Monthly Archives: May 2019

Syracuse’s Best: The Erie Canal Museum

This is a picture of Syracuse, New York, when it was one of the most important cities in the growing United States.  Now it’s a city of few attractions and a difficult climate that depends on a short summer season for recreation and tourism dollars.  Its large lake, Onondaga, was once one of the most polluted in the nation.  Syracuse does have one outstanding, 5 Compass attraction, the Erie Canal Museum which doubles as a visitor center.

The first thing I wrote down about the Erie Canal was that it’s considered “America’s greatest manmade waterway”.  The exhibits that I saw proved this true.  No canal of this size had ever been attempted.  When President Jefferson refused to fund its construction, the State of New York decided it was both necessary and a good idea and financed it entirely.  James Geddes began developing a plan for it in 1808.  Construction began in 1817 with a 96 mile canal between Utica and Seneca.  The 363 mile waterway that connected the Hudson River to Lake Erie opened in 1825 and was busy with freight and passengers heading west until the 1950s.  Once busy with packet boats carrying lumber, grain and manufactured goods, the Erie Canal’s waterways are now largely used for recreation.

This endeavor reminded me of the interest in and nostalgia for old Route 66 after the Interstate System replaced it, but 66 mostly crossed plains and deserts while the Erie Canal crossed The Empire State creating cities that are no longer as important as they once were, like Troy, Seneca Falls, Ossining, and Syracuse.  Like states attempting to find or re-create sections of old Route 66, forces are creating a 350-mile-long Canalway Trail from Albany to Buffalo that, when completed, will be the nation’s longest multi-use trail.  For now, the Erie Canal Park in Camillus, NY is the best place to see what the original canal was like.

The Erie Canal was actually 5 interconnected waterways that never left New York State.  From east to west boats floated the Champlain, Oswego, Cayuga-Seneca, and 2 sections of the Erie before it ended in Buffalo.  When it was a working canal, 83 locks bypassed waterfalls and adjusted the elevation.  Some of it crossed marshes and flat land.  The Seneca River Aqueduct was an engineering marvel with 31 scenic stone arches.  Like Boeing airplane designers, Erie Canal engineers learned as they proceeded, and many technology breakthroughs, like a stump puller and limestone cement, were invented.  America’s first locomotive, the Stourbridge Lion, was tested in 1829 near the canal system.  It was opposed by boatmen who saw its potential for competition.



Like the Panama Canal, this system was enlarged to allow bigger boats and more traffic  This actually happened 3 times.  The last upgrade, however, occurred during World War I.  The story of this canal is one of the Great American Tales that isn’t told enough. Syracuse’s Erie Canal Museum does an excellent job of demonstrating  what is not emphasized enough in history classes.

In the Weighlock Building that used to be part of the Erie Canal System, this museum with 2 floors of exhibits gives us an exciting glimpse into this canal’s construction, operation, and impact on America.



Circling Tahiti

It’s possible to do a circle drive around the island of Tahiti.  Despite the fact that all the small towns along the route look the same, I recommend this drive.   It takes about 2 hours without stopping, but there are at least 5 things worth seeing so that it’s best to devote one entire day during daylight hours to driving it.  Ruth and I have done this circle twice, starting from Pape’ete, the capital of French Polynesia.  This is the biggest town in the Society Islands, and it will take an additional day to see its attractions.  Lonely Planet gets it perfectly right when it says about Pape’ete, “You’ll get its compact chaos and colorful clutter or you’ll run quickly from its grimy edges and lack of gorgeous vistas.”  It makes no serious difference if you go clockwise or counterclockwise around Tahiti, but what follows is clockwise.

The 1st stop should be the house of James Norman Hall in the Pape’ete suburb of Arue.  One of the 2 authors of Mutiny on the Bounty and other books, Hall’s home has been turned into a very personal museum by his daughter Nancy.  I wrote about it on February 18, 2019, under the title “the House of James Norman Hall” if you want more info.

The 2nd stop should be Pointe Venus and Matavai Bay.  Captain James Cook made 3 journeys to Tahiti.  On his first, he came here to personally witness the transit of Venus.  This planet was scheduled to travel across the face of the sun, and scientists hoped to determine the distance from Earth to the sun as a result.  Cook got the top spot, going to Tahiti, to see it while others went to Norway and Canada.  Cook loved it here.   His observatory was on this promontory.  There’s a monument, a black-sand beach, trees and flowers, and a lighthouse.  This is such a fine spot that some scenes of Marlon Brando’s ponderous version of Mutiny on the Bounty were shot here.

