A boat keel of white oak – displayed Thursday in the newly completed Longshed at Canalside – will become the foundation of a public effort to build a replica of the canal-era packet boat "Seneca Chief."
A 73-foot-long canal boat is expected to take shape over the next two to three years under the direction of the Buffalo Maritime Center. It's part of the lead-up to the bicentennial of the Erie Canal's opening in 1825.
The 5,000-square-foot Longshed, a two-story, gabled-roof building on the northern end of the Commercial Wharf near the Whipple truss footbridge, is the first new building at Canalside since the Explore & More Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Children’s Museum opened in June 2019. After the boat is completed, the building is expected to be used as the headquarters for the bicentennial celebration.
"This is exactly what we wanted, to have a sense of what this looked like 200 years ago," Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul said Thursday prior to an event marking the building's completion, which included Rep. Brian Higgins and Assemblyman Sean Ryan. "This area was a real heart of commerce, and we all know the story of how this canal really drove the opening of the Midwest."
John Montague, who, as the Buffalo Maritime Center's founder and president emeritus, advocated building a packet boat on the harbor more than two decades ago, praised HHL Architects' design of the canal-era building and the construction by Savarino Companies.
"They've done a really luxurious job," Montague said. "The quality of the craftsmanship is over the top."
Montague reflected on how long he pursued the project.
"It's like, 'Oh my God, this thing has actually happened,' " Montague said. "It went from drawings and visions of it and so forth to an actual physical thing that I'm walking around in. It has been a long journey, and it is so gratifying to see the change."
The Erie Canal's rich Western New York history
Two hundred years ago, ground was broken for the Erie Canal in Rome, N.Y. When the Erie Canal opened in 1825, Lake Erie was connected to the Hudson River, meaning goods could travel across the state faster than ever. This began Buffalo's boom as the Erie Canal snaked through Western New York, ending as the Erie Canal terminus in downtown Buffalo.
When finished, the replica of the packet boat that carried Gov. DeWitt Clinton from Buffalo to New York City to mark the canal's opening will be moored in the Commercial Slip. It will also make occasional visits to other canal towns.
The completion of the Longshed, which began construction in August 2019, was delayed three months due to the coronavirus. The public can gets its first look from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. There will also be foundry demonstrations of molten metal being poured, boat building and the unveiling of the "Wedding of the Waters" bronze sculpture.
"Once the public is in here and starts to see everything we're doing, and the fact that we are inviting them in, it's going to be, frankly, a very emotional moment, and a big moment not only for the Buffalo Maritime Center but for Buffalo in general," said Brian Trzeciak, the Buffalo Maritime Center's executive director.
The new building, with its location on the water and the smell of cedar and sawdust, offers an ideal setting for the project, he said.
"When you walk in here, you'll understand it's a place to build boats," Trzeciak said.
Volunteers who want to help build the boat are required to receive safety training and take classes on traditional boat building and woodworking methods at the Buffalo Maritime Center in Black Rock, master boat builder Roger Allen said.
There will be three two-day sessions, plus additional training to make sure volunteers are prepared to work on the packet boat, Allen said.
Interested volunteers are asked to check the Buffalo Maritime Center website next week at buffalomaritimecenter.org.
The mezzanine will provide viewing areas and offer historical information and displays on the history of the Erie Canal, including one on the "Seneca Chief" name written by the director of the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum in Salamanca.
Clarence resident David Rogers, after reading an article in The Buffalo News about the project in 2018, contributed the $325,000 needed to make the project a reality. Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., which oversees development at Canalside, spent $5.1 million on the building.
The Buffalo Maritime Center also received grants of $150,000 from the Canal Corp. and $49,500 from the New York State Council on the Arts.
Longshed opens at Canalside
See photos from the ribbon-cutting of the Longshed building at Canalside on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020, where lovers of history will provide educational tours and interactive exhibits and the community can watch an Erie Canal packet boat built before their very eyes.
Mark Sommer covers preservation, development, the waterfront, culture and more. He's also a former arts editor at The News.