Ship’s Log: Schooner Lois McClure, Tonawanda & Buffalo

Erick Tichonuk, Tonawanda & Buffalo

Sunset in Buffalo harbor on the USS Little Rock and Lois McClure

With the Niagara Escarpment and Lockport in the rearview mirror (just a figure of speech, we don’t have a rear view mirror on the canal boat), we set our sights on Tonawanda, gateway to the Niagara River.  Historically speaking the original Erie Canal and the Enlarged Erie didn’t utilize the Niagara River to access Buffalo, instead the canal followed the banks of the Niagara River as it gradually ascends to Lake Erie.  Our old friend from previous tours, Harbormaster David Nedell, saved us a spot of honor in front of the amphitheater.  We consider this location special because stones from the original Erie Canal are built into the hillside theatre and mark the access to the old canal, now long since paved over.  Tonawanda was strategically located to take advantage of incoming lumber from the great lakes.  The banks of the canal were piled high with lumber awaiting shipment east.  Like Albany and Burlington, Tonawanda became a major lumber handling port thanks to the workings of the Erie Canal.  Today the banks of the canal along Tonawanda on the south side, and North Tonawanda on the opposite bank, are havens for recreational boaters.

Captain Dick Spoch lends a helping hand in the currents of the Niagara River

When you leave the Tonawandas and head downstream you quickly spill into the Niagara River.  You want to be sure to go left.  If you turn right and go too far you’ll definitely make the news, but not necessarily in a good way, as you descend Niagara Falls.  By turning left you’re headed upstream and into the current.  It’s literally an uphill battle, and more than just the Churchill can manage.  Oh yes, we would eventually make it if our fuel held out, emphasis on eventually.  That’s where Captain Dick Spoch enters the scene.  We gave Tow Boat US Buffalo a call to set up the extra tow power we would need to make it to Buffalo in a reasonable time.  Captain Spoch arrived at the appointed hour with his rigid hull inflatable with twin 225 hp outboards.  He knows his trade well and made off to our bow, giving us the added thrust.  For a couple hours we plied our way upstream in a glorious blue sky day, the hawser line stretched taught between the vessels.  We passed through Black Rock lock and into the myriad of breakwaters that protects Buffalo’s waterfront, well ahead of schedule.  As we made our formal acquaintances with handshakes on the dock I asked Captain Spoch what we owed him.  With a wry grin and a nod he said, “Don’t worry about it.”  Thanks Captain!

Harbor master David Nadell and his daughter accept trees on behalf of Tonawanda

There on the dock of Buffalo was our dear friend from years gone by Tom Blanchard.  He and his wife Paula had been instrumental in helping us set up our visit.  The Buffalo waterfront has undergone an amazing transformation since our first visit in 2007 when were challenged to dock along a rough sheet pile wall.  Today the waterfront is home to Canalside, a wonderful venue that embraces the canal history.  The original “commercial slip” that accessed the Erie Canal has been partially excavated and is well interpreted.  Canalside also encompasses a park and boardwalk that is full of activities.  We made great friends with Rich Hilliman owner/captain of the schooner Spirit of Buffalo and Buffalo River History Tours , John Montague of the Buffalo Maritime Center, Mike Vogel of the Buffalo Lighthouse Association, and Captain Brian Roche of the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park.  They all embraced our visit as an added attraction along their bustling waterfront.  The crew unanimously agrees that we had our best shower experience yet.  We were invited to use the showers aboard their US Navy Light Cruiser Little Rock!  We all descended into the bowels of the huge vessel with mouths agape wondering how we would ever find our way out again.

Grain elevators on the Buffalo River

Another highlight for the crew was an Oocher ride up the Buffalo River.  As our inflatable passed General Mills and the unmistakable smell of Cheerios we marveled at the ally way of derelict grain silos.  We had done the ride ten years earlier, but now there is a transformation afoot.  Where once there seemed no hope for this post-apocalyptic landscape we passed tour boats, tiki bar boats (not a typo), even rock climbing walls up the sides of silos.  It was active, still in the stages of renewal, but not as hopeless a feeling.  Although our tour of the Buffalo River was a highlight for some I’m quite sure our volunteer firefighting crew members Art Cohn and Jeff Hindes would have to say their ride on the world’s oldest working fire and ice breaking boat, the Edward M. Cotter, was theirs.

By the end of the weekend we had seen over 1,200 visitors on board.  So many folks sincerely appreciated the connection of Lake Erie with the Erie Canal and the fact that boats exactly like our Lois McClure would have lined these docks to make the exchange from lake vessels to canal.  Our hats off to Buffalo for generating a vibrant waterfront that embraces its history.  We know there’s plenty more good things to come for the City.

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