With 200th anniversary of canal approaching, state should push heritage sites along historic waterway

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 8 May 2015 at 12:00 am


Photos by Tom Rivers – Lewiston is home to the Freedom Crossing Monument, which was dedicated in 2009 along the bank of the Niagara River. It shows runaway slaves trying to flee into Canada with help from some locals. A baby is being passed to a mother, who appears desperate to keep moving, to head for freedom. The monument tells an important part of the area’s history.

There was no pomp and circumstance locally. No trumpets were sounded, no speeches from the dignitaries, no blessing of the water.

The Erie Canal opened for a new navigational season today, the canal’s 191st season. It didn’t get much notice. I didn’t see any boats out, either, except for the fleet of tugboats and tenders in Albion.

The Erie Canal was hailed as a wonder in American ingenuity, daring and determination when it opened in 1825. It took eight years of construction, carving a path 363 miles through dense forests, linking Buffalo on Lake Erie to Albany on the Hudson River.

The canal gave birth to numerous communities – Albion, Holley, Medina and many more. It brought industry and people. We were boom towns and the legacies of those eras remain in grand residences, churches and downtown districts, and the many descendants of immigrants who worked in quarries and other industries during the canal’s heyday.

It’s a rich history, but the New York State and the communities along the canal do a poor job of telling it. There are a few interpretive signs at rest areas along the canal and some glossy brochures in Thruway stops. It’s not an engaging campaign.

If the canal heritage – the immigrants, the engineering, the indomitable will – were celebrated and proclaimed, people would show some enthusiasm at the dawn of each new canal season.

The canal boat, “Cayuga,” tied up in Albion on June 16, 2014, between the Main Street and Ingersoll Street lift bridges on the Erie Canal.

In two years it will be the beginning of an 8-year bicentennial of the canal’s construction. (Hopefully the state and canal communities will celebrate that 200th anniversary.)

There are 16 counties along the canal, including Orleans. The state should commemorate the canal legacy by picking two counties each year for heritage sites that talk about the people behind the canal and the industries that emerged from “Clinton’s Ditch.”

Every year from 2017 to 2025, two new sites should be dedicated and celebrated along the canal, until there is a rich tapestry complete on the 200th anniversary of the canal’s opening.

Gov. Cuomo likes competitions and I’d encourage him to offer $500,000 per site or $1 million annually for the two best sites. These heritage places should become outdoor museums, teaching the history of Upstate New York.

Bill Koch of the Stone Art Memorial Company in Lackawanna designed a statue and heritage site for the quarrymen who worked in the quarries in Orleans County. This is just a concept at this point, but some community members would like it to become a reality.

The Medina sandstone quarries along the canal in Orleans County were our dominant industry that emerged soon after the canal’s opening. Those quarries employed thousands of people for about a century and the work of the Italian, Polish, British and Irish immigrants remains in some of the finest churches, mansions and public buildings in the state – and beyond.

There should be a heritage site for the quarrymen somewhere in the county. If the state offered $500,000, that would pay for bronze statues immortalizing the workers, interpretive panels and other features to celebrate the sandstone industry and the people who did the work.

Niagara County might consider a site to engineers, surveyors and the construction workers who pulled off amazing engineering feats, building a canal with steep elevation changes in some places. Or Niagara County might consider a site to the Underground Railroad. Many of the runaway slaves were in the last leg of their journey to Canada and freedom while walking along the canal in Niagara.

In Buffalo, Irish immigrants worked as scoopers in the giant grain silos. The eastern terminus, the start of the canal, might be a good spot for a bronze statue of a scooper.

This statue of Grover Cleveland stands next to Buffalo City Hall. Cleveland married a Medina woman, Frances Folsom, when she was 21. Cleveland was U.S. president from 1885-1889 and again from 1893-1897.  While president in 1886, he married Folsom, the only time the ceremony was held in the White House for a president. The Clevelands had five children. It would be nice to have statues of Cleveland and Folsom, holding hands and waving, at the Canal Basin in Medina.

DeWitt Clinton, the governor who pushed the state to build the canal, also should be depicted with a statue in Buffalo or maybe at the other end of the canal in Albany.

Other counties could celebrate abolitionists, women’s rights advocates, and the circuit riders who spread religion.

If I was the governor I would tell each canal county to look into your past, look at what you’re most proud of, and let’s celebrate that with fitting heritage sites, enduring places that will make the canal a bigger draw and build community pride.

Those sites would enliven the canal and draw tourism dollars. They might be a springboard for the communities to add heritage trails and push for more preservation projects.

I like the big apple in Medina, the sculpture created 15 years ago by Richard Bannister of Barre. It gets your attention if you’re traveling down the canal by boat or bike. It lets you know you’re in apple country.

I’d like to see other spots along the canal that highlight local culture and pay homage to the past. There could be large-scale public art sculptures of axes (used to take down trees), fiber-glass oxen (the tractors and brawn of the day), mules and perhaps other canal features – maybe some “retired” tugboats or recreated wooden canal boats could be set to side of the canal in a permanent display. There could be playgrounds along the canal with tugboat-themed slides and other equipment.

That 200th anniversary is only two years away. The canal communities and the state need to be thinking how to celebrate the canal and position the historic waterway to be a big asset in the future for the canal towns.