The boy was just tall enough to gaze over the top of the railing and see the passing barge if he stood on his tiptoes.
The tall parents and grandparents and community officials had all converged on the Waterford canal harbor Saturday — peering over the railings, looking down at the confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers from a spot on a bridge overpass, standing on the grated steel of the Erie Canal Lock 2 gates.
The officials had all delivered their speeches and the hundreds that had gathered were about to watch the Erie Canal open its 188th navigation season — ahead of schedule to allow for the hauling of three vintage aircraft from Manhattan to Glenville.
In front of the boy sat a Douglas F-3D Skyknight, a black U.S. Marine Corps carrier-based fighter from the 1950s with red lettering and folded wings, waiting to pass through the lock and head west toward Schenectady.
“It’s like watching grass grow,” said one spectator, eliciting chuckles from those nearby who were squinting at the carrier.
Elderly residents were waxing nostalgic to anyone standing near them. “I remember when...” they started.
The boy, meanwhile, had his eyes glued rapturously on the lock’s gates as they began to move outward. The crowd was clapping and cheering, and he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He cocked his head backward, letting it fall into his father’s gut.
“Look!” he pointed, as everyone waited, phones and cameras poised for the moment the barge would inch forward.
Saturday morning at the Waterford lock was an exciting one for the village, which got to witness the first vessels enter the Erie Canal this year. In addition, the Cayuga-Seneca Canal and Oswego Canal also opened early, and the Champlain Canal will open today.
The planes — the Skyknight, a MiG-15, and a Supermarine Scimitar — were loaded onto a barge April 18 to head north up the Hudson and ultimately west via the Erie Canal to their new home at the Empire State Aerosciences Museum in Glenville. The planes came from the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in Manhattan to make room for the Space Shuttle Enterprise.
New York State Canal Corporation Director Brian Stratton spoke from a podium near Lock 2 on the chilly, sunny morning. He called the barge visible behind him a “billboard for the enduring commercial capabilities” of the state’s canal system.
“Whether it is airplanes, containers, turbines manufactured by GE right here in upstate New York or international cargo from Canada,” he said, “the Erie Canal in our canal system today continues to be a viable way of moving cargo in an efficient and environmentally responsible manner.”
In a way, those in attendance at the Saturday event were both the past and future — the children gaping excitedly at the barges, the slew of camera phones and video cameras, the presence of older generations who remembered the canal from their heyday and the stories of workers and mules at its inception.
It was exciting for Beth Sciumeca to see.
The executive director of the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor Commission called Saturday’s ceremonial gathering unlike anything she’d seen before.
“Today is definitely about the future, the now, the potential of the canal,” she said, “But it is also about our history. Today we celebrate our history. Every year when the canal system opens we are reminded of the phenomenal impact that the Erie Canal had on the history of this country.”
When construction of the canal began in 1815, it was a bold idea, she said. The very thought of building a canal that would cut across upstate New York from Buffalo to Albany was a crazy idea. The original 363 miles of the Erie Canal were completed in 1825, and portions of it continue to be in operation today.
The canal is still mesmerizing for the villagers of Waterford. History comes alive when the old barges, big and worn with thick ropes coiled on deck float by, followed by a tugboat with old tires hanging off the sides as bumpers.