The Erie Canal may be turning 200 this summer, but according to Brian Stratton, director of the New York State Canal Corporation, using the state's major waterways never gets old.
"The Erie Canal is the quintessential example of what can be done when we work together toward a common goal," said Stratton, director of the canal corporation since 2011 after serving seven years as mayor of Schenectady. "Today, our canal system continues to be a vital economic engine for tourism and industry across our state, and we're looking forward to a busy season on the canal."
Stratton was at the Albany Institute of History and Art last week to help celebrate the canal's history and mark the opening of a new exhibit called, "Spotlight: The Erie Canal." The display will be up through Aug. 20.
"It was considered quite an audacious proposal to cut a narrow ribbon of water 363 miles across the state in what was then a wilderness," said Stratton. "But it connected the Atlantic to the Great Lakes and the western frontier beyond. It was one of the most significant achievements in our state's storied past."
Albany Institute History of Art Director Tammis K. Groft was on hand to show Stratton and state assemblyman John T. McDonald III around the new exhibit.
"We know that this is the first of many celebrations about the canal this summer," said Groft. "They'll be things going on along the route all summer. But we have a nice new exhibit filled with a wonderful array of documents, commemorative medals, photographs, drawings and other artifacts. We have some paintings and some photographs taken in the 1920s when the Erie Canal was no longer in use."
Construction on the Erie Canal begin in 1817 during the first term of U.S. President James Monroe and while DeWitt Clinton was governor of New York. The idea of building a trench running west along the Mohawk River and then onto Buffalo had been around for a while. The Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, pushed by Albany's Philip Schuyler in the 1790s, was created to make use of the Mohawk River but the venture wasn't successful. And, both of Monroe's predecessors in the Oval Office, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, didn't have the foresight to think a canal would work. Jefferson called the notion "little short of madness" and Madison vetoed a bill that would have provided federal money for the construction of the canal. Clinton, however, a former state legislator, New York City mayor and U.S. Senator, convinced the state legislature to fund the project.
The canal was opened in 1823, had its grand opening in 1825, and immediately had an impact on westward migration. Instead of taking two weeks by stagecoach to get from Albany to Buffalo, the boats on the Erie Canal could move passengers there in just five days. The canal was enlarged on a couple of occasions and during the first two decades of the 1900s morphed into the New York State Barge Canal. That waterway used many of the same locks as the Erie Canal but primarily utilized the Mohawk River for transport. The name change to the New York State Canal System was made official in 1992.
Among the many items making up the canal exhibit is an 1850 painting by folk artist John Wilson showing the New York State Agricultural Fair from that time period located somewhere just north of Albany on land adjacent to the canal. Another painting from 1852 by William Rickerby Miller shows the Erie Canal out in Little Falls.
"The Wilson painting was recently donated to us, and there's only one other work known by him," said Groft. "We have original drawings done in 1853 as well as some wonderful images on ceramic bowls and plates. There were ceramic companies in England who created these historic scenes because they knew there would be a good market for them in the U.S. We also have a book celebrating the opening of the Erie Canal and a portrait of DeWitt Clinton."
Groft also has a small commemorative medal celebrating the opening, as well as a larger cast stone version that may have had some practical use on the canal.
"We're not really sure what it was used for, and that's one of the reasons we do exhibitions like these," she said. "On the medal's face are the Roman gods, Pan and Neptune, representing the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean. We're just not sure if it had any real use other than decorative, but someone out there might now. It's another recent donation to our collection."
McDonald, the former mayor of Cohoes and currently the state assemblyman from the 108th district, said he is looking forward to the summer of 2017 and many of the events centered around use of the canal.
"I want to thank the institute for kicking things off with this exhibit, and I'm really looking forward to all the events happening this summer along the canal," said McDonald. "As the former mayor of Cohoes and as a representative for much of the area associated with the canal, it's going to be great fun to enjoy the outdoors this summer along the river and to visit all the wonderful history connected to the canal."
Included among the many events scheduled along the canal this year is the 2017 World Canals Conference to be held in Syracuse Sept. 24-28.
'Spotlight: The Erie Canal'
WHERE: Albany Institute of History and Art, 125 Washington Ave., Albany
WHEN: Through Aug. 20, Wednesday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday,10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, noon-5 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students with ID, $6 for children 6-12, free for children under 6
MORE INFO: 463-4478, www.albanyinstitute.org