The Mohawk River was busy with long, flat canal boats 150 years ago. Now the sight of a period wooden vessel draws school kids by the score.
The Lois McClure, an 88-foot canal schooner owned by the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vermont, is headed down the Mohawk on a voyage of education.
“It’s like a floating museum,” said project director and historian Art Cohn, just after stepping off the boat in Rome. “Every place we go has a common history with this craft.”
Three months ago the schooner set off from Lake Champlain, north into Canada, then down the St. Lawrence River and a network of canals through the western edge of Lake Ontario to the Erie Canal.
Tuesday the McClure will land in Fort Plain to give the fourth-graders of Harry Hoag Elementary a few hours out of the traditional classroom.
The deck is set up for an hour-long tour called “1812, Commemorating the War, Celebrating the Peace,” in honor of the conflict’s bicentennial.
According to Museum Director Erick Tichonuk it’s a type of education most kids don’t often get.
“Kids in New York hear a lot about the canal,” he said. “They know the main impetus behind the building was economic, but the War of 1812 contributed to that impetus.”
According to Tichonuk, the War of 1812 turned the western frontier into a battleground. Fleets were built in the eastern Great Lakes to defend the U.S. and British Canadian border. The problem was, war machinery cost three times more to ship by land than it cost to build in the first place.
Once the war was over, New Yorkers had seen first hand why a shipping network was so important.
Fort Plain Superintendent Doug Burton admitted the conflict is often brushed over between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.
“This will bring more emphasis to that conflict,” he said, “and the kids won’t just hear about it. They’ll be able to see and touch it.”
In the interests of full disclosure, the Lois McClure isn’t actually an antique schooner. It was first launched back in 2004, but any canalman of the day wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference. It was modeled after two 1862-class canal schooners sunk in Lake Champlain.
“The goal wasn’t to make a similar boat or a better boat,” Cohn said, “it was to make the same boat.”
Back in the 1860s boats like the McClure were pulled by mules walking along the side of the canal, with removable masts for sections of open water. Today the crew has a 30-foot tugboat, which is as close as they could get to mule teams in the modern age.
In the coming weeks the vessel will stop many places throughout the Capital Region. Admission is free and anyone is welcome.
For more information and tour dates, visit www.lcmm.org.