Collecting, preserving, and interpreting Buffalo’s Maritime Heritage is at the core of BMC’s mission. Maritime skills preservation through community boatbuilding projects such as the Buffalo Harbor Ferry, Scajaquada, through to the Durham boat, “Erie Traveler,” built in 2017 for the city of Lockport and the Lockport Locks Heritage District Corp, have been the hallmark of the organization. BMC’s Hand-to-Hand educational programs are also a direct expression of our preservation effort as traditional skills from the Niagara Frontier maritime community form the basis for what is taught. Now with the 200th Anniversary of the Erie Canal’s opening just a few years away we have been presented with an exciting new opportunity to carry out our maritime heritage preservation mission on a grander scale.
In 2017, the 4th of July marked the 200th Anniversary of “ground-breaking” for the Erie Canal near Rome, NY on July 4th, 1817. It had been only 41 years since the Declaration of Independence and just 3 years after Buffalo village was burned to the ground during the War of 1812. The great canal project reflected a daunting challenge and an enormous optimism which would be mightily rewarded as the country grew.
The significance and impact of the canal on American history and culture cannot be overstated. When the Erie Canal finally opened just eight years later in 1825, the project was hailed as a marvel of modern engineering as it proceeded to dramatically shape what the young democracy in America was to become. The Erie Canal cut through the mountainous Appalachian barrier, opening up the vast American Midwest to settlement and commerce by a flood of emigrants, some newly arrived on the continent’s shores, some from the former English colonies along the eastern seaboard. As the eastern terminus of the canal, New York City was to become the hub of a commercial empire that rivaled Great Britain’s geo-political hub, London. Thus, the Canal effectively connected the seaboard states in a “Bond of Union” to territories west of the mountains which were, at that critical time, in serious danger of emerging as separate nation states. For Buffalonians, it was the Erie Canal, with its western terminus on Buffalo Creek that literally created our metropolis, fueled its prosperity, and spurred its growth into one of America’s great cities!
In 1825 Governor DeWitt Clinton led a flotilla across the state from Buffalo to New York City, transporting a barrel of fresh Lake Erie water to pour into New York’s salty harbor to mark the “Wedding of the Waters” and the official opening of the Erie Canal. The boat he traveled in, Seneca Chief, was built in Buffalo by Thaddeus Joy between 1824 and 1825.
For decades local historians have tried to persuade the powers that be that there should be at least one replica somewhere on the canal of an Erie Canal boat of some sort to help tell the important story of the canal that Clinton championed. Following in their footsteps, after years of research in partnership with the Lockport Locks Heritage District Corp, and working with naval architects Steve Dalzell and Scott Lambert, the staff and volunteer crew at Buffalo Maritime Center are confident that a set of boatbuilding plans have been created that are within acceptable tolerances for such a boat, built to be a “recreation” of a packet boat of that period as described by historic documents.
In 2017 newspaper articles about the upcoming Bicentennial of the Canal, and BMC’s plans to build the replica Canal Boat, by John Montague and Buffalo News reporter, Mark Sommer, caught the attention of BMC supporters, David and Joan Rogers. A generous gift of $325,000 from Dave and Joan truly launched this longstanding idea forward so that it would become a real boat floating in the Erie Canal at Canalside. The Buffalo News agreed and published supporting articles with headlines that read “Build the Boat!” In anticipation of this moment, and well positioned to take on the challenge of a community boatbuilding project, the Buffalo Maritime Center spent the next three years laying groundwork for the construction of an historically authentic Erie Canal Boat that is meant to be a recreation of Gov. DeWitt Clinton’s Packet Boat, Seneca Chief.
On August 14th of 2018 our Packet Boat project was included by Governor Cuomo as he announced a $24 million investment to support three new projects as part of Buffalo’s Waterfront Transformation. The state committed $6 million to construct a new facility at Canalside with a specific intent that its first tenant would be BMC building a replica of Gov. DeWitt Clinton’s 1825 Erie Canal Boat.
Just opened, the amazing new “Longshed,” is a secure building on the commercial wharf across from Liberty Hound and the Naval Park at the historic mouth of the Erie Canal. In cooperation with Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation (ECHDC), it was designed to support year-round occupancy, allowing maximum visitation and educational programming. BMC is building the packet boat “in public view” with programming in both winter and summer until the 2025 commemoration of the grand opening of the Canal.
On Friday, October 16th, the Longshed building was opened to friends and sponsors of the Packet Boat Project to get a first look of this beautiful new building. Visitors participated in the Packet Boat keel laying by signing 6” by 12” by 20’ long white oak timbers that will make up the 73’ long keel of the boat. The next day, guests joined us for the official Public Opening of the Canal Boat Commencement Weekend.
The four timbers each weigh in at about 800 pounds and the full keel weighs in above a ton when all four pieces are hook scarfed together. Viewers at the opening got a real sense of how BIG the finished boat will be.
The Packet Boat project is a community boatbuilding effort. Each step of the actual building process is to involve volunteers and students who will participate in training sessions about shop safety and procedure before they are expected to pick up tools. In a true community effort novices will work with experienced crafts people in crews to produce any of the hundreds of individual timbers, frames, planks, futtocks, gussets and other parts of the boat as she goes together. A BMC goal is that younger members of the crews will learn hands-on skills that enable them to take care of the boat over the coming decades of the long life we hope to build into her.
BMC’s project to build a replica of DeWitt Clinton’s 73′ Packet Boat at Canalside provides Buffalo, and the whole State of New York, with an opportunity to commemorate the Bicentennial of the Erie Canal, one of America’s greatest and most transformative achievements. The Longshed building has a mezzanine that provides a gallery space for our partners (the Buffalo Harbor Museum, the Seneca Nation, the Buffalo History Museum, and others) for exhibitions that delve into the Canal’s larger cultural impact. After launching the vessel is to serve as a center piece for Canalside redevelopment and, even while under construction, provide a focus for interpreting Buffalo’s harbor and historic Erie Canal terminus. The Packet Boat, Seneca Chief, replica will work its way up and down the Canal to help Canal communities with programming that illuminates the story of the Canal and generates new thinking about its future role for New York.
Finally, in an appeal to local patriotism, Buffalo has the opportunity to take ownership of the Erie Canal Bicentennial! Getting to Buffalo was, after all, what all those folks were digging for! The eight year-long commemoration of this bicentennial is a collaboration of the Buffalo Maritime Center with the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, the New York State Canal Corporation, New York State Council on the Arts, and the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor. We are grateful to enjoy the generous support, and partnership of Governor Cuomo, and the State of New York. We look forward to continuing these partnerships and expanding them to include the broader public as we call for volunteers, like you, to help get this boat built!
If you’re interested in volunteering on this historic project, please CLICK HERE!
And check out some recent press on our work to Build the Boat!