Biking along the Black River Trail Scenic Byway

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The Black River Trail is a Scenic Byway in transition.  Since 1992 its route had connected Rome with Ogdensburg, but as of 2003 there is a regional effort to split that route into two Scenic Byways that better portray the scenery and experiences to be found along its route. The new Black River Trail connects Rome – near the headwaters of the Black River – to the community of Dexter, where the Black River flows into Lake Ontario.  The new Maple Traditions Scenic Byway now follows the northern half of the former route of the Black River Trail and connects Lowville to Ogdensburg, taking the Byway traveler through the maple syrup producing and agricultural region of northern New York.

The new Black River Trail Scenic Byway is a 94-mile travel and transportation corridor that begins in the City of Rome at the southern end and gently weaves travelers through quaint communities to the Village of Dexter and the Black River Bay on Lake Ontario. The Black River Valley corridor, nestled between the Tug Hill Plateau to the west and the Adirondacks to the east, invites travelers to enjoy the diverse geological, cultural, water-based industrial, working landscape, natural, and recreational history that can all be linked to the significant beauty and function of the Black River.

The new Black River Scenic Byway is a series of lesser traveled highways from Rome to Dexter with a common thread that inspires users to recharge and recreate in and along the Black River, where the changing character of the River is as wonderfully diverse as its nearby communities. As a bicycle route, it will charm with picturesque landscapes and the promise of new vistas waiting just around the corner or the river’s bend. But the Byway also beckons passersby to stop and share in the experience—grab a paddle, set up camp, shop historic downtown community centers, and learn about each unique community.

Community Connections along the Black River Trail

Communities along the way between Rome and Dexter include: Westernville, Boonville, Forestport, Port Leyden, Lyons Falls, Glenfield, Lowville, Castorland, Carthage, Herrings, Deferiet, Great Bend, Felts Mills, Black River, Glen Park, Watertown and Brownville. A variety of bicycling opportunities – as well as suggestions on what to see and do – are highlighted in two segments along the Black River Trail, starting in the south.

History of the Black River Valley

The corridor management plan for the Black River Trail provides this history of the Black River valley:

According to geologists, the entire Black River Valley was inundated by a series of freshwater lakes – Port Leyden, Glenfield and Iroquois – following the retreat of the last ice age. With the last of these lakes draining about 12,000 years ago, the first aboriginal populations, known as Paleoindians, inhabited the valley approximately11,000 years ago. Through the next 10 millennia, aboriginal peoples made their living from the Black River. The last of the indigenous populations in the region are known as the St. Lawrence Iroquoian culture. They lived in farming villages inland of the Black River, growing maize, beans and squash, as well as hunting and fishing. They abandoned the region by the early 16th century, for reasons that are still debated among scholars today. Throughout prehistory and even into the early historic period, the Black River Valley served as an important conduit for travel, communication and warfare between the St. Lawrence and Mohawk Valleys.

The Black River area attracted white settlers after the Revolutionary War and it attracted French nobility who were fleeing persecution from the French Revolution. Most notable were James LeRay De Chaumont and especially Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon Bonaparte and former king of Spain. There were also some early settlements along the Black River in what is now the Watertown area. Settlers were attracted by the river’s power which enabled them to operate mills.

With the Erie Canal completed in 1825, Gov. DeWitt Clinton proposed construction of a northern canal that would link the Erie Canal with Lake Ontario. The canal was to make use of the Black River’s water and open up the vast reserves of timber, iron ore and fertile land in the North Country. In 1836, the New York State Legislature authorized work on the 35-mile-long canal from Rome upward to the crest at Boonville and down to Lyons Falls; there it would connect to the flat section of the Black River and, with a little modification, could be used by canal boats. Construction began in 1840 and the Black River Canal first became operational in 1851. The entire canal was completed and fully opened in 1855. It was an engineering marvel because at only 35 miles long, more than 100 locks were required to negotiate its rise and fall of 1,079 feet. The last section to be built was a 10-mile feeder between Forestport and Boonville to supply water for both the Black River and Erie Canals. When this source of water proved to be inadequate, the state built an extensive impoundment system damming nearly every river and lake in the region to create a system with a four billion gallon capacity.

After the canal opened and the transport of timber was under way, lands were opened to farming with the canal employed to haul farm products. Commerce followed soon thereafter and quickly spread along the entire length of the river through Carthage and Watertown and west to Lake Ontario. Paper-making industries in particular thrived along the river from Carthage to Dexter. When the canal first opened, 23,320 tons of freight moved through it, and within 40 years 143,000 tons of primarily timber and wood products were carried along the canal. Over time though, as railroad competition proved more economical, and with the depletion of the area’s natural resources, use of the canal declined until it’s closure in 1924.

Below are some of the sights along the way. Scroll over an image to see its title, or click an image to enlarge it and then move through the entire gallery (click on a large image to return here).

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