Tonawanda News — Within an hour of the Lois McClure's day-long visit Wednesday at Long Homestead in the City of Tonawanda, 150 visitors had already come on board, dipped below deck and gotten an earful of historical and educational information exhibiting the link between past and present.
The 1860s replica schooner, the type of vessel that carried cargo up and down the Erie Canal for decades in the 1800s and early 1900s, many of which were constructed at several Twin Cities shipyards, has been traveling the Great Lakes since May.
Art Cohn, the schooner's director, said Wednesday's visit was his first stop along the canal. He and his 12-person crew will be navigating through various towns and villages along the waterway before returning in October to the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vermont.
Cohn, a historian and educator who has traveled with the schooner since it was constructed in 2004 — said its makeup was entirely based off of two sunken vessel's discovered at the bottom of Lake Champlain.
"That's how we learned to build it," he said, adding that the vessel's annual 40-stop jaunt through waterways in the Northern sections of the country draws upwards of 25,000 visitors a year.
In the early days, the boat, which has no engine, was pulled up and down the canal along the towpath by horses and mules. Now it has a tugboat to do the dirty work.
Many of the same crew members, he said, have worked together for years, including during the vessel's last visit to the Twin Cities in 2007. This year, Cohn said the Erie Canal was a target because of the floating museum's historical theme, which this year has been tied to the War of 1812, while specifically exploring America's naval victories against Great Britain in the years to follow.
"This is a history we share with this region," he said, referring to the Lois McClure's links to Western New York carrying lumber, bricks and grain. "Our cargo now is history and perspective."
With a slight breeze above deck, Cohn greeted the early-goers as they stepped onto the deck of the green and white boat. Below deck, displays of the wares once carried along the canal were prominent as the crew answered questions and chatted with curious visitors.
Fred Sahr, of Sanborn, toured the vessel with his wife Joanne, as they had during the first visit to the area. He said his father, uncle and grandfather had owned or worked on similar schooner in the early 1900s.
"That's the reason we came on the boat today," he said.
Ann Ward, a Niagara Falls resident and a history teacher at Amherst High School, brought her two children to see what her students could only read about in the classroom. And North Tonawanda's Nate Burgin, a Niagara County Boy Scout who regularly sails on a 1948 vessel in Lewiston, also boarded the Lois McClure with his parents on Wednesday.
"I think it was pretty cool," he said.