The history of Buffalo is written on its waterways, from the expanse of Lake Erie where world powers once vied for control of nascent America during the War of 1812, to the long stretches of the Erie Canal – some intact, some buried, some en route to restoration – along which mule-drawn barges transported every commodity imaginable to the city in its heyday.
A piece of Buffalo’s nautical past will come to life this weekend as the Lois McClure, a replica canal schooner from the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Basin Harbor, Vt., arrives at Canalside for three days of public tours, part of a four-month, 1,000-mile voyage commemorating the War of 1812 Bicentennial and the age of water-born commerce it ushered in.
“The City of Buffalo grew out of the interface of the canal and the Great Lakes,” said Art Cohn, museum co-founder and one of the dozen-odd historians, sailors, and volunteers living aboard the Lois McClure or its tugboat escort as the schooner winds it way from Lake Champlain to Lake Erie and back again. The ship set sail in May and is scheduled to return home in mid-October.
As the crew prepared for a public showing at Upson Park in Lockport on Friday evening, one of dozens of scheduled stops the ship is making in Vermont, parts of Canada and across New York, Cohn explained why vessels of this kind had such a big impact on the growth of Buffalo and other settlements along the canal.
In a pre-railroad era, Cohn said, canals enabled goods to travel farther and faster than ever before, linking existing commercial centers in new ways and creating entirely new ones along their lengths. “These guys revolutionized the world they lived in,” he said, calling them “the Internet of their age.”
Case in point: in 1823, there were two houses in the area now known as Lockport. By 1825, the year the Erie Canal officially opened, there were 500, Cohn said.
With its flat-bottomed oak hull and its 88-by-14½-foot dimensions, the Lois McClure is “typical of hundreds of boats that would have gone right by here,” Cohn said. The schooner’s sails made it uniquely suited to traverse the integrated system of lakes and canals that linked the Northeast from Buffalo to as far as Quebec City.
But Cohn explained that vessels of this type never actually sailed on the canal. Like the barges tugged by Sal the Mule in the canal-era classic “Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal,” they relied on animal power to navigate the narrow waterway and pass under its many bridges.
The schooner’s masts are kept on wooden racks above deck when not in use, and will be lowered while at Canalside.
The green and white-striped schooner, which is behind schedule after flooding in the Mohawk Valley closed the canal for a time, is tugged along at five miles per hour – a sluggish pace by modern standards, but still twice as fast as mules could have dragged the craft. To pass the time, Cohn said the crew read, talk and enjoy the scenery.
Cohn, who has been on every one of the McClure’s nine voyages since it set sail in 2004, said he doesn’t mind the slow pace. “I find personally that watching the world go by at 5 miles per hour is very relaxing,” he said, adding that driving a car afterwards takes some getting used to.
The Lois McClure is modeled after two shipwrecks the museum spent decades studying on the bottom of Lake Champlain. Built in 1862 and sunk by storms, the vessels were subject to hundreds of photographs and thousands of measurements as divers from the museum prepared for their recreation.
Cohn said the museum instructed its hired shipwrights to stay as true to the original design as possible in order to capture the original character of the crafts, said to be examples of a forgotten class of canal boat. The Lois McClure was named in honor of a museum donor.
Like the families – moms, dads and kids – who Cohn said operated the crafts back in the day, the crew of the McClure lives, sleeps and eats on board the ship. Some crew members sleep in small beds tucked into alcoves in the cramped family quarters, which includes such period-appropriate amenities as a cast-iron stove and a chamber pot – for display purposes only, thankfully. Daily chores include swabbing the decks with canal water hauled up in a bucket.
In addition to making for a reunion of 19th century replicas, the McClure’s arrival at Canalside marks another remarkable historical convergence. Captaining the ship is Roger Taylor, a distant descendent of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, whose role in the War of 1812 earned him the nickname “Hero of Lake Erie.” Taylor, 81, called it a “thrill to come to Buffalo” and commemorate his ancestor’s victory on Lake Erie, 200 years after the fact.
The schooner, which was in Buffalo once before in 2007, can be toured free of charge from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, and from 3 to 6 p.m. on Monday after the crew hosts local youth groups.
The goal, Cohn said, is to “invite the public to come on board, step back in time, and experience history.”