Genesee's beer-barge trip likely doesn't signify a rebirth of the canal as a major commercial transport route — though there has been an increase in business use
Did the Genesee Brewing Company in Rochester spark an Erie Canal comeback? The brewery's big transport of fermentation tanks certainly generated a lot of interest, but is it a sign the canal is reclaiming its past as a major commercial transport route?
To get the answer, take a look at the past.
Opened in the early 1800s, the canal was once packed full of cargo ships connecting Albany and Buffalo. By the 1950s, the railroad and the St. Lawrence Seaway put a dent in business.
At its peak, some 33,000 commercial vessels used the canal per year. Today, that number is just under 4,000.
Most think of the canal more as a recreational waterway not a commercial one. But did Genesee re-ignite interest for commercial transport?
First, was it even worth it for the brewery? It had to transport very large fermentation tanks.
"There were only two options," said project manager Mark Fabrizio. "We could build the tanks in pieces and transport them in pieces via the highway and do erection and final welding on site or build them as a whole and ship them down the Erie Canal." The second option ended up being the best in terms of quality and cost, he said.
How much money did Genesee save by using the canal? "Hundreds of thousands of dollars," Fabrizio said.
But the process was not seamless. Heavy spring rainfall delayed the trip by about two weeks.
In the end, however, Fabrizio says it worked well for Genesee, and the company would use the canal again.
"Yes, absolutely this has been a very successful mode of transportation for us," he said.
The problem, Fabrizio said, is the canal only makes sense for certain trips, like the one Genesee had to take to transport very large equipment. As for smaller equipment? Planes, trains or big rigs remain the best options.
"There are not a lot of circumstances where the Erie Canal is a viable option," Fabrizio said.
So it might not be a commercial comeback — but business is increasing along the canal.
According to the New York Power Authority, more than 160,000 tons of cargo moved through the canal in 2016. That's the most in more than two decades. This year, the authority expects 200,000 tons.