Also on this side of Tahiti is the Arahoho Blowhole, which is a little further on down the circle road, well-marked, and impossible to photograph.  The evidence is below.   The stop is quite scenic and the last time a decision about staying on the ring road must be made until you come to Taravao.  Here you have to choose whether to go on or see a bit of Tahiti Iti, which is like a peninsular balloon attached to Tahiti Nui, because the main highway curves west here. There is no road all the way around Iti, but I highly recommend going to Teahupoo, a surfers’ hangout and the scene of international competition.  You can read more about it in my January 19 blog called “Tahiti Iti’s Teahupoo”.  This is my favorite spot on the entire island.

On the west side of Tahiti Nui, which is more affluent than the east, there are some notable resorts and the Mara’a Grotto,  The grotto is worth stopping for but not, in my opinion, a great attraction.  It does have lush ferny greenery, a not difficult path, and a large natural pool that, despite one sign saying “no swimming allowed”, was being used by 3 people.  It was tempting.   The popular and posh Intercontinental Resort Tahiti is a worthwhile stop.  Lonely Planet calls it “the best luxury resort on the island”.  It is.  You can see Mo’orea from many vantage points as you wander around it.




The Rio Grande Valley’s Palo Alto

Why do battlefields become tourist attractions?   June 6, 2019, is the 75th anniversary of D-Day.   There are almost 300 commemorative activities scheduled in Normandy that day with at least 30,000 visitors expected in the area.  There will be a regulated traffic zone with stickers required for entry.  Chaos is almost inevitable despite careful planning.  The 1st battlefield I saw as a traveler was Gettysburg.  Now a good friend of my son is moving to Pennsylvania to be a guide there.  In preparation, he is reading all he can about this critical Civil War battle to become as knowledgable as he can about it.

On our recent trip to Texas, Ruth and I visited the Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park near Brownsville, Texas, where 5,500 troops clashed in 1846.  The battle lasted only one day and loss of life was surprisingly modest.  Only 102 Mexican and 9 U. S. deaths occurred, but this is a disputed figure.  This important 5 hour battle resulted in a 2 year war between the United States and Mexico.   Nine years after the Battle of the Alamo in which between 182 and 257 Americans died, President James K. Polk welcomed Texas as the 28th state, announced that the Rio Grande River was now the U.S. border, and claimed that it was our destiny to expand to the Pacific Ocean.  He worked toward a settlement but then sent troops to Texas under the leadership of General Zachary Taylor.  Mexico was furious and the Battle of Palo Alto resulted.  The treaty signed later caused Mexico to lose half of its U.S. territory.


Taylor was known as Old Rough and Ready.  Polk appointed Taylor, who had experienced the War of 1812, to lead the troops partially because Taylor lacked political ambition.  Taylor became the 12th U. S. President 3 years later.   The territory taken from Mexico became the center of the debates in the United States as Northerners tried to block slavery in The West.  The image of Taylor on the left above is from and the one of Polk is from

The Palo Alto Visitor Center was traditional but artifact filled and interesting.  The battlefield was said to be relatively unchanged since 1846, and the walk to it and back was about one mile.  It afforded only an overlook.  Walkers were warned to stay on marked paths and be alert for snakes, thorny plants, stinging insects, and other threats.  Other threats?  The film provides better information, in my opinion, than the walk.  There is a picnic area if you’re not affected by thoughts of war casualties and violent death.

Technology wins battles.  Zachary Taylor prevailed despite the fact that he had fewer cannons than his Mexican opponent Mariano Arista.  However, Taylor had larger guns with greater range that fired “multi-shot projectiles” and more mobile cannons.

 This battlefield today is only 6 miles from the disputed Mexico-U.S. border.


Bastrop Beguiles

In my opinion, the state with the most interesting small towns is Texas.  I recommend travel time in Boerne, Bryan, Bandera, Brenham, and Bastrop for starters.   And, no, not all Texas towns starting with the letter B are worth visiting.  On our 2019 trip to Texas, we went to Bastrop for the 2nd time and were as impressed with it as we were the first time.

