By John Montague
Two hundred years ago last Fourth of July the ground was officially broken for the Erie Canal. On Oct. 26, 1825, after eight years and 363 miles of hard digging and clever engineering, Gov. Dewitt Clinton set out from Buffalo in his packet boat for New York City. The moment marked the Canal’s official completion. Today as the canal’s bicentennial gets underway it is important for us to remember that the Erie Canal’s story is Buffalo’s story.
The building of the Erie Canal was hailed as a major civil engineering triumph. It was, for a very young America, a transformative event, politically, socially, economically and culturally. By breaking into the continent’s vast interior, the Canal formed a national bond that would have far-reaching consequences as the country grew. It was this waterway to the Hudson River that vaulted New York City into the world’s economic and financial center. It was the canal that literally “made” Buffalo and all the towns and cities in between.
Buffalo’s Inner Harbor contains within its core, and at the very heart of our efforts to redevelop our waterfront, the actual “Western Terminus of the Erie Canal.” We have too long failed to appreciate that Buffalo contains, at the very center of Canalside, one of America’s most “sacred historic sites.” As both a city and a region moving forward, we must take advantage of this powerful heritage and this unique identity.
The Erie Canal bicentennial offers numerous challenges and opportunities. The Buffalo Maritime Center and its partners are undertaking the building of a replica of Clinton’s canal packet boat that was originally built near present day Canalside. We are hoping to construct the 73-foot vessel in public view at Canalside by trained community volunteers under the direction of our master boat builders.
The boat, as it is being assembled, would operate as a year- round attraction over a two-year period as an ever-evolving and changing public attraction. By design, the pace of construction will be calculated to maximize opportunities for public participation. This project will not only encourage a sense of community ownership but provide programming opportunities for civic and school groups. The ongoing event will also be widely publicized to draw in year-round outside visitors to the site.
It is our hope that Phase I of the project will culminate with the launching of the packet boat in Canalside’s Commercial Slip, and remain the vessel’s permanent home port. In Phase II, the packet boat would travel the canal (horse-drawn where possible) as Buffalo’s ambassador, providing educational programming designed to inspire other canal towns and cities to explore their own canal heritage in preparation for 2025.
For Buffalo, building this historic boat is an opportunity not to be missed.
John Montague is trustee and director emeritus of the Buffalo Maritime Center.