While the bicentennial of the Erie Canal is pretty cool in and of itself, Central New York has another reason to celebrate its canals: The World Canals Conference sails into town from Sept. 24 to 28.
Representatives from 14 different countries will come together to discuss the current state of the world’s waterways and the future of canals. Most conference events are just for the delegates, but the public can participate in the Sept. 24 kickoff at the Syracuse Inner Harbor. (See sidebar for more information.)
“With WCC2017’s kickoff event, area residents to visiting international guests can experience the best of what Syracuse’s waterway has to offer while enjoying a variety of educational and entertaining activities,” said Carol Eaton, acting president of Visit Syracuse. “We welcome the public to celebrate the historic Erie Canal while embracing its transformative future.”
Among the highlights of the public events is the Corning Museum of Glass’s Hot Glass Demo Team, which will perform live glassmaking on the GlassBarge.
“That’s one of the premier events that are happening at the Syracuse Inner Harbor,” said Jean Mackay, director of communications and outreach for the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor.
The GlassBarge won’t be the only boat in action during the conference. The Lois McClure, an 88-foot replica schooner from the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, will be open for tours. Mackay said people can walk through the boat to see how The Lois McClure will be docked at the Inner Harbor on Sept. 24 and at Paper Mill Island in Baldwinsville on Sept. 26.
The public can also learn to row a six-oar longboat, take part in kayak lessons or take a boat tour highlighting the cleanup efforts of Onondaga Lake.
“A lot of people don’t have a boat but you want to see what it feels like,” Mackay said.
If navigating the waterways — and downtown Syracuse — isn’t your thing, the second leg of Tour the Towpath picks up at the Old Erie Canal State Park trailhead in DeWitt (5100 Butternut Drive) at 1 p.m.
“It’ll be a guided cycling trip,” Mackay explained. “For people who might prefer that kind of recreation as opposed to being in a boat, that would be a fun event.”
Of course, the World Canals Conference isn’t just about entertaining the public. The international delegates who will come together next week will host and attend informational sessions about the economic potential of the world’s inland waterways. Presenters from Scotland, Poland and the Netherlands will share innovations from their own countries.
“[They will] look at how inland waterways not only have transformed the places they are in the past, and what they mean for the future,” Mackay said.
The conference will allow countries to exchange ideas about using canals to boost tourism and the economy. In Amsterdam, Mackay said, canals have been hosting light festivals.
“It’s attracting million of visitors,” she said.
Elsewhere in the world, Rhein-Main-Danube Canal System is being used to promote green energy and products. The Scottish Waterways Trust is revitalizing interest in its canal system with Canal College, a program that helps provide a pipeline to employment and educational opportunities for disadvantaged young people.
“What we’re seeing is a tremendous amount of investment in the waterway — waterfront developments, business and residential,” Mackay said. “It translates in terms of tourism to help people find their way to the water. People from around the world are taking another look at the Erie Canal and saying, ‘Oh, I want to go there.”
The conference coincides with the 200th anniversary of the start of construction of the Erie Canal. Mackay said it’s fitting to celebrate all the world’s canals along with the one right here in New York state.
“It’s really an honor to host the conference,” Mackay said. “This is really important for the bicentennial.”
Mackay said many who have grown up in Upstate New York see the Erie Canal as “part of the background,” so the bicentennial and the conference could show the public the canal’s history and potential for the future.
“When you think about what this canal really is, what it means, what it did for New York state … it’s not easy to take it for granted,” she said. “There’s no place else that has the Erie Canal. That’s something to be proud of, to invest in.”
Ashley M. Casey is a reporter for The Baldwinsville Messenger and The Eagle Star-Review. She graduated from Le Moyne College in 2012 and previously worked for the Scotsman Press.