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Old steamboat brings back fond memories of Crystal Beach shuttle

The nation’s oldest remaining excursion steamboat pulled into Buffalo Harbor like a ghost ship on Wednesday afternoon, conjuring up memories of how Buffalo’s own proud vessel – the beloved SS Canadiana – once plowed these same waters.

People lined up along the waterfront – from Erie Basin Marina to Canalside to the Buffalo River – snapping photos of the SS Columbia as it was towed to Marina A at Silo City on Childs Street, ending a long journey from Toledo.

The Columbia – designed by the same architect as the Canadiana and her sister ship, the SS Americana – will remain in Buffalo for a year or two before moving on to New York City, where preservationist hope to restore it to working condition.

“Look at the size of that thing,” said Matt Bartochowski, 67, of Cheektowaga, as he and his wife, Diana, watched the Columbia come into Buffalo. “It’s a shame we had to lose something like that.”

Preservationists, of course, had tried to save the Canadiana – which shuttled generations from Buffalo to Crystal Beach – before it was eventually scrapped at Port Colborne, Ont. in 2004.

But for a few minutes on Wednesday, as the Columbia floated by, people relived those memories of Crystal Beach and the Canadiana.

“It looks identical,” said Sam Guadagna, 84, of Williamsville, as he stood at Canalside and watched the Columbia. “I wish I was on it.”

Guadagna – retired captain of the Edward M. Cotter, Buffalo’s historic fireboat – worked on the Canadiana as a teenager selling concessions to the passengers. He reminisced about the dances on board and the three-hour lake tours on Sundays.

“She used to come in on the other side, turn around right here and park where the Little Rock is,” said Guadagna, as he pointed out toward the water. “I can still see it.”

Similar to the Canadiana, the Columbia shuttled people between Detroit and a Canadian amusement park. It carried as many as 3,200 passengers on five decks and included such features as sweeping stairways and a ballroom.

“It’s like a grand lady that’s in serious need of a makeover,” said Ron Reinhardt of the Town of Tonawanda, as he watched the Columbia, “but it’s pretty impressive.”

Reinhardt’s family came to Buffalo the year before the Canadiana stopped operating, but they never had a chance to get on board. He and his father, Arnold, stopped by Canalside Wednesday to watch the Columbia come in and get a sense of what it might have been like on the Canadiana.

“All of our relatives always talked about it,” Reinhardt said. “They had all these great stories of going over to Crystal Beach. It was basically a party all the way there. There’s a huge audience of people in Western New York who still have all these memories.”

The public will be able to tour the Columbia in the spring.