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Success of historic dimensions

There is a huge construction crane and a bulldozer and a backhoe. There is a mound of dirt as high as a house. On a recent afternoon, three ordinary looking guys who helped to do an extraordinary thing stopped by to bask in the glow.

The terminus of the Erie Canal, our page in America's story, is being resurrected near the old Memorial Auditorium. The historic Commercial Slip is being excavated and rewatered, building foundations will be unearthed, cobblestone streets marking Buffalo's birth uncovered. We will use our history to help us, instead of mindlessly destroying it.

It would not have been, had not a few people -- with plenty of help -- stopped the runaway train of a state bureaucracy and turned it in the right direction.

"This was our battle of Saratoga," said Tim Tielman, as a backhoe gathered dirt. "Our great victory."

"It's a testament," said Scot Fisher, "to the power of the community."

Tielman is a preservationist. Fisher is a businessman with a community conscience. Dick Berger is the attorney who fought in court. They met at the site last week to see the fruits of their labor.

The state 10 years ago decided to spruce up the riverfront near the Aud with walkways and boat slips. Digging in 1998 uncovered what preservationists knew it would -- the walls of the Commercial Slip, the definitive historic site on the Erie Canal. Destroying it would be like demolishing Old North Church or razing the Alamo.

The state made excuses why it couldn't resurrect history, notably that canal walls, if uncovered, would "blast apart" in the Buffalo winters. The governor cut the ribbon in 1999 and bulldozers started destroying our history. Preservationists sued to stop it. The battle was on.

Preservationists were outmanned and outmoneyed. But they had a formidable weapon: the rightness of the cause.

"Every person I called to help," remembered Tielman, "answered the call."

Tielman called Robert Melnick, the nation's premier expert on historic landscapes. When Melnick heard that the canal terminus was at risk, he flew here from Oregon and testified in federal court. His reimbursement from cash-poor preservationists: a bucket of chicken wings and a LaNova T-shirt.

Fisher got 14,000 petition signatures to resurrect history. Again, the cause drew a crowd.

"Usually with a petition, people avoid you," recalled Fisher. "With this one, they called their friends and family members to sign."

Hundreds of people showed up at rallies or planted "Save, Don't Pave" signs on their lawns. Hundreds more donated an unheard-of $40,000 to the Preservation Coalition's cause. Yours truly strained editors' patience with a slew of columns.

Fisher recalled the Sunday when, unannounced, he knocked on County Executive Joel Giambra's door with artist renderings of a historic canal district.

"He was plastering a room with his brother-in-law," recalled Fisher. "But he listened."

Giambra became the first politician to sign on.

University at Buffalo geology professor Ross Giese tracked down the geologists who supposedly said the canal stones would explode. They told him they never said any such thing. Giese told the story late one night at a public meeting. The "exploding stones" fiction was then exposed on the front page of The Buffalo News.

"I saw the paper that morning," recalled Tielman, "and said, 'This is it. Everything changes from here.' "

It did. Four months later, the governor did an about-face and said the state would resurrect history at the site. Project manager Tom Blanchard swallowed his pride and, to his credit, changed direction.

The digging has started. It is a great day for all of us. It is a great day, especially, for those who fought and for those who believed.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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