Towards a
Buffalo Erie Canal Visitors Center

        Thousands of European immigrants and American pioneers began their travels to the western reaches of the United States on  the "Albany to Buffalo" route of the fabled Erie Canal
         In his forward to the 1993 book America's Crossroads by
Michael N. Vogel, Edward J. Patton, and Paul F. Redding, Professor Marvin Rapp 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."

The idea behind the proposal for a Buffalo - Erie Canal Foundation
is to connect Americans of the Midwest and West with the experiences of their ancestors who passed through Buffalo when it was the Western Terminus of the Canal.  An associated Buffalo Erie Canal Visitors Center could also tell the story of the construction of the Canal, its travelers, and the milieu that existed in the Canal District.  It could honor not only those who traveled on the waterway and continued West, but those who helped build it, many of whom settled in Buffalo; and those who lived amidst its bustle, including the thousands of Italian and Sicilian immigrants to the city.  Current descriptions of Canal District redevelopment have given no indication that this socially and economically productive concept will be addressed.

          I envision a not-for-profit foundation which would collect, organize, and digitize data on passengers who traveled West on the Erie Canal.   Because passenger records were for domestic American travel, records of passengers were kept only briefly.  Such information is rare, and in many cases family histories or other second-party information may have to be researched.
         For 1827-1829, there were actual Canal packet boat passenger lists. Libraries and museums along the Canal as well as in Western cities may harbor stories about travelers on the Canal; and family bibles and documents, as well as newspaper articles, hotel and Great Lakes passenger ship records may exist that mention ancestors' routes West.
        Some of the most famous and influential travelers on the Erie Canal were followers of Joseph Smith Jr., founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon).  In early 1831, he and his wife Emma were in Kirtland, Ohio, organizing a religious center there. 
        Later that spring, Smith’s mother Lucy Mack Smith led the first of several hundred Smith followers, on the Erie Canal from Palmyra to Buffalo.  Here, they were stalled in the Little Buffalo Creek (later to become the Commercial Slip) because of heavy ice buildup on Lake Erie.  Then ‘Mother Smith’ exhorted her followers to kneel and pray for a way out, and after hearing “thunderous cracking”, a narrow channel opened in the lake ice, and the group was able to steam out of Buffalo, to Fairport Harbor in Ohio.  This event is referred to in Mormon histories as the ‘Miracle at Buffalo.’
Hundreds of other LDS members followed Lucy Mack Smith's route along the Canal through Buffalo, and in later years tens of thousands went West, many on the Canal.
        According to LDS Professor Fred E. Woods, Joseph Smith Jr. himself traveled the Canal to Buffalo, as later did his grandmother Mary Duty Smith and his eventual successor, Brigham Young, who married Buffalo's Harriet Folsom. 
        The LDS church may be a source of even more information about Erie Canal travelers.  All of these sources could be searched and collated to form a list of Canal passengers.  Descendants could then search for information on the Foundation's website or use information from their own family histories to submit names for an "Erie Canal Wall of Honor", at the same time adding to the Foundation's database.  On-line, they might also purchase copies of passenger lists, boat images or other memorabilia associated with their pioneer ancestors.
         Such information, and interest in the Canal, is not limited to those of the Mormon faith.  Thousands of pioneers of every faith travelled the Canal. 
         When Lee Iacocca re-established Ellis Island as a national treasure, he asked ordinary citizens to send in the names of their ancestors to be placed on a "Wall of Immigrants" at Ellis Island. 


Poster courtesy of the
Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation
(Click poster to enlarge it.)

           Many paid to join, and their contributions helped fund the effort. The same approach could be used to start a data base of Western pioneers who passed through Buffalo on the Erie Canal.    A nationwide canvass of possible sources of Canal passenger information could be initiated, with results funneled into the data base in the Buffalo-Erie Canal Visitors Center.    At the bottom of this  page is a link to a sample  search page for finding such information.
          In addition to on-line activities, the
Buffalo-Erie Canal Visitors Center could include a Family Heritage Library where visitors from western states could research their families' travels, with computer links to the Buffalo History Museum archives as well as those of local universities.   While in Buffalo, tourists could visit a reproduction of a canal packet boat, see the Erie Canal Wall of Honor, tour a re-creation of the infamous "Canal Street" district,  and even travel via a water route to points on the present-day New York State Barge Canal, the successor to the Erie Canal.  Mormon visitors could see with their own eyes the site of the "Miracle at Buffalo".  The Center's Erie Canal Gift Shop would offer mementoes of the Canal and  Buffalo memorabilia, as well as books, photos, and engravings of the Canal  era.


