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A New Bridge Down An Old Canal

The Erie Canal is a huge part of the historic identity of New York State. While this man-made waterway transformed our nation and state’s history, it’s a part of our park’s story as well. This month, a new bridge to connect communities to a park built for the present and future, relies on the past to find its way home. Traveling to Buffalo using the historical canalway so prominent in New York’s history, heritage-building at the new Ralph Wilson Park takes the form of a new bridge traveling down an old canal. 

The Erie Canal in New York and US History

Opening in 1825, the Erie Canal was a man-made waterway built to bisect the state from Albany to Buffalo. Traveling 363 miles, it was the largest artificial waterway and greatest public works project in North America. Connecting the New York City port to the American interior, the canal drastically altered not only the state, but the country as well. For the first time, the Eastern Seaboard was linked to the Midwest and beyond through continuous waterways. A freight boat coming into New York City could travel up the Hudson River, across the state’s canal, and enter the Great Lakes. What’s more, that boat was transported from an elevation of 16.5 feet above sea level to over 500 feet when it entered Lake Erie. It was an engineering marvel, unprecedented for its time. 

Like most waterways, more than just freight traveled great distances. People and their ideas moved quickly too. Opening over three decades before the American Civil War, this canal became a vital transportation route for the Underground Railroad. Everyday travel was forever changed as well. Prior to the opening of the Erie Canal, travel was often by ox-drawn wagons or horse-drawn stagecoaches. Not even railroads were accessible in 1825, most major operating lines starting in the 1830s. To get to Buffalo from Albany by stagecoach, your trip lasted approximately two weeks. When the canal opened in 1825, that journey now took just 5 days. It is clear why the construction of this waterway is today emphasized as a project that changed American history.

The Erie Canal in Park History

The Erie Canal is not just a part of our nation and state’s history, it’s a part of our park’s story as well. The Erie Canal’s western end terminated in downtown Buffalo. While no longer visible, its path once cut right through today’s parklands. Traveling parallel to where the 190 runs, this section of the canal once provided passage to many of the people, ideas, and material goods making their way to the end of the line. 

Photo: Historical postcard of Buffalo showing the Peace Bridge with downtown Buffalo in the background. The Erie Canal channel flowing towards what is today Ralph Wilson Park is visible below the word ‘Buffalo’ in the postcard’s title. Property of and used with permission from the Canal Society of New York State.

Transformation of the Park’s Canal

Despite initial success in revolutionizing the movement of goods and people, the Erie Canal would face countless challenges in the decades that followed. Many sections quickly became too small for the increasing size of cargo ships. The Canadian Welland Canal, opening four years after the Erie Canal, had capacity to transport much larger vessels. The Erie Canal had to be expanded more than once to accommodate bigger barges, but it struggled to keep up. Many decades later, another man-made waterway would impact the canal. The Saint Lawrence Seaway, constructed in 1959, could move larger freight ships through the Great Lakes and directly into the Atlantic Ocean, further reducing commercial traffic through New York’s internal canals. 

As use of the Erie Canal declined, certain sections were closed around the state. In spring of 1934, the state legislature determined the fate of the narrow scratch of canal that ran through our park. The Wojtkowiak-Bernhardt bills gave the city of Buffalo the title to this small stretch of the Erie Canal. That year, the old canal was filled and transformed into park grounds. Instead of an abandoned waterway (increasingly used as a dump), the former canal transformed into acreage for Centennial Park, the first public greenspace standing where Ralph Wilson Park is today.

A New Bridge Down an Old Canal

Fast forward 90 years, the park is being impacted by the Erie Canal once again. This time, this historical waterway is transporting Ralph Wilson Park’s new pedestrian bridge. From Italy to Buffalo, via New York State’s historical canal, the new bridge is on its way. Throughout the first weeks of July, New Yorkers living near the main throughway of the Erie Canal will be able to see (and in some spots, touch) our massive, 266’ long pedestrian bridge.

In terms of heritage, this melding of past, present, and future is exciting. Throughout this project, we have talked about the value of prioritizing all three in building heritage. This bridge, once installed, will connect neighborhoods to a legacy park transforming the waterfront for those in the present and future. The fact that it arrives by a waterway that transformed history is exceptional. This month, we see heritage in the making, with the past, present, and future all coming to the table. The arrival of a new bridge along an old canal illuminates the dynamic nature of heritage-building at Ralph Wilson Park.

Photo: approximate path of the former Erie Canal section that ran through the park. Path estimated using maps from the Erie Canal Map Explorer, the first comprehensive map of the canal system created by Steven Talbot in collaboration with the Canal Society of New York State, New York State Archives Partnership Trust, New York State Archives, and the New York State Canal Corporation.

Lead Photo: View looking north on the Erie Canal with Centennial Park to the right 1931. Collection of the Buffalo History Museum.General photograph collection, Parks – Buffalo and Erie County – Ralph C. Wilson Centennial Park. 

All of the Heritage Engagement Project blog posts, written by Dr. Kathryn Grow Allen, are now in one spot. Check out our new HEP page for past and future reading on heritage-building at Ralph Wilson Park.