Power of the Past at the NYS Museum

History is in good hands if the crowd at a recent event at the New York State Museum was any indication. The Office of Cultural Education (NYS Museum, Library and Archives) hosted an Erie Canal gallery tour and book talk that drew more than 100 history lovers.

The entire South Hall of the museum is given over to the “Enterprising Waters: New York’s Erie Canal” exhibit, which was mounted to commemorate the bicentennial of start of construction of the canal and runs through Oct. 25, 2020.

Brad Utter, senior historian/curator, Science and Technological History for the museum, led the group through the exhibit, centered on an enormous windlass, described on the museum website as:

“A pulley mechanism that easily lifted and lowered heavy cargo from both sides of a warehouse with only one or two men. From 1831 through 1866, this windlass operated in the H. G. Root and Company Warehouse in the Village of Mohawk on the Erie Canal.”


While the canal was well known for enterprise, Utter focused on travel along the waterway. He noted that the canal provided opportunities for the middle class to travel for business or leisure – taking in the natural wonders of the Empire State along the way.

Less likely to enjoy life along the canal were the mule drivers – some as young as 10. Utter noted that some of the kids in the school groups coming the study the canal as part of their 4th grade history classes are the same age as those young canalers.

Many of the mule drivers were orphans, and when the canal closed for the winter, some would resort to stealing so they would be jailed – getting a reliable “3 hots and a cot” daily until they could resume plying their trade in the spring.

After the tour, the group headed to the museum’s Huxley Theater for an illustrated lecture from Paul G. Schneider, Jr. author of “Everything Worthy of Observation: the 1826 New York State Travel Journal of Alexander Stewart Scott”. The book is based on a travel journal kept by a 21-year-old Canadian as he traveled south from Quebec and across New York. The state Library acquired the journal from a Schenectady bookseller in 1954.

According to the SUNY Press website:

“This firsthand account immerses the reader in the world of early-nineteenth-century life in both New York and Lower Canada. Whether enduring the choking dust raised by a stagecoach, the frustration and delays caused by bad roads, or the wonders and occasional dangers of packet boat travel on the newly completed Erie Canal, all are vividly brought to life by Scott’s pen.”

In one of those weird twists that raise goosebumps on the arms of history nerds, Scott notes in his journal that while in Albany he visited the New York State Library and judged the collections to be small but “very choice.” And when did he visit the library? On Sept. 25, 1826. That was exactly 193 years ago to the day of the talk.

Schneider opined that the young traveler could never have dreamed that “the same journal in which he recorded his impressions would, 128 years in the future, become part of that library’s collections.”

Schneider praised the staff of the library for their assistance throughout the process and highlighted their stewardship of its collections. He closed his presentation by noting that all royalties from the sale of the book will be paid by SUNY Press to the Friends of the New York State Library.

Colleen M. Ryan has always been a storyteller. An innovative communications professional with experience in government, nonprofit and business sectors, she recently launched CMR Communications.



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