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State Museum joins Erie Canal celebration

State Museum joins Erie Canal celebration

'Enterprising Waters' opens Saturday
State Museum joins Erie Canal celebration
The windlass on view in the Erie Canal exhibit.
Photographer: New York State Museum

Every museum in the Mohawk Valley has had some kind of Erie Canal exhibit this summer, celebrating the 200th anniversary of what was hailed in 1817 as "biggest and boldest American engineering project of its century." On Saturday, the New York State Museum will put its offering on display.

"Enterprising Waters: New York's Erie Canal" begins its two-year run in the museum's Exhibition Hall, documenting what was called "The Eighth Wonder of the World" when it was completed in 1825. What will be available for viewing on Saturday is called Phase One of the exhibit, while Phase Two, focusing on the canal's legacy and its many versions, is scheduled to go up sometime in the spring of 2018.

"To me, the influence of the canal and what came in its wake is incredibly important," said Brad Utter, a senior historian at the museum. "The westward migration, the settling of New York and the west, the industry that was established enabling goods to get to remote places, and the lasting legacy of the canal, well, it's hard to compare it to anything else. It's like the internet today. On the people of its day, the canal had that kind of influence."

The exhibit will include various images of the canal along with documents and unique objects, including a windlass — a pully mechanism that easily lifted and lowered heavy cargo on and off canal boats. It is by far the biggest object in the exhibit.

"The big thing people are going to see when they walk into the gallery space is an Erie Canal warehouse with a gigantic windlass," said Utter, an East Fishkill native who has been at the museum for over three years. "It's a very large hoist, composed of a 14-foot diameter wheel and a 10-foot axle. It was built directly into the top floor of a warehouse in the village of Mohawk possibly as early as 1831. It's a very imposing structure that came into our collection in 1971 when the highway department in the town of German Flats was going to tear down the building. It's a great artifact, and quite possibly the only one left in New York. It had to be taken apart to be transported here, and this is the first time it has been put back together."

Also in the exhibit are portraits of Utica's Benjamin Wright, the first chief engineer on the canal, and Jesse Hawley, a flour merchant from Geneva in western New York.

"Wright had experience working with the Western Inland company so he became the first engineer in charge of the project, and Hawley was the first person to publicly call for a canal to be built from the Hudson to Lake Erie," said Utter. "He wrote a series of letters that were published in newspapers."

While the Erie Canal has always been seen as a key component in the country's westward expansion in the early 19th century, not everyone welcomed what some detractors called Cllinton's Ditch, named after New York Governor DeWitt Clinton. When the governor and other dignitaries celebrated the completion of the canal in 1825, called "The Wedding of the Waters," people in Schenectady and Rome weren't enthusiastic participants.

"Schenectady already had a strong waterfront business having used the Western Inland Navigation Company," explained Utter. "The officials in Schenectady marked the occasion but Clinton and his group weren't warmly received because the new canal bypassed the traditional waterfront. As a result, Schenectady was one of the communities that lost population when the canal was opened. Rome also wasn't happy with the canal. But they both adapted quickly and rebounded."

Clinton and others took a tour of the 363-mile waterway passage, beginning in Buffalo and finishing in New York City. The trip took 10 days.

"DeWitt Clinton had two kegs of water from Lake Erie and the celebration was capped when he poured them into the Atlantic Ocean in New York Harbor," said Utter. "We borrowed a replica of that keg, and we've also borrowed the original for a limited time from the New York Historical Society."

In Rome, officials had a black keg of water that they poured out into the canal to show their dissatisfaction with it.

"We also have a replica of the black keg," said Utter. "Rome was very upset. In Schenectady, officials did their duty but there was not a big celebration like in other cities. The reception was recorded in the newspaper as 'grave.'"

'Enterprising Waters: New York's Erie Canal'

WHERE: New York State Museum, 222 Madison Ave., Albany
WHEN: Tuesday through Sunday, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., exhibit on display through Oct. 20, 2019
MORE INFO: www.nysm.nysed.gov, 518 474-5877

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