The Buffalo - Erie Canal Foundation

Guest Book

    The purpose of this page is to give voice to opinions about the ultimate form of the redevelopment of Buffalo's Erie Canal District. 
      Opinions expressing ideas for restoring Buffalo's heritage and to recognize the huge impact the Erie Canal had on Buffalo, on New York State, the nation, and on the people of Buffalo and the world, will periodically be published here.
     Items will include articles and letters about the issue, as well as selected messages sent to the webmaster at:


The letter below was written by me in April, 2009.  No response was received.

To: Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation

95 Perry Street, Suite 500
Buffalo, NY

I am a former Civil Engineer with the Corps of Engineers, specializing in the hydrology of the Great Lakes and local waterways.  I also taught hydraulics and hydrology for twenty-five years at the School of Civil Engineering at the University of Buffalo.   After learning that my family had lived on Peacock Street from about 1921-1925, I was moved to re-read the wonderful book about Buffalo's Canal District, "America's Crossroads", by Mike Vogel, Edward Patton and Paul Redding.   Quotes that I read in the foreword by Dr. Marvin Rapp struck a chord with me.

He wrote: "more immigrants passed through these streets . . . than passed through Ellis Island."    Rapp also somewhat wistfully wrote: "Would that today, in 1993, a canal packet, vintage lake freighter or passenger steamer be docked permanently in the Buffalo Harbor to remind us of the days when America marched through the streets of the great Port of Buffalo.  Remember, this city was once the largest inland immigrant port of America.  But where is Buffalo's Ellis Island-type museum? Maybe someday these things will be represented."

    Among all the promulgated plans for Canal District redevelopment, I have seen very little to give hope that Rapp's dreams will be realized. Plans should be underway to develop a Buffalo Erie Canal Museum and Visitors Center with artifacts of Canal Street days, a Canal-oriented gift shop, an Erie Canal Wall of Honor, and a database that can be accessed at the museum or on-line, by the millions of western Americans who can say "My ancestors came through Buffalo and the Erie Canal."

I have written often to city, county, state and federal officials and politicians; to local librarians and educators, and to The Buffalo News, trying to get support for the idea of an "Ellis Island-type museum" in the Canal District.  Although The News included the idea a few years ago in "Twenty Good Ideas for Buffalo", l usually get no response, or polite comments about how "this is not the same" as Ellis Island.  Ellis Island and Buffalo were this nation’s two great nexuses of immigration.  The world knows about Ellis Island:  it is time for it to recognize Buffalo.  I wonder if anyone involved with Erie Canal redevelopment has read Vogel’s book, or recognizes the wealth of tourist dollars that could be attracted to Buffalo with such a museum/genealogy/history center.

    Some who have responded to me state that because there is so little official information about the intra-national travel on the Canal, such an undertaking would be difficult or impossible.  I cite the fact that when Lee Iacocca began to revitalize Ellis Island, one of the first things he did was write to ordinary Americans, asking them if they knew of ancestors who arrived at Ellis Island, and offering (for a price) a place on the "Immigrant Wall of Honor", as well as plaques and certificates stating our ancestors' arrivals, etc. 

My own family purchased nine framed Ellis Island certificates at $100 each, with no documentation other than what we sent in.  Enclosed is a copy of that certificate, with a mock-up of a Canal certificate and Passenger Record.  We also received certificates recognizing us as founders of the Ellis Island-Statue of Liberty Foundation.   Ever since the data base site has been up and running, the site offers paid memberships and opportunities to purchase ship manifests, photos, and other documents.

    I believe a data base (though admittedly nowhere near as detailed as Ellis Island's) could be constructed for a Buffalo Erie Canal database, with information gathered from around the country, from family histories and bibles, hotel registers, newspaper accounts and obituaries, library records, university records, etc.  These could be added to the admittedly sparse New York State Archives Canal passenger records from 1827-1829.  Such a database could be self-perpetuating and grow from input by people who, searching for one relative, might add information for another, or for the acquaintances of another.  I have learned from contacts with the LDS Church that numbers of records do exist, describing Erie Canal travel by its members.

