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Supporters hope replica of Erie Canal packet boat will be built at Canalside

Canalside could become home to a replica of the packet boat that Gov. DeWitt Clinton boarded in Buffalo and traveled to New York on to mark the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825.

But that's only part of the Buffalo Maritime Center's plan.

The public would also be able to watch construction of the 73-foot-long packet boat over a couple of years – and even participate.

Building the packet boat would be a lead-up to the Erie Canal bicentennial in 2025. Supporters say building the boat and mooring it in the Commercial Slip would be a fitting commemoration of the opening of the canal, which connected Lake Erie to the Hudson River and spurred the nation's westward expansion.

The Seneca Chief was a handsome boat, made of fine wood, bronze fasteners and double-hung glass windows fit for the then-governor of New York, called the "father of the Erie Canal."

It could also give a photo-friendly figurine at Canalside a run for her money.

"Shark Girl is an icon of Buffalo now, but imagine the people lining up to take a picture near a 73-foot-long packet boat," said Brian Trzeciak, the maritime center's executive director.

Building the packet boat at Canalside would also bring the boat full circle: The Seneca Chief was built where KeyBank Center is located.

It remains to be determined where the boat would be built, and if the maritime center can raise the estimated $325,000 to make it happen.

The maritime center originally pushed to have the boat built in the Pavilion building, due to open at Canalside in summer 2019. But Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., which oversees Canalside, prefers to use the building for other purposes besides just boat building.

Maritime center and the waterfront agency officials say they are willing to consider other Canalside locations.

"Fundamentally, do we want to try to to accommodate them? The answer is yes," said Robert Gioia, the waterfront agency's chairman. "Let's try and figure that out."

'History to life'

John Montague, Buffalo Maritime Center's board president emeritus, points to the seal of Buffalo, which emphasizes the importance of the city's maritime history by showing a canal boat, a lighthouse and square-rigged ship.

"Where the Erie Canal enters Lake Erie is actually a sacred national site," said Montague, also a member of the waterfront agency's history advisory committee. "Like Ellis Island, this is  one of those places where you can say thousands of families in America passed through, and we have it right at Canalside."

Montague believes building the boat in public, year-round, will stir public interest and draw attention to the canal's history as a run-up to the bicentennial.

"This packet boat can raise consciousness about the importance of the Erie Canal not only for the development of Buffalo, but also of the nation," Montague said.

This idea isn't new.

The Erie Canal Harbor Project Master Plan, which came out in November 2004, offered this recommendation: "A replica packet boat is moored in Commercial Slip. A period-dressed interpreter summons visitors on board as if they were passengers during the canal's heyday. Once below deck, the visitors become historic passengers learning about their destinations."

Other history recommendations in the master plan included showing a cross-section of a clipper ship to reveal what was in its hold, a glassed-in rail car with multimedia displays to reflect the moment when rail overtook the canal and creating a small museum to tell the waterfront's history using dioramas, artifacts and plasma screens.

"People see this thing come together, and it'll be different every time they come down to visit," Montague said. "People love watching construction sites. That's why they have holes in the fences."

Constructing the packet boat project would also add to the hoopla surrounding the bicentennial and bring positive attention to Buffalo from around the country, said Roger Allen, the maritime center's master boat builder.

"This is a chance for Buffalo to tell a national story," Allen said. "We have a renaissance going on, and you want to talk about an exciting place – well, here's an incredible event."

Montague envisions the excitement of seeing the completed boat dropped into the Commercial Slip by crane.

"That would be dramatic," he said.

The maritime center currently teaches school children how to make boats – primarily row boats and canoes. It plans to do the same thing here.

"When we build the packet boat, we want to include school kids in the building process," Allen said. "It's a training opportunity with them where they actually get to learn how to use tools building something real. They'll be able to point to this thing in 20 years and say, 'I helped build this.' "

Assemblyman Sean Ryan likes the idea of building a packet boat at Canalside. He calls the boat "the 747 of its day."

"Successful waterfronts across the country have incorporated their maritime pasts into the present waterfront," Ryan said. "In Boston, Seattle, New York City and San Francisco, you see old wooden boats that bring maritime history alive. People are drawn to old boats at waterfronts. It would be a great visual representation of history to construct a packet boat."

Ryan said more of the canal's history should be reflected at Canalside.

"They're trying to create an atmosphere there, but currently that atmosphere is devoid of historical content," he said. "This could bring the history to life, so that people know the importance of this place to the development of Buffalo."

Finding a spot 

The least expensive option to build the boat would be in a big tent on a grassy area.

Two other possible locations are at the slip and above the area known as the Ruins.

One approach calls for a temporary building or platform that would serve as a foundation for a permanent building after the boat is finished. The other option calls for  scaffolding around a temporary deck, enclosed by a tent.

"We think framing it at the Commercial Slip was the biggest thing we heard from the history advisory group, and we think we're on that path," said Tom Dee, the waterfront agency's president.

"Or, we could put a tent up on one of the grassy areas, depending on who is going to pay for everything," he said.

Dee said the jury is still out over whether people will go out of their way to watch the building of a canal-era boat.

Montague said deciding on a location would greatly improve chances for financial support.

"Once this gets going, it is going to attract support," Montague said.

Montague said the packet boat would also occasionally travel along the Erie Canal.

The Lois McClure is currently the only full-scale replica of a canal boat that sails on the Erie Canal and Lake Erie.

"That's the only authentic replica of a boat on the canal, and it's from Vermont," Montague said.

Trzeciak said it's important to get started and build toward the bicentennial. The War of 1812 commemoration was disappointing to many, and the maritime center is hoping to avoid that with the canal commemoration.

"We are passionate about this project," Trzeciak said. "But if not this, what are we going to do for the bicentennial? Are we going to miss this opportunity to put us on the map?"

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