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Another Voice: Erie Canal has a fascinating story that needs telling

By Douglas R. Bunker

Michael Vogel and Paul Redding, in their history of maritime Buffalo, cautioned: “There is always danger that, in building a future, something of past value may be irretrievably lost.” This counsel is appropriate for those involved with planning and managing Canalside, who should assure that visitors are informed about the role of the Erie Canal and the Port of Buffalo in settling the West.

Though Buffalo’s days as an important port have faded, Vogel reminds us: “… what is gone should not be forgotten – and there can be strength in building on the traditions of the past.”

While locals revel in a new waterfront park, its entertainments in the form of rock concerts, carnivals, pedal boats and a prospective carousel do nothing to tell its story. Canalside could attract thousands of visitors to Buffalo annually if it is also developed and publicized as an interesting destination.

Two kinds of resources are necessary to attract visitors interested in the historic significance of the area. The first is a visitors center with videos, photos, maps, books, interactive computers and models of vessels from the period with an informed staff to help tell the story. The second kind of attraction would be a set of sculptures that would depict important features of Canalside’s history.

First among these is the story of the opening of the canal in 1825, celebrated at Buffalo’s end by the “Wedding of the Waters” in which Governor DeWitt Clinton ordered water transported from Lake Erie to New York Harbor and then sent kegs of Atlantic Ocean water to be ceremoniously deposited in Buffalo Harbor.

Other stories to be told in sculpture should include the contribution of William Wells Brown, a runaway slave who spent eight years in Buffalo as a crew member on lake boats and a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and later was an international leader in the abolitionist movement. During one six-month period in 1842, Brown safely conveyed 69 escaped slaves from Buffalo to safety in Canada.

Samuel Wilkeson’s leadership in creating the harbor and assuring that Buffalo would be the terminus of the canal should also be commemorated. He ingeniously gouged out the harbor by damming and releasing Little Buffalo Creek.

There are many other stories of the experiences of early travelers passing through the Port of Buffalo. The nation was shaped by events that occurred in this place, and more people passed through this port than through Ellis Island. We must be prepared to tell these stories before the bicentennial of the Erie Canal in 2025. We can make that a grand affair attracting many visitors, or a sadly lost opportunity.

Douglas R. Bunker is a retired University at Buffalo professor who participated in an inter-disciplinary doctoral program in policy studies.