    There could be an "Erie Canal Wall of Honor" with the names of persons who helped build, or who worked on, lived near, or passed through the Erie Canal at Buffalo.  My guess is that at a peak of 5,500 immigrants passing through Buffalo per week, there must be millions of Americans from Erie, PA to Seattle Washington whose ancestors rode a Canal packet and transferred to a wagon, a train, or a lake vessel to continue west.  Why not give those people a place to visit, in person, and on-line, to add to Buffalo's social and economic status?

            Please see a mockup of a possible Buffalo-Erie Canal Foundation website modeled on, at  Though many of the links are conceptual only, it does contain some examples of certificates in which Canal passengers' descendants might be interested.  I also refer you to my page at which describes some of my own family's experiences in the Canal District, as well as showing maps of "then and now", a feature I believe any Buffalo Erie Canal Museum and Visitors Center should emulate.

            Buffalo was the true and only Western Terminus of the Erie Canal.  Buffalo is where the "wedding of the waters" took place.  Other ideas I feel should be considered for the Commercial Slip include: a statue of Buffalo Judge ad future Mayor Samuel Wilkeson pouring Atlantic Ocean water into the Buffalo River from a cask (an internal pump could make real water flow from the cask); the proposed "traveling play" tours should originate in Buffalo at the Commercial Slip; and other Canal tour operators should be encouraged to start from and return to the Commercial Slip.   

     In summary, my proposed Buffalo Erie Canal Museum and Visitors Center at Canal Side would include the following, either as physical attributes or as activities managed by the Center.

·        Displays showing the history of the planning, design, alignment and construction of the Erie Canal, using photographs, drawings and film/video.

·        Physical models of Canal elements including working models of locks, and a full-size reproduction of an early Canal packet boat, fitted out so that visitors may walk through it.

·        A scale model of the “Canal District” in its heyday, showing locations of famous buildings, streets and waterways.

·        Walking tours of the present site of the Canal District, at Canal Side and in the nearby Marine Drive and Naval Park area, appropriately marked with descriptive signs or displays; and acknowledgement of the village of the Seneca Nation, directly adjacent to the original Canal District.

·        Maintenance of signage at major land, water, and air entries to Buffalo, proclaiming “BUFFALO ~ Western Terminus of the Erie Canal”.

·        Management of water-based tours of the Erie Canal, starting at the Commercial Slip, exiting to Buffalo Creek and the Inner Harbor, following the Black Rock Channel and the Niagara River to Tonawanda, and the present New York State Barge Canal to Lockport, Henrietta, Albany, etc. and return.

·        Maintenance of signage and statuary outside the Canal but in the Commercial Slip, commemorating events such as the “Wedding of the Waters” and the Mormon “Miracle at Buffalo”.

·        An Erie Canal Wall of Honor showing names of those who built, traveled on, and lived near the Erie Canal in Buffalo.

·        A Buffalo Erie Canal Library dedicated to the history of the Western Terminus, and recording the names of those associated with it.

·        A compilation of names of builders of, travelers on and neighbors of the Canal, in computerized format, developed by a not-for-profit Foundation from research into public and private records from Western New York and around the nation.

·          A Buffalo Erie Canal Foundation website which would permit descendants of those associated with Canal or Canal District construction, travel or residency to research their ancestors’ Canal-related activity.

·           A gift shop where items for sale would include: models and mementoes of the Canal era: packet boats, longshoremen’s hooks, descriptive books; and plaques and certificates commemorating ancestors’ association with the Canal or Canal District.

      In short, the Buffalo Erie Canal Museum would be the Ellis Island-class facility envisioned sixteen years ago, by Dr. Marvin Rapp.    The Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, as well as  LDS Church historians have expressed interest in these proposals.

Angelo F. Coniglio        


The article below appeared in the Buffalo News'  "Another Voice" by First Hand Learning's Peter Dow

Bass Pro on the waterfront? Here’s a better idea

Donn Esmonde is right and The News editorial board is wrong: It is a bad idea to spend $35 million on building tax breaks and other perks to put a sporting goods store on the waterfront. How could we better spend that money? On celebrating our cultural heritage.

