FORT HUNTER — The history and future of the state Canal System was celebrated by stakeholders and enthusiasts alike this week during the bi-annual Canal Conference.
The three-day conference hosted by the Canal Society of New York State and the state Canal Corporation kicked off at Rivers Casino Event Center at Mohawk Harbor in Schenectady on Sunday. The event, originally scheduled to be held last fall, was postponed a year due to the pandemic.
The event features canal themed presentations, exhibits, workshops and outings along the Erie Canal. This year’s conference focuses on enhancing and promoting the Canal System, which has become a priority under the state’s Reimagine the Canals initiative that was launched in 2019.
The initiative is aimed at harnessing the history and recreational potential of the Erie Canal as a driver of economic development and tourism for canalside communities and the state while leveraging infrastructure upgrades to mitigate the threat of flooding and improve quality of life.
The state has built off of those goals during the pandemic by highlighting the Canal System as a destination of outdoor recreational activities and launching a series of “excursions” offering new ways to experience the historic waterway through camping, kayaking, fishing and more.
Attendees at the Canal Conference this week are celebrating the history of the Canal System while looking towards its future and its ability to help reinvigorate communities.
“This year’s conference brings together vibrant places and creative people who are investing in their future, and not just for tomorrow, but for generations to come,” Canal Society of New York State Conference Chair Kal Wysokowski said in a press release.
“When we see the transformation of communities like Schenectady, Amsterdam, Oswego and Geneva, we are inspired. This year’s theme is about reconnecting to our waterways and to people. The Mohawk Harbor and city of Schenectady perfectly illustrate this theme,” Wysokowski continued.
Around 125 stakeholders, municipal leaders and interested individuals from across the state attended this year’s conference, according to Canal Corporation spokesperson Shane Mahar.
“It’s a really nice crowd with a lot of folks who are focused on canals and economic development on the Canal System, canal enthusiasts and a lot of history buffs,” Mahar said on Monday.
Beyond the discussions commonly found at symposiums, the Canal Conference included mobile workshops that allowed guests to to visit canalside destinations, including the Stockade district in Schenectady, Mabee Farm Historic Site in Pattersonville-Rotterdam Junction and Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site.
“The mobile workshops are really an opportunity for conference attendees to get out in the canal community, highlighting different sections or areas of the canal,” Mahar said.
Schoharie Crossing was a featured stop during the bi-annual conference for the first time on Monday, according to Education Coordinator David Brooks. He was excited to greet the cadre of canal authorities and enthusiasts when the tour bus of over 20 event attendees rolled up at the Visitor Center.
“When you look at the crowd you realize there are a lot of experts and fantastic people,” Brooks said.
Among the group were a mix of familiar faces and first-time visitors who Brooks encouraged to make a return trip to fully explore all that Schoharie Crossing has to offer.
“It’s three miles long and it comes to amazing aspects of the Erie Canal. The original Clinton’s Ditch, the enlarged system and today’s modern system,” Brooks said. “This is in some ways canal hallowed ground, because you have the three versions.”
The group was invited inside the Visitor Center to explore the “Pathway to Empire: How the Erie Canal Helped Build America” exhibit featuring a scale model of the Schoharie Creek Aqueduct and Lock 30 as it would have looked in 1905 before stepping outside to see the aqueduct as it stands today.
The exhibit opened in 2018 and has helped attract new visitors to the center each year, before the pandemic had a partial cooling effect. Brooks estimated thousands of visitors stop inside annually whether they are simply passing through on a bike ride or plan to drop in while touring the site.
Tens of thousands of visitors explore the grounds of Schoharie Crossing each year and those numbers have been buoyed by the state’s focus on promoting the Canal System as a destination, according to Brooks.
“It’s already been a destination for so many people, because of the recreation or maybe its family history. It encouraged that and also encouraged communities to embrace that heritage tourism or that recreational tourism,” Brooks said. “Along the canal in different areas, whether it’s Amsterdam or Schenectady, there are so many different things being offered along the canal that it’s connecting more in people’s minds. They are realizing it’s a place or destination to check out.”
Cynthia Masefield of New Jersey enjoyed her first visit to Schoharie Crossing as part of the mobile workshop. The special education teacher attended the conference with a friend as a fun opportunity to learn more about the history of the Canal System.
“I’m just fascinated with the canal,” Masefield said. “I’m one of those geeky people who likes to see how it used to be and how it is now.”
Masefield enjoys exploring historic sites during her free time and said traveling the entire Canal System from Albany to Buffalo by bike is on her bucket list. She thinks the state’s rebranding of the canal as dual history and recreation destinations is a winning combination.
“Take me where the history is,” Masefield said.
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