By George Harvey
“I have a mule, and her name is Sal.” It is the first line of an old song, “Low Bridge,” that looks nostalgically back at a time when the Erie Canal was a bustling transportation pathway. The early boats each carried thirty tons of cargo and were pulled by solitary mules walking on a pathway that ran alongside the canal. It was a slow journey, but when the canal opened, in 1825, it was the fastest way to cross New York State, and it cut the cost of moving goods along its path by 95%. And that, in turn, made it profitable to live and work in the Midwest, opening up the old Northwest Territory, establishing the potential of cities like Detroit, Chicago, and Minneapolis.
Sal might have opened the center of our country, but her importance did not last long. Though the canal’s mules and horses continued working into the twentieth century, engines, first powered by wood and then by coal, reduced their relevance and ultimately replaced them. Railroads were the first challengers, then powered boats on the New York Barge Canal, opened in 1918, but these lost their importance in turn to tractor trailers and pipelines. The bustle of the modern world made old Sal the mule just a memory. But her memory has given rise to a new vision.
On September 29, Sal’s namesake, Solar Sal, pushed off from a terminal on the Erie Canal in Lockport, New York, only a few miles from Lake Erie, on a mission of commerce. She is carrying a full load of cargo to Mechanicville, New York, at the other end of the canal. It will be the first cargo hauled by a 100% renewably powered boat on the Erie Canal since the last draft animals were put out of work.
Solar Sal, as the name implies, has the sun for her mule. She is powered by sixteen solar panels, with a capacity of five kilowatts. That implies a maximum power of about six and a half horsepower, a good deal more than a single mule. Nevertheless, the solar power does not provide for a particularly fast trip, and she will probably never break the Erie Canal’s lowest speed limit, which is five miles per hour on the slowest stretch.
Solar Sal was featured in our June issue, which had an article about how her creator, David Borton, took his dream of a solar-powered boat to reality, with help from many people, most especially the Schodack Schools, in whose garage Solar Sal was built. Since that time, the boat has been on tour in various parts of New York State. This is not Solar Sal’s first trip, but it is the first time she has carried cargo.
The boat is not small. She is forty feet long and has a cargo capacity of twelve tons. Her cargo is a load of baled cardboard, destined for a paper mill.
At this writing, Solar Sal has reached Schenectady, where she has been an object of local attention for several days. The trip would undoubtedly have been quicker to this point, except for such interest along the way. Joanne Coons, who contributes to Green Energy Times, visited a celebration in her honor at the Schenectady Yacht Club on October 13. Peter Bardunias, CEO of the Southern Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce commented that it was a “historic and unprecedented Erie Canal cargo delivery trip aboard Solar Sal.”
We expect that by the time this issue of Green Energy Times is distributed, Solar Sal will have delivered her cargo, and her trip to Mechanicville will be completed. Perhaps her trip is just the beginning of a new page in history, in which water transportation does not need more fuel than the sun provides.