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Replica packet boat will cruise Buffalo's Erie Canal history

Mike Desmond
Roger Allen explains the historic boat-building project.

When you see the giant steel lake freighters that frequent the Buffalo waterfront, it can be hard to remember the Queen City and Great Lakes region were created by wooden boats perhaps a tenth the size of the lake ships. A replica Erie Canal boat is being built at Canalside.

Almost 200 years ago, the Erie Canal was dedicated. Gov. DeWitt Clinton boated from the frontier community of Buffalo to New York Harbor and poured out a barrel of Lake Erie water, the ceremonial "Wedding of the Waters," to symbolize opening the canal.

Buffalo boomed and the frontier turned into the American Midwest, as freight went both ways on the canal. Now, the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation is backing the building of a new canal boat in a temporary building at Canalside.

Buffalo Maritime Center Master Boat Builder Roger Allen says it will be complicated.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

"Our primary concern is that we get a quality product so we may be doing things over that a traditional boat builder wouldn't have had to worry about in the day," Allen says, "and so we take a little longer because there's a lot of learning that goes on. That's our whole reason for existence, to have on those traditional skills."

The building should be completed in the spring of 2020 and the boat builders from the BMC will move in.

That center has at least 50 young people learning what can be done with wood and tools to build wooden boats. BMC Executive Director Brian Trzeciak says the program works with schools.
"We actually have our Hand to Hand Program," Trzeciak says. "We're working with Buffalo Public Schools right now - schools like Riverside, Lafayette, the Academy School - and we work with Western New York Maritime Charter School. Kids come in and we use boat-building as a vessel to teach them skills, math skills, science. If they want to go into the trades, they can go into the trades."

Eventually, the center will be moved, perhaps to the Outer Harbor. In August, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a $4 million state commitment to construct a new 4,000-square-foot, year-round facility that the replica vessel will be built in.

ECHDC Vice President Steve Ranalli says the public can watch the building.

"What we really like about the way the building is designed is you can get up to the building and look in on certain days when there's a lot of work going on. You'll also have the opportunity, though, with different tours to get right up to it and touch it and possibly look inside it as it's being built," Ranalli says.

Ranalli says once complete, the boat will be dropped into the Commercial Slip and stored at Canalside.

"You'll then have the opportunity to go inside it, take a ride on it, really see what it's like inside and out," he says.

It will be a 73-foot-long and 10-foot wide cruise ship, cruising through history. Local preservationist Tim Tielman says he wants this symbol of Buffalo's history to be accurate and important, to tell the region's story.

"It's so important because people get so excited about gathering down there and everything," Tielman says, "but the purpose of it is really not music concerts and things like that, it's to rebuild a neighborhood, Buffalo's first neighborhood, where all our origins are. No matter what we're doing in the city, it started in this golden triangle on the Buffalo River."

Tielman says he is looking forward to a multi-year celebration of the canal bicentennial.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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