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Two geologists refute state agency's contention that rock of historic Erie Canal terminus cannot survive restoration; rock will last "thousands of years" if canal is restored to use.

This follows a canal engineer's report that the canal can be restored and a large storm sewer reconfigured for about the same amount as building "replica" canal, and affidavits by historians and cultural geographers testifying to the importance of preserving Buffalo's historic Canal District, rather than practicing "Data Recovery And Destruction" (DRAD)

By Dr. Patricia M. Costanzo, Esq. and Dr. Rossman F. Giese, Jr.
March 2000

We have been following the debate about whether to restore the Erie Canal terminus - the Commercial Slip - or rebury it and build a new, metal-lined "replica" boat slip next to it. The Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) wants to build the "replica" slip and bury the actual Commercial Slip.

An archeologist working for ESDC has reported that the rocks of the canal uncovered last summer will deteriorate rapidly, and indeed, "blast apart" if exposed to Buffalo winters. According to ESDC, this opinion is supported by a physical geographer and a National Park Service conservator. An aide to Mayor Masiello was quoted in the News as saying the rocks would "dissolve."

On the other hand, some groups support the restoration of the actual canal to working condition and have hired a canal engineer who says that the restoration can be successfully accomplished. What is missing in this debate is the opinion of a geologist; someone who, by training and practical experience, knows rocks and their properties.

We are Ph.D. geologists and together we have more than 50 years experience studying rocks, their origins and weathering products. We are concerned that decisions being made on behalf of the community are not based on sound science. Thus, we must question the proposal that the rocks that line the entrance to the historic Erie Canal terminus cannot survive exposure to our weather.

Recently, we examined several blocks of a dark gray rock which originally were part of the wall of the Commercial Slip and were excavated by the archeologists working for ESDC. Our conclusion is that these rocks will survive for thousands of years if indeed the canal is restored to use.

The stability of a rock is determined by many factors. In the present context, the minerals present in the rock and the rock's porosity being the most important. Our examination showed that the rock is composed of the minerals calcite, some quartz and a small amount of dolomite. This is sufficient to indicate that the rock is limestone containing small patches of chert (a form of quartz). Visually, the rock is identical to the local limestone called the Onondaga Limestone. This rock is approximately 400 million years old.

The Onondaga limestone is the rock that lies under large parts of Buffalo and forms a prominent ridge (an escarpment) that can be followed for a long distance toward the east. Locally, the Kensington Expressway, between the Thruway and Scajacquada, cuts through this rock at several points. Before the road construction, this Onondaga limestone was buried underground and was wet. The construction has exposed the rock to many years of Buffalo's freeze-thaw cycles. As anyone can see, nothing has happened to this rock in the 40 years since the road project ended, and nothing will happen to the rock for many hundreds if not thousands of years into the future.

The stability of the rocks along the roadway, which are similar to the rocks that compose the foundations of so many of Buffalo's buildings, shows clearly that the rocks forming the historic Commercial Slip, the end of the original Erie Canal, have been, and will continue to be, equally resistant to our weather. The integrity of the rock is not a problem.

If the rock of the walls of the Commercial Slip is not a problem, and, as has been reported in the News, an engineer with canal experience says that the walls themselves can be made to serve once again, so why rebury the canal? Why wouldn't one want this historic site to be restored? In addition to being an historic site worthy of visiting for it own sake, the restored section of the Erie Canal could be a year round attraction in other ways. Over the years it could provide pleasure and edification for large numbers of people.

In the winter, the water in the canal would freeze providing a great place to skate for both city residents and visitors. Kiosks along the banks could offer steaming hot chocolate and places to rest and warm. This is not just a grandiose idea. In the Canadian city of Ottawa this has been a realty for years. The rich and poor, old and young come together to skate on the frozen water of the Rideau Canal that winds its way through the city of Ottawa. This annual winter experience has engendered a sense of civic community and pride for the citizens of Ottawa.

Ottawa successfully uses its canal to bring people downtown. In New York State, Rochester, Spencerport, and North Tonawanda all have well-attended Canal Days to lure people into the city, and Fairport, New York runs a successful dinner/boat ride business on their Fairport Lady. Why can't Buffalo take advantage of its resources?

The festivities could continue in summer. Horse drawn canal boats could be used to provide a leisurely trip through the fascinating and wonderfully rich history of Buffalo. For those with more energy, or more romance, canoes could be available. Bands could welcome the evening and dances and barbecues could celebrate weekends on the lively and lovely historic Buffalo waterfront. The old Auditorium could house a museum dedicated to the history of the canal, the Buffalo River, the Great Lakes, and other parts of Buffalo's rich past such as the grain elevators and the railroads.

Page by Chuck LaChiusa
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