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100 Things: Canal Fest is a huge, free summer tradition

There’s another Canalside in town.

Downtown Buffalo’s is fine and dandy, and has played a starring role in our 100 Things list. But from July 17 to 24, the spotlight shoots to another part of the Erie Canal – the romantic, historic stretch where the fabled cities of Tonawanda and North Tonawanda meet.

Canal Fest of the Tonawandas was launched in 1983. In the best area tradition, it’s free and huge. The festival claims to be “the largest festival of its kind along the Erie Canal.” Wikipedia ups that boast, saying simply that it is “the largest festival of its kind.”

All aboard for the land of the lumber barons.

Here is a fine bit of trivia to break the ice in the beer tent: The name Tonawanda comes from the Tuscarora word “Tahnawá•teh,” meaning “confluent stream.” It has a good ring to it. Tonawanda’s waterways led to not only the lumber trade but to such luxuries as Herschell carousels and Wurlitzer theater organs.

Plus, there is a lot of confluence at Canal Fest.

You will see all kinds of things you normally do not. Hippies and bikers, Catholics and Masons mingle on the midway of brotherhood. And how heartwarming it is, in these divisive days, to find the Republicans and the Democrats peacefully co-existing, side by side. The Tonawanda Republican Committee, as always, has set up a clam bar. Across the street, the Democrats hawk smoothies.

The rest of the fest is equally charming. Highlights include:

• The annual Tug o’ War between Tonawanda and North Tonawanda City Officials. Don’t miss this. They’ve been rubber-stamping documents all year with extra zeal, preparing for this feat of strength.

• Local kids working the Midway, behaving like old-time carnival barkers. Step right up, win this stuffed Bart Simpson!

• Active Hose Company No. 2, frying up chicken fingers.

• Swiftwater Pocahontas Council No. 186, frying up bologna.

• Smartphone-free games for the kiddies such as the Pie Eating Contest, Grizzly Run, Potato Sack Race, Biggest Splash Contest, Rockin’ Rollerama, Pool Noodle Javelin Throwing, Water Balloon Catapult and climactic Goldfish Dive.

• And where else will you find the Quick and Dirty Boat Building Contest? Each team gets a few basic desert-island-type materials, and has to scramble to make something that will sail.

Now that you’re hooked, like one of those fish being served with chips by St. Peter’s United Church of Christ, it’s time to plan your visit.

The complete schedule is extensive and exhaustive and awaits you at Meanwhile, here are a few suggestions:

Cheer and jeer at that Tonawanda/North Tonawanda tug o’war, 6:30 p.m. July 18 at Niawanda Park behind Tonawanda Town Hall. And there’s a Part Two, too. At 6 p.m. July 19, the losing city’s mayor gives the winning city’s mayor a ride across the bridge.

Buy a plastic duck to take part in the Community Missions’ time-honored duck race (3 p.m. July 23). You might win! Either way, you celebrate that this quaint game of chance narrowly dodged being put out of business by an obscure New York State law.

Revel in the Canal Fest Parade (6:30 p.m. July 19), the Car Cruise (6 p.m. July 20), the Bike Cruise (5:30 p.m. July 22) and the Diaper Derby (6 p.m. July 20). Check out the Down and Dirty Boat Race (6 p.m. July 23) to see whose craft sails and whose sinks.

Finally, delight in the closing fireworks, shot off at dusk on July 24 from the bridge over the canal.

It’s a thrilling sight, the people on the banks, the fireworks reflected in the water. It might remind you of Independence Day at Canalside. But it’s not the same, not quite. Because Canal Fest has its own unique quality. And there’s only one word for it.