Buffalo’s history, not shopping, will bring tourists to our city. People can buy guns and fishing rods any number of places, but where else can they experience the unique cultural treasures and compelling story we have to offer? With the same inspired thinking that has revitalized the Buffalo Zoo, rebuilt the Darwin Martin House and created the Burchfield Penney Museum, we could reinvent our Historical Society.

Here is my idea. If we want an “anchor tenant,” let’s create an “edutainment” center on the waterfront that tells about Buffalo’s fascinating past: the chronicle of how our country was built and who built it. Begin with the Erie Canal, the largest construction project in the world at the time, dug by German and Irish immigrants with wheelbarrows and Ames shovels.

Display Joseph Dart’s steam grain elevator that spawned General Mills and Cheerios. Follow with ship-building, steel-making, the railroads, the automobile, electrification, the invention and manufacture of aircraft and ultimately the space program. Celebrate the incredible wealth that accompanied these innovations and the architecture, landscape design and city planning that prosperity made possible.

This is the story of the application of intelligence to practical problems, the unique intellectual genius that has characterized the American way of life.

Imagine a building specifically designed to tell this American saga with all the bells and whistles that the best exhibit designers can deliver. It is not just about technology and industry. It is also about the waves of immigration and migration that continuously revitalized the city with new skills; it is about the Underground Railroad and the formation of the NAACP; it is about the organization of labor, the development of medical care, the rise of the schools and higher education.

In a way it is about how technological development and the nature of work has continuously shaped and reshaped our lives. You fill in the blanks. It is all right here in Buffalo, and what better place to tell this uniquely American story than on our waterfront?

So I say let’s stop looking for some outsider’s magic bullet and invest instead in the rich history of our own community. What better way to spend the proceeds of our power project—the biggest earth-moving challenge since the Erie Canal? Let’s celebrate the heritage that resides right here in our libraries and museums and attics, and convert it into a dazzling new waterfront center that tells the compelling human tale of how our forebears built a thriving metropolis in the wilderness. Build that with our power-project millions and they will come!

Peter Dow is chairman of First Hand Learning in Buffalo.


Below are letters to the editor of The Buffalo News,
published in Everybody's Column on Sunday, February 14, 2010

Showcase canal history to boost local tourism
Peter Dow’s Feb. 6 Another Voice promoting the history of Buffalo’s waterfront is a breakthrough idea. His article presented clear ideas on how the history of the waterfront can be used to promote tourism for Buffalo and Western New York. Legacy tourism is the biggest money-making business in the world. It is urgent that those developing the waterfront consider what Dow is communicating.

The Erie Canal story alone makes up a huge page in American history. What we now know as the Commercial Slip is the terminus of the Erie Canal. The Commercial Slip is the historical site where Gov. DeWitt Clinton boarded the Seneca Chief on Oct. 26, 1825, to open the Erie Canal, which opened up the American West.

This day in history has to be one of America’s great historical events.

The ceremonies for the opening of the Erie Canal took place on the Commercial Slip, right under the Skyway. The Commercial Slip is the actual living gateway to the American West.

Dow’s article is trying to challenge us to remember not only our role as historical gatekeepers for the Erie Canal, but our role in maintaining and promoting all of the history that will make the waterfront a world-class destination.

Hugh Pratt
Anne Porter Paris

Erie Canal Drama Theatre Buffalo

Educational elements will draw more people
I was so excited to read Peter Dow’s Another Voice column, “Bass Pro on the waterfront? Here’s a better idea,” in the Feb. 6 edition and to finally hear someone voice a wonderful, educational alternative to a “magic bullet” on our waterfront. His ideas are not only refreshing, but educational, innovative and workable using the rich strengths of our history and science.

As an early childhood educator, parent and grandparent, I would be proud to take my family and guests to a waterfront area that demonstrates Buffalo’s real strengths. It’s about time for Buffalo people to take a stand and be proud of this history. Buffalo’s problem is that those in charge do not seem to know how to market Buffalo’s best! To me that does not include depending on outside sources alone for development.

