Dan Ward, who's curator at the Erie Canal Museum downtown, was telling me who came to the state-wide forum in October 2005 at the Museum. That meeting resulted in a massive project to film oral history related to the Canal. A portion of that project, called "Heartland Passage," debuts on Friday, March 11, at a reception from 5 to 9 p.m. "Heartland Passage" comprises nine high-definition videos - six of them newly produced and three drawn from the New York State Museum - that altogether run a little over 24 minutes, each profiling a person who grew up along or worked on the Erie Canal. Such short clips, which can be inserted in a longer film now in the making and could also illustrate local exhibitions, are a manageable taste of what the project has to offer.
In the midst of ticking off a list of the 20 or 25 people who came to that 2005 forum, Ward mentioned documentary filmmaker Christine Zinni, who also teaches anthropology in the SUNY system. That reminded him of a story and signaled a detour.
"Ever heard of Medina sandstone?" he asked suddenly. "The brownstones in New York City were built of the type of sandstone and the Canal system was built partly to be able to move this to New York from quarries in western New York. So there was this particular village in Italy where the people had worked in the quarries for generations. So they were the best. About a third of that village just up and moved here to work the quarries near Buffalo. They also built a huge cathedral in Buffalo out of this sandstone - San Rocco, which they called Saint Roc's. Saint Roc had ministered during the Great Plague and I think later he was martyred. Well, their descendants are still there. A few years ago the diocese was going to close Saint Roc's, so the parish started this annual festival. The first year they made enough money to keep the church open another year. The second year the festival made enough money to keep Saint Roc's and a second church open another year. And the third year, they made enough money to support a third church too. So Christine Zinni made a film about this, along with others about that part of the state, the 'Niagara frontier,' as it was called."