does now. And what an amazing site it is. The history that happened here makes it a very interesting place. It’s the only location of its kind still along the canal.”

The clubhouse is a short, rectangular building that includes a small bar, a meeting area and a pool table. It is one story high and has a basement, which from the rear of the building is the ground floor, and where the foundation for the original lockhouse is clearly visible.

“Horses and mules were obviously kept here, and people would have congregated here for a brew or two, there’s no question about that,” said Jermano. “The place flourished for quite a long time. It was a few different stores, and had a few different owners until the Yacht Club bought it in the 1950s.”

Work on the Erie Canal began in 1817. Sarcastically referred to as “Clinton’s Big Ditch” when construction began, the canal was completed in 1825. Locks 21 and 22 were reconstructed in 1842, the earliest possible date for the original clubhouse structure, according to Jermano.

A third version of the canal began in the 1890s and suddenly stopped in 1898; Construction on the canal system as we know it now, the New York State Barge Canal, began in 1905 and was completed by 1918. It bypassed the two double locks at what used to be called the Rexford Flats site. A double lock was a wider lock that allowed traffic to flow in both directions.

“What makes our location so interesting is that you can see all three versions of the canal,” said Jermano.

“We have the original Clinton’s Ditch, we have the reconstructed canal in 1842, and we have the other alterations from the 1890s. We also have the two double locks along with the feeder canal, which was the primary water source for the canal between Rexford and the Cohoes Falls.”

The site also has a working lock in Lock 21, built in 1842.

“The numbers are irrelevant today, but our Lock 21 is still utilized to lift and lower boats in and out of the water,” said Jermano. “It’s the only original lock from the Erie Canal that is in use today.”

Heading west on the canal, boaters would have entered Lock 21 first and then went on to Lock 22 about 75 yards farther west. There are remnants of No. 22 left, and its path took it right in front of the clubhouse and then on to the aqueduct that parallels the Rexford Bridge and got traffic across the river.

A man named Mickey Travis purchased the store sometime before the turn of the 20th century and used it in a variety of ways. It was known as the Travis Feed and Grain Store, and also referred to as the Travis Saloon and Restaurant.

There were other stores in the general area, as well as a hotel (McLane’s Hotel, 1897-1964) and a large amusement park (Luna Park, 1901-1933) in Rexford.

Bustling with activity

“It must have been a bustling place at one time,” said Jermano, who grew up in Ogdensburg on the St. Lawrence River. “There was a lot here, a lot going on. It’s quieter now.”

During the 1920s, the place was a drinking club called The Goat Club, and after World War II it became Ed Cortwright’s Bar and Grill. It was still in the possession of the Travis family in 1957 when it was purchased by the Schenectady Yacht Club.

Jermano never got a good look at the place until he was asked to speak before club members as director of the canal system back in the late 1980s.

“When I was first introduced to the site, I fell in love with it,” he said. “I had heard about the place, obviously, as the canal director, but then my late wife, Martha, and I bought a boat and became members in 1990. I couldn’t believe what a wonderful place it was.”

The Schenectady Yacht Club owns about 13 acres of land nestled between the Mohawk River and the cliffs that make their way up to Riverview Road. Along with the clubhouse, there is a open barn that is also used for meetings and picnics, a swimming pool and the marina.

“We have about 60 membership units right now, and most of those are made up of couples,” said Rich Mayo, who is in the middle of his one-year term as commodore, or president, of the club. “We also have people who are guests, and they’re probably just staying overnight, but we do have people who stay for a couple of weeks and sometimes the whole season.”

Joining the club

To become a member of the Schenectady Yacht Club, an individual must have a boat that measures at least 20 feet. You also have to be willing to do your part.

“We take care of the place, and that means we build the docks, we put them in the ground, we maintain them and we maintain the grounds,” said Mayo.

“We get to know each other and we become friends. Typically we ask new members to start out as a guest for a summer season so they can see what we’re all about.”

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