Peg Alt, Buffalo


Below is other correspondence on the subject:

February 14, 2010

This email is in response to Peter Dow’s article
Bass Pro on the Waterfront? Here's a better idea”, recently published in The Buffalo News.

Mr. Dow hit the nail on the head. The building of the Erie Canal was one of the greatest events in American history. And it’s right here in our front yard, along with the many other historical and cultural treasures our community has to offer.

In addition to the points in Mr. Dow’s article, the Erie County Harbor Development Corporation should consider a compatible program that would tell the story of Buffalo's Erie Canal heritage, which would rival that of Ellis Island. Our governments dole out much of our money for projects that don’t measure up to the significance of the Erie Canal

Is there any proposed or planned program for a venue that would rival the impact of Ellis Island?  Is there another "Lee Iacocca" program?

If not, why not? Will the new Lee Iacocca please stand up?

Frank D'Arrigo


October 14, 2010

Mr. Coniglio, I discovered your website today and found it very interesting.  I wish you well in your endeavor to honor the pivotal role played by Buffalo in immigration.

I have a question for you.  You may be able to provide some insight.  David Garvey sailed from Limerick in 1852 for America.  His naturalization peitition says that he "landed at the city of Buffalo in the state of New York."  Do you think it's more likely that he passed through NYC and took the Erie Canal to Buffalo, at which point he left the ship, or that he came from Ireland to Buffalo by way of the St. Lawrence River?  I don't know enough about canal navigation and Irish migration patterns in 1852 to make an intelligent guess. 
Thank you.    Jeff
    Thank you for the e-mail.  This is a very interesting case, and the type of family history that I would like to see brought to light by a Buffalo Erie Canal Museum and Visitors Center.
    In 1852, a traveler may have reached Buffalo via the St. Lawrence River, into Lake Ontario, through the Welland Canal (in Canada) From St. Catharines to Port Colborne, Ontario, and then by a Lake Erie or land route to Buffalo.  The statement that he "landed at the city of Buffalo" implies that he came by a water route, either on Lake Erie or on the Erie Canal.  
    I will make some contacts to see if the Canadian route was commonly used.  I think it's more likely that he came on the Erie Canal, but am curious that no original debarkation point is given (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, etc.)


Canal Museum is a no-brainer

Of course we should build a canal museum at Commercial Slip on the downtown waterfront. The canal’s original western terminus is the most historic site on the waterway that transformed America. To me, it is like asking whether there should be a Smithsonian on the National Mall or a Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

The recent discovery of a submerged (although probably unrecoverable) canal boat in the Oswego River, a front-page story in Thursday’s Buffalo News, was a reminder to folks here of the short barge pole that history has gotten at Erie Canal Harbor. There are canal museums in Lockport, Rome and Syracuse, even though each city has less claim to history than Buffalo. Syracuse’s museum shows what can be done with just a small building — even on a roadway with no water in sight.

A museum that celebrates Buffalo’s page in America’s story works for everybody, from schoolkids to tourists to residents buckling under the weight of a communal inferiority complex. It would also, finally, fulfill the promise of the community-shaped 2004 master plan that supposedly guides the Erie Canal Harbor board of directors. The plan states, “The development of housed museum experiences is encouraged and expected.”

We are still waiting. Erie Canal Harbor board says it has, in the wake of the failed pursuit of Bass Pro, changed its heavy-subsidy, big-box retailer ways. To me and many other people, it is good news. But its new, smaller-development “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” focus should, to my mind, include a better appreciation of the potential of an internationally significant historic site at Canal Side’s center.

The Commercial Slip was excavated after a community outcry a decade ago. It was where DeWitt Clinton in 1825 officially opened the nation-changing canal. It marks Buffalo’s place as the gateway west for more travelers, historians say, than passed through Ellis Island. Heritage tourism experts said uncovering the slip was the first step to capitalizing on the site’s history. Ten years later, we still await the second step.