Bastrop, which has a growing population of about 9,000, is really benefiting from proximity to Austin.   Only about 25 miles from this go-go city with its airport between them, Bastrop is attracting residents who want to get away from Austin’s explosive development but stay close to it.

Bastrop, like Austin, is on the other Colorado River, an 862 mile long watercourse that, unlike the Colorado that begins in Colorado but ends in Mexico, Texas’ Colorado never leaves the state while being ranked as the USA’s 18th longest river.  It and its historic bridge and riverwalk are considerable Bastrop attractions.   

Bastrop began when a fort was built on the Colorado in 1804, but it wasn’t until 1823 that it actually attracted settlers and was called Mina.  A con man began it.   An imposter named Philip Bogel came to Texas with a colony grant and said he was a Dutch nobleman with a title, the Baron de Bastrop.  He started a business and rose to become a government negotiator, a founder of Galveston, and a state representative.

People came to Bastrop to plant cotton, mine coal, and cut timber from the Lost Pine Forest.  Because early residents tended to be bankers, doctors, and successful business types, many impressive homes were built.  Many remain.  Bastrop’s neighborhoods contain over 100 historic homes like the Crocheron-MCDowall House above.  It was built in 1857.   A walking tour map is available at the visitor center.  Some of these homes can be toured, some are for sale, and a couple have become B&Bs.  Many of Bastrop’s downtown commercial buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places.  One of them is a still functioning restored opera house that is a community treasure with shows almost every month.   Newsies is coming this summer.  The Bastrop County Guide lists 53 attractions, including many parks.

Texas towns I wouldn’t include are Laredo, Wichita Falls, El Campo, West, Weatherford, and Beaumont.  Granbury and Fredericksberg are fun   Explore and get to know Texas.


PS   Brenham’s main attraction, Blue Bell Creameries, seems to be back in business after a listeria scare.  It is said to be the 4th best selling ice cream brand in the United States despite the fact that it’s still not available in 27 states.  Blue Bell has made sensational ice cream since 1907.


When someone tells me a good story, I always tell them to write it down.  They often say they can’t.  “If you don’t tell that story, who will?” I ask.  They get silent and I know they are thinking about it but will probably never do it.  When I came around that corner in the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York, recently, I saw a photo of Phyllis Diller and thought about my mother.  She and Phyllis were friends.  I have never told the story of my mother, who in many ways was a Renaissance Woman.  I applied my advice to myself and so….

Phyllis Diller made more than 40 movies and was on hundreds of TV programs.  She didn’t become a performing stand-up comic until she was 37 but lived to be 95.  She had 5 children to raise and wanted stability for them, so she and her husband bought a home in Webster Groves, a community in the St. Louis area where he had roots and relatives.  Phyllis Diller’s career took off.  After 4 years in the St. Louis area, she moved to LA and divorced her first husband.   He had already become a comic invention named Fang.  It was during her time in Webster Groves that she and my mother became friends.  My mother had 6 children.

When I was about 12, it became necessary for my family to move.  My parents were renting 3 rooms in what was called a 4-family-flat.  Two of the 3 rooms were bedrooms in which my parents and their 5 children slept.  The only way they could afford to move was if my Mom went to work.  She began as a part time typist for a TV station, an NBC affiliate.  Within a few years she was floor directing a popular TV show.  She did so well that she became the writer-producer-director of a radio show starring a local big-band conductor.  It was on weekdays for 1½ hours and played before a live audience.  Any celebrity who came to St Louis was on this show, so Mom got to meet many famous people. She worked for 17 years, had a 6th child in her 40s, and got measles when she was 50.  This devastated her health and Rita Eileen, who was proud of her Irish heritage and had 7 brothers and sisters, died 6 years later.

One article in local media called her a dynamo, which she was.  It called her show a free-wheeling variety program.  It was and she loved doing it.  The writer of the article called Mom “a small, grey-haired streak of energy”.  She was.  Very good at her job, which required lots of time and stamina, she expected her children, especially the 2 oldest, to help out at home.  We did.  I was the 2nd oldest.  My brothers and sisters somewhat considered me a 2nd father, especially my youngest sister, who was only about 14 when Mom died.

In the last couple of years before her health made it impossible, Mom began to travel.  One years she was invited to LA by herself to see the Rose Bowl Parade and the game that followed.   My great love of travel partially resulted from this late-developing passion of hers.  Thanks, Mom.

Love, Hank