Buffalo has benefited greatly over the years by preserving and showcasing its history. While that advantage has most obviously revolved around the city’s trove of architecture by masters such as Louis Sullivan, H.H. Richardson and Frank Lloyd Wright, the city’s Erie Canal history offers its own valuable story – one that Western New York has done too little to exploit.
That may be slowly changing with developments at Canalside, and could accelerate even more with plans to build a historically accurate packet boat there, at the site of the old Commercial Slip, where the canal’s western terminus once bustled with activity.
It’s an alluring prospect: The Buffalo Maritime Center wants to construct a 73-foot boat of exactly the sort that once plied the waters of the canal, using the same tools and techniques and assisted by what would surely be an eager public.
First, though, backers have to raise the money and the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. has to provide space for the project. The former seems likely to happen; the latter certainly should. Imagine the interest and the publicity.
The goal is to build a replica of the packet boat that Gov. DeWitt Clinton boarded in Buffalo and traveled to New York on to mark the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825.
It would celebrate and embrace the critical piece of Buffalo’s history and the nation’s development as a lead-up to the Erie Canal’s bicentennial in 2025.
Construction of the packet boat would take place in public with the public’s help. It would be a teachable moment for area students, who would participate as builders, alongside skilled volunteer workers.
It would be a draw for onlookers eager to watch the progress, over at least a couple of years. Community excitement and pride would build.
The boat would be kept at the Commercial Slip as a floating historic kiosk, or footprint for future waterfront display.
But the launching of the boat would become an opportunity for a major Canalside event linked with a reenactment of Gov. Clinton’s 1825 opening of the Erie Canal trip to New York City, or the Wedding of the Waters. Then the packet boat could travel along the Erie Canal as an ambassador for the City of Buffalo.
The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., which oversees Canalside, should throw open its doors and resources to make this project happen.
It should also allow the boat to be moored in the Commercial Slip, which supporters correctly say would be a fitting commemoration of the opening of the canal, which connected Lake Erie to the Hudson River and jump-started the nation’s westward expansion.
Moving this project should be high on ECHDC’s agenda and the state agency has shown some interest.
That much is encouraging.
Here’s the problem: It still has not been determined where the boat would be built, and the Maritime Center still needs to raise the $325,000 it requires to fund the project.
But place is important. The spot the Erie Canal ran into Lake Erie is a sacred site in American history, said John Montague, trustee and director emeritus of the Buffalo Maritime Center.
“This is where the whole East Coast filtered into the Midwest. There are millions of people, families that can trace some point in their history to that specific spot,” he said.
That may be the single most important reason to support this project, but there’s another one, too: It will be fun.