The Canal Harbor board, to my mind, has treated the historic site as an accessory to the now-scrapped Bass Pro centerpiece— rather than as an attraction in and of itself. Despite having a historic site at the center of Canal Side, there has —astoundingly — never been a preservationist on the board. The disregard shows. The scattershot interpretive signage (fabricated with no public input) undermines the site’s importance — and, despite years of promises, has yet to be fixed. A visitor’s center/museum and other historic elements in the 2004 plan were never built.

There are signs that the Canal Harbor board’s attitude is changing. Its recently revised plan includes excavating part of the canal along its historic path — although details remain sketchy and the impetus has as much to do with aesthetics as with history. The board has done a nice job reaching out to the community and cultural agencies for ideas. A just-released draft cultural report acknowledges the site’s history. It calls the Commercial Slip a “sacred spot [that] altered the destiny of . . . the United States.”

All good. But the board’s years-long preoccupation with Bass Pro has left it with a lot of catching up to do. We can start by finally putting a preservationist on the board, someone who understands the value of the historic site and how to make the most of it. I think it is a gaping hole that incoming Gov. Andrew Cuomo —who names the board members — needs to fill.

A canal museum? The question is not whether we should have one, but what has taken us so long?



Lets get Canal right -- or be embarrassed
We have some unfinished business, and it would be nice to get it done before we further embarrass ourselves.

The people who save and celebrate America’s history are coming to town. The National Trust for Historic Preservation holds its annual conference in Buffalo this fall.

Among our attractions is the definitive historic site on the waterway that transformed America. The Commercial Slip is the Erie Canal’s western terminus. It was here in 1825 that the canal was officially opened. Buffalo became the gateway west for countless settlers and the nexus of east-west trade.

Unfortunately, you would barely know it from the mess of interpretive signage at the site. Although this is a public project, the signage—in a side-swipe to transparency—was written and put in place five years ago before anyone got a chance to see it.

It shows. The western terminus is our main page in America’s story. Instead of telling the tale in a way that brings to life the historic canal stones and building ruins, we have a befuddling array of information that undercuts the site’s impact and gives us little return for millions of taxpayer dollars. Minor figures like ex-Mayor Fingy Connors get bigger play than canal mastermind De- Witt Clinton. What happened along the canal in Utica and Rome gets a brighter spotlight than what happened here. There is little context and a lack of larger themes.

Other than that, the signage works just fine.

After massive public protests a decade ago, the state excavated and rewatered the Commercial Slip, reusing its recovered stones. Nearby building ruins were unearthed and preserved. A cross-slip bowstring bridge was built in its 19th century image. The new naval and military museum has the shape and brick facing of the Coit-McCutcheon building that once stood there.

Telling the story that those stones, ruins and bricks represent, and what it meant to Buffalo and to America, should have been the easy part. Not only did we blow it, but—five years later—we have yet to take an eraser to the mistakes.

That may be about to change. The Erie Canal Harbor board just formed a committee to bring sense to the signage —and to get it done before the National Trust rolls into town.

“There are some big holes in the story down there,” said preservationist Paul Redding, who is part of the group. “Much of it has nothing to do with the area, and there is no central theme.”

You could float a packet boat through some of the holes. This is where then- Gov. Clinton officially opened the canal. It’s the prime reason that activists fought a decade ago to have the site restored. The famous “Wedding of the Waters” canal- opening story still is taught in grade schools. Yet, astoundingly, none of this is mentioned on any signage.

The largest sign on the site, instead of trumpeting the “Canal Opened Here” story, holds a clearinghouse of generic canal information—none of which tells a visitor why he is standing on this spot.

Historians say Buffalo was the gateway west for more settlers than passed through Ellis Island. Standing sentinel was the still-standing 1832 lighthouse— unreferenced by any sign. The Commercial and other slips were where the Underground Railroad hit freedom’s waters. No sign of a sign. Remnants of railroad track and nearby roadways tell the evolving story of American transportation. Or they would, if there was a sign to point it out.

You get the picture. The site is historic gold, which—because of scattershot signage—we have yet to mine. There is not even a Clinton “Kodak moment” statue.

The National Trust folks are coming. We need to get it right—not just for them, but for us.


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