About to mark 50 years educating the public, the Erie Canal Museum still surprises. On a recent visit, curator Dan Ward showed off a scale model of the Weighlock Building he found in the attic, cleaned up and carried down to the first floor so everyone could enjoy it. Outside, in the Locktender’s Garden, a canal freighter stands at the spot where an original would have entered the building to be weighed (and then had a fee assessed). The more interesting part? The stern of the Nathan Roberts lies buried, across the street and lined up perfectly with the canal boat, on the eastern end of the patio of J Ryan’s tavern.
Visitors on Saturday, July 28, can explore these curiosities and more history inside the Erie Canal Museum, 318 Erie Blvd. E., at a special 50th anniversary celebration from noon to 4 p.m. While the actual anniversary date is Oct. 25, museum staff thought it would make sense to celebrate with the guarantee of warm weather. Natalie Stetson, director of development and marketing, outlined the events planned for the day.
• Children’s activities include paper making, butter churning and ice cream mixing, and the chance to create mule hand puppets. These activities will take place in the Locktender’s Garden; the courtyard features herbs and flowers that would have been planted during the heyday of the canal. In fact, the garden—a shady respite on a hot summer day—won a Founders Fund Award in 1992 from the Garden Club of America. “The Syracuse Garden Club takes care of it for us,” says Stetson.
• Adult activities feature guest speakers who will discuss locks, the history of the canal, the museum itself and local manufacturing, culminating with a visit from David and Liz Beebe, who have worked tirelessly to restore the Camillus Erie Canal Park to its current, excellent condition. The speakers will be stationed throughout the museum to encourage visitors to peruse the exhibits and possibly spark questions.
• Franklin the Mule, live and in all his glory, will be stationed outside starting at noon until he tires. Everyone is welcome to don some mule ears and have their photo taken with the animal, whose ancestors made canal travel possible.
• Temporary exhibits feature 57 of Ray Sax’s pen-and-ink drawings of Erie Canal locks and War of 1812: A Nation Forged by War, a series of panels that posits that the war, marking 200 years this year, was responsible for the canal being built. Ward explains, “It was dug to supply the troops at Fort Niagara, on Lake Erie.”
• There is also the opportunity to purchase a commemorative 50th anniversary poster, either by becoming a member of the museum or by paying $5.
• There will be showings of two films, Syracuse Stories and Heartland Passage, throughout the day. “These are oral history movies featuring the stories of actual people who lived and work on the canal,” notes Ward. “A number of them are still alive.”
While the Erie Canal’s history that the museum celebrates is plenty compelling, the story of how the museum came to be is timely, especially as government entities consider what to do about Interstate 81 as it wends its way through Syracuse. In fact, it’s the route that route takes through downtown that figures prominently in the story of the structure, the only surviving weigh station of seven originally along the canal.
“Originally, this building and City Hall were slated for demolition to make way for Route 81,” explains Ward. “Can you imagine? So some right-minded citizens placed it on the National Register of Historic Places, which protected it, and then they converted it into a museum. So instead of tearing down this building, they aimed for the 15th Ward. Some choice.”
A precursor to the Thruway toll system, the Weighlock Building was constructed as a means to determine how much each line (or cargo) boat weighed as it ambled through downtown Syracuse. Ward created an interactive Weighmaster Game for museum visitors, designed to show them just how the system worked. Tolls collected were applied to help pay the bonds New York state took out when it constructed the canal, which cost $7 million.
It’s always fascinating to delve into the momentous part of Syracuse history the Erie Canal Museum displays and interprets. Since New York state history is part of the fourth-grade curriculum, the museum happily hosts scads of schoolchildren every year, teaching them about the first thoroughfare that connected Lake Erie to New York Harbor.
For more information about the golden jubilee, visit eriecanal museum.org or call 471-0593. t