Bits and pieces of New York state’s canal system have been identified, researched and listed on the state and national registers of historic places over the years.
But the New York State Barge Canal, a 524-mile navigation channel that’s now 90 years old, does not share the same national recognition as the Erie Canal.
This year, staff at the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, working with historians at other agencies, will begin efforts to create a historic district that will encompass the entire canal system.
“Ultimately, it’s about letting folks know yes, this is a system, yes, the New York state canal system was crucially important to the history of the nation, and to bring attention and recognition to it,” said Duncan Hay, cultural resources manager at the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor Commission.
Established by Congress in 2000, the 27-member commission, working with staff from the National Park Service, works to preserve and interpret the heritage of the region and to improve heritage development and tourism in the vast area called home by roughly 2.7 million people.
Development of a historic district for the state’s barge canal system is among goals outlined last week during a meeting of the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor Commission.
Hay said that there are a variety of sources where information on the current canal system can be found, but developing a historic district will bring that information together, making it more accessible.
“There’s a handful of people out there who know the system pretty well and if asked could say there’s a historic structure here or somewhere else,” Hay said. “But it’s mostly in our heads or obscure reference books. If this stuff is going to be protected and recognized and celebrated, we need to get beyond the buffs and specialists and get that information out into a more-accessible format.”
Before agreeing on the project, Hay said historians grappled with how to best recognize the canal system’s heritage because the history encompasses three eras.
The original canal was completed in 1836. It was enlarged in 1862, and then the state “canalized” the rivers and completed today’s barge canal by 1918.
Instead of trying to organize the three different eras and identify all of the unused structures — some of which are buried beneath roads or bike paths — historians agreed to start with what is there today: a canal system that’s been in continuous operation since the early 1900s.
The task will entail identifying features and buildings that contribute to the district’s historical significance as well as those that do not and getting that research into a single document and a geographic database.
“It allows you to be more systematic in recognizing and identifying those things,” Hay said.
The project, Hay said, will help historians come up with methods to achieve the more ambitious goal of recognizing, through a detailed multiple property listing, the canal’s first and second versions.
A historic district could yield some protection for parts of the system if federal funding or oversight is involved.
But Hay said the state’s Environmental Quality Review process already requires that special consideration be given to historical structures that are eligible for historic listing.
And the state Historic Preservation Office determined in 1992 that the entire canal system should be considered eligible for historic listing when it comes to project reviews.
None of the protections that currently exist apply to what people do on their own private property, Hay said.
Hay said the research itself will be more of a “compilation exercise” because numerous people have already taken steps to start documenting parts of the canal system.
“A lot of folks have cared about this for some time and have done work. Some parts of the state are very thoroughly documented; others are kind of a gap,” Hay said.
“It’s sort of a matter of bringing it all together,” Hay said.
For more information on the commission, visit www.eriecanalway.org.
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