by Thomas X. Grasso
President Emeritus, Canal Society of New York State
The Old Erie Canal Heritage Park at Port Byron was opened, without fanfare, marketing, or advertising, on Thursday, September 8, 2016, with Central New York Tourism Council and CSNYS working together. Termed a “soft opening,” it remained open for eight weekends, Thursday through Sunday from 10 to 5, and then closed for the season on Sunday, October 30. The response from the public was tremendous – approximately 2,400 people visited the site in 32 days and were absolutely enthralled with the lock and quality of both the design of the Visitors Center (and the limited interpretation CSNYS installed including the 1893 large-scale lock model) and authenticity of the historic buildings restoration – the Erie House, Mule Barn, and Blacksmith Shop. Two-thirds of the visitors came from the Thruway side and one-third from the NY 31 entrance.
People stopped for a number of reasons. Many heard about the Erie Canal or saw signs on the Thruway and wanted to know more. Others were frequent Thruway travelers who had noticed the action over the past few years and stopped to see what it was all about. Visitors came from virtually every state and from overseas as well, including several countries in Europe (UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium and Russia), plus Australia, New Zealand, India, China, and Israel.
The park reopened in the beginning of April 2017, after meetings throughout the winter with the Thruway resulting in mutual agreement on how best to operate and maintain the site for maximum benefit for years to come. The CSNYS firmly believes in this project, and has invested a lot of money in addition to 22 years of sweat, and countless tear-filled days and sleepless nights. They never gave up and have no intention of doing so now.
Location, Significance and Potential
The Erie Canal Heritage Park is an 18-acre site located along the New York State Thruway (I-90) and Route 31 in the Village of Port Byron – approximately 55 miles east of Rochester, 25 miles west of Syracuse, and 8 miles north of Auburn. Its significance is twofold.
First, the Old Erie Canal Heritage Park is a truly unique project – there is nothing like it in America. This is the only location where interstate travelers can directly access something other than another road or full-service plaza. Port Byron is the first of its kind.
Second, the site bristles with authentic old Erie Canal structures and waterfront – living history of authentic 19th-century canal structures and buildings. The Erie Canal is a national legacy, a monumental and colorful chapter in American history. In short, the Erie Canal is a big deal, then and now.
The Heritage Park promises to be the most-visited historic site in New York State, reaching a vast audience that would normally escape regular missionary efforts. The potential is enormous for educating the public and schoolchildren alike about people on and near the canal; raising awareness of the canal’s history, engineering, technology, and significant contribution to American progress; while simultaneously providing visitors with a high-quality experience. The Park enables the visitor to literally touch a part of history that they have heard of or read so much about. The site can also be the gateway to other New York State canal and tourism sites, especially Central New York. More than 7.5 million people pass the park eastbound alone on the Thruway every year.
At present, the site is woefully under-interpreted, but the CSNYS is working hard to seek funding and other avenues of support to implement plans for robust interpretation in the years to come, in accordance with the Master Plan for Interpretive Exhibits completed in May 2015.
A 22-year restoration struggle to put the “Port” back into Port Byron has finally come to fruition thanks to a 2014 partnership between the Canal Society of New York State (CSNYS) and the New York State Thruway Authority (NYSTA) with its subsidiary the New York State Canal Corporation (NYSCC). The Thruway constructed the project (with an approximately $10 million investment) on Canal Society design documents that were fully approved in 2005. The CSNYS kept a nearly $13 million dollar project alive for 22 years, a stunning achievement. The original partnership specified that NYSTA will build, but CSNYS will maintain and operate.
What is it?
The Heritage Park project, as now constructed, is composed of the following elements.
1. The old Enlarged Erie Canal Lock 52 completed in 1853 adjacent to the eastbound lane of the Thruway – one of the most intact and well preserved 19th-century Erie Canal locks in New York State. It was constructed with twin chambers for two-way traffic as all Enlarged Erie Locks were. All original Clinton’s Ditch locks were not only of smaller dimensions, 95 percent of them were single chambered structures like today’s locks. The lock chamber alongside the towpath chamber was lengthened for double long tows in 1887 and 1888.
2. The Erie House Complex of three buildings, just east of the lock including:
The Erie House – an1895 canal-side saloon and boarding house (hotel) built by Italian immigrant brothers Pietro and Salvatore Van Detto from the Regione of Campania. (Naples, Mt. Vesuvius, Pompeii, Salerno, and Amalfi Coast are in this Regione); 1896 Mule Barn; and 1896 Blacksmith Shop.
3. A Visitors Center – newly constructed as the entrance to the park.
4. Parking Lots from the Thruway and NY 31. Trails from the parking lots lead to two separate Visitors Center entrances – one for Thruway patrons and the other for NY 31 visitors.