       This 1825 plan of Buffalo shows the just-completed "Grand Canal". The small stream at its terminus was Little Buffalo Creek.  The portion to the East of the Grand Canal has long-since been covered over by over eighty-five years of municipal development.  The portion of Little Buffalo Creek that ran from the Canal to Buffalo Creek proper was straightened and canalized into what is now known as the Commercial Slip.

          After re-opening public comment following the elimination of the Bass Pro "big box" store from its plans, on November 29, 2010 the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation (ECHDC) announced that two elements of that plan, the parking ramp and the "faux" canals (with inappropriate, historically inaccurate artificial "falls" and "rapids") had been dropped.  There will be no parking ramp, and instead of the "faux" canals, portions of the navigable canals to either side of the Commercial Slip will be re-established as in the sketch below, from The Buffalo News.
         This is a major step in the right direction, accomplished as a result of public activism.  Hopefully, a Buffalo Erie Canal Visitors Center will eventually be sited in the Canal District.  The 1825 plan is here rotated 90 degrees to allow comparison with the later plan views below it.  Note that today's Main Street was Willink Avenue, Franklin was Tuscarora, Pearl was Cayuga, and Erie Street was Vollenhoven Avenue.   Seneca, Swan and Eagle have retained their names, but Stadnitski Avenue is now Church Street.
         The later plans show the eventual Canal re-creation outlined in blue, first on an early 1900's map of the area, then on a view of current development, with the canals overlaid.  The colored rectangles represent the 1920 location of homes of the Coniglio family and some of their friends.  The red outline shows the boundaries of the area called 'The Five Points', another name for the old Canal District.  Click on the maps to enlarge them.  To see The Buffalo News' November 30, 2010 story on the canal re-creation, click HERE.

Among the features that could be part of the Buffalo-Erie Canal experience are the following:

·     Signage ('road markers' ) at every major entry road to Buffalo, reading "BUFFALO - WESTERN TERMINUS OF THE ERIE CANAL", with costs paid for by sponsors of a particular marker;

·     Statuary including: 
      A statue of Mayor Wilkeson pouring actual water into the Commercial Slip, commemorating the 'Wedding of the Waters' of the Atlantic and the Great Lakes; and
      A statue of Lucy Mack Smith at water's edge as the ice breaks on Lake Erie, the 'Miracle at Buffalo' that allowed her and her fellow Mormons to board a ship bound to the West;

·    Canal excursions and "traveling plays" on reproduction Canal packet boats, starting from and returning to the Commercial Slip, to points East on the existing New York State Barge Canal, and West via Lake Erie;

·    A bricks-and mortar Visitors Center with a history, artifacts, reproductions, and mementos of the Canal, including a working scale model of a Canal lock;

·     An on-line database allowing local and nationwide researchers to locate information about ancestors who passed though Buffalo on the Canal.  This information could be collected, in part by issuing a nationwide request, similar to the recent development of the Ellis Island experience;

·     An Erie Canal Wall of Honor, on which citizens could have their ancestors' names inscribed, with framed certificates for families to keep, commemorating their forebears' travels, or their labor in building the Canal;

·     An annual celebration at Canal Side, to be called 'Buffalo Erie Canal Days'.  This could coincide with or be completely separate from the annual 'Canal Days' festival in Tonawanda.

These features could make our Erie Canal District

If you're interested in lobbying for or working towards a Buffalo Erie Canal Visitors Center,
or any of the ideas presented above, contact Angelo Coniglio at:

To see more comments about Buffalo's Erie Canal Redevelopment, CLICK HERE

Click here to see a YouTube video of the ECHDC Public Hearing of February 25, 2009

      When the Erie Canal opened  in 1825, it was greeted with much fanfare all along its route, and with no less joy in New York City than in Buffalo.  An original memoir of the event tells of its importance to Buffalo, New York State, and the nation.   An etching from that memoir is reproduced below.  Click on it to read more from the memoir.

Click on this picture to read more from the memoir.



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Erie Canal Museum

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National Park Service
Erie Canalway Corridor

The Statue of Liberty--Ellis Island Foundation


Buffalo's Canal District


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