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2nd chance for us to get history right

The pity of the project is that finishing touches got mangled.

The beauty of it is that we will get another chance.

It only matters if you care about getting the most bang for our 53 million bucks.

It only matters if you want our page in America's story highlighted instead of downplayed.

It only matters if you want visitors to understand why we dug up the historic terminus of the Erie Canal.

Thanks to the folks who fought to reclaim our history, and the state officials whom they persuaded to do it, Erie Canal Harbor is impressive. Crowds have flocked to the historic waterfront near the old Aud since it opened last spring.

The problem is the signs that are supposed to tell the historic story. Even state officials blasted the largest marker, which looks like a giant flyswatter, as "ugly" and overwhelming.

My problem is not so much with style as substance. We dug up the historic Commercial Slip, building ruins and cobblestone streets for a reason: It is where then-Gov. DeWitt Clinton in 1825 opened the canal that changed America and made Buffalo great.

You will not, astoundingly, find that information on any of the interpretive signs at the site. Nor is there any "Kodak moment" marker or statue of Clinton near the spot where he opened the canal.

Minor players in the canal story, from express-mail pioneer William Fargo to political boss Fingy Connors, somehow rate their own signs. Yet Clinton, the star of this show, is all but missing in action. It is like going to Yankee Stadium and seeing a plaque for Dooley Womack, but nothing on Mickey Mantle.

There is more to the signage gap. The Commercial Slip was the canal's original western terminus. It symbolizes the city's role as the hub of east-west trade, a gateway for westward settlers and a place where the Underground Railroad met the waters of freedom. No single sign celebrates that.

State officials said last week that they will assemble experts, listen to suggestions and make changes.

"We want to make sure we are telling the story as best we can," said Jordan Levy, head of the Erie Canal Harbor Development board, "so [visitors] walk away knowing the history of what was here."

Don't get me wrong. Most of the signs are interesting and of good quality. Well-intentioned people worked hard. The problem is emphasis. In trying to tell the entire Erie Canal story, the signage underplays our story: what happened here and why this site is so important.

The information on the showcase "flyswatter" sign relates mostly to other sites along the canal, not -- perplexingly -- to the spot where it stands.

Folks walk next to building ruins, but no sign notes what building they are from. Original canal stones were reused in the rewatered Slip, yet no marker highlights the fact.

All of this is frustrating, because we got the big stuff right. State officials, guided by public opinion, excavated the Slip and building ruins. Cobblestone streets will be uncovered. The pedestrian bridge and Naval and Servicemen's Museum mimic the 19th century structures that stood there. The old Central Wharf is now prime public space.

Placing signs that tell the site's story ought to be the easy part.

The good news is that we will get another chance. A few suggestions: Give us a DeWitt Clinton statue and marker. Identify ruins and original canal stones. Take down the "flyswatter" and move its canal-generic sign off of center stage. Sum up the site's importance in a couple of paragraphs and slap that sign where the "flyswatter" stood.

We have the Slip, the site and the ruins. Telling the story will make the stones come alive.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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