There’s a children’s book, called Lillibit’s Dream written by Melody Sullivan and illustrated by Stanislav Grof that reminds me of the almost 200 years of Erie Canal history in my hometown, Montezuma, New York. In studying how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, we can see the parallel. It eats, it grows, it molts a few times and then it creates a chrysalis. Inside the chrysalis, the caterpillar completely dissolves until there’s nothing left of the old life.
In Sullivan’s story, Lillibit was a caterpillar who dreamed of one day transforming into a beautiful butterfly that would fly. She was very determined, but trying as hard as might she just couldn’t do it. Her caterpillar friends told her she was crazy for dreaming because she had no wings. This reminds me of the early visionaries that dreamed of building a canal, but were told continually it couldn’t be done. It became known as a crazy pipe dream, Clinton’s Folly. Yet the construction of the canal system created a transformation that grew our great nation and far exceeded its original expectations paying for itself in one year.
It was here in Montezuma that almost 200 years ago a dream took hold as the middle section of Clinton’s Ditch began to become a reality. Digging the “ditch” started in Rome, NY on July 4th, 1817, making its way westward toward Montezuma. Progress was made quickly until it reached the Seneca River and surrounding marshes. Excavation was harder in the swampy area where workers had to stand in water up to their waists. Disease and sickness slowed their progress having to delay further work until the cooler, dryer seasons. Comfort Tyler, one of the earliest settlers first in Onondaga County eventually settled in Montezuma. He was a great advocate for early transportation involved in building many of the early roads, bridges and boats in the area. He built one of the first boats, “The Montezuma,” that traveled the waters of the Erie when it first opened in the middle section. The town grew and prospered becoming the hub of travel for this area.
The Exchange Hotel was located at the junction of the Erie and Cayuga-Seneca Canal. The Cayuga-Seneca opened in Montezuma in 1828 making possible travel to the Finger Lakes and beyond. The hotel was a place to stay over night while boats were loaded with supplies or repaired. Town elections, business and balls was held here. That all drastically changed In 1917, when the new Barge Canal System opened, and the manmade canals that flowed through the middle of town were filled in. One by one businesses that once lined the canal banks closed and most all of the buildings either burned down or were dismantled in disrepair. The Exchange Hotel burned to the ground in 1918. Gone was the original town landscape, and with it many hopes, dreams and a sense of place for the Town.
Like Lillibut in the crysallis stage, there was not much left of the old Canal town, until 1965 when it received funding to purchase several properties along the old Canal system with a new dream emerging of turning it into a Town recreational park. The dream was really too big and was soon aborted as residents became outraged at what it would cost just to maintain the park. Bitterness ensued between those who seen it as something that would help the town, and those who like Clinton’s original dream, thought it to be a terrible waste of money. So the idea went underground until in the 1990’s, when discussions resurfaced with a new potential for the Town developing the parkland into a historic canal park. There were even discussions of it becoming a State owned-historic park, but in 2008 when the bottom of the economy fell out, once again the dream was gone.
In the meantime, the town had become terribly run down, economically struggling with little business left to help the tax base. The lot where the Exchange Hotel once stood as the hub of the town was now lined with outdated, run-down trailers and the bed of the Enlarged Erie had become a town dump. Eventually, the town was forced to close the dump, but what remained was an unsightly mess, along with any remnants of the sense of place and remaining pride of a once thriving town.
As Town Historian, I soon caught Canal Fever from a neighboring Canal Historian, Mike Riley, who taught me the important significance of the town’s remaining canal sites. I began to realize it was part of the great American story of how the Erie Canal had once transformed our state and grew the nation. I began to see the possibility of rebirth of the economic vitality through the renewed interest of Erie Canal history, and the beautiful nature trails that could be developed throughout the property along the with the historic remains of the early canal features. We formed new partnerships with the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor and Parks and Trails, New York receiving technical assistance. In 2010, volunteers worked with SUNY, ESF students, and the Town received an award from a State EPF fund to develop a new, more economical and feasible park plan which would highlight the historic canal sites within the park area. A design committee composed mostly of Montezuma Historical Society members began working on trails and doing small clean up projects. The Town purchased the lot where the Exchange Hotel and crossover bridge between the Erie and Cayuga-Seneca once stood. The old trailers were removed. Small funding was obtained for volunteers to build benches, new kiosks and create new signage. We held bake sales to help raise money and 5K runs, and in 2011 received funding to have a mural painted. The mural was painted by Dawn Jordan, a very talented local artist, who had painted several local murals based on Erie Canal history. I worked with her to design a drawing based on a historic photograph of the Exchange Hotel, the Cross over bridge, with Comfort Tyler standing as the early visionary who built the canal boat, “The Montezuma.” The problem was we didn’t even have a building left to install the mural on. A-Verdi Containers donated a container and moved it to the site of the former Exchange Hotel. We formulated plans and another dream emerged. We would use the container as model for the cabin of Comfort Tyler’s original canal boat with decking built around it. Still there are those who don’t see the vision this dream holds for the town. Like Lillibit, there are days when we feel discouraged, but Lillibit persevered until one day she cracked open and was able to fly. I believe through perseverance Montezuma will rise from the ashes of the Exchange, and we will have regained that sense of pride and place so needed for a thriving community.
Now almost 200 years later the site has transformed once again into a new vision for the town. Soon we will be developing a memorial butterfly garden near the mural blending the old with the new. It will represent the many metamorphosis this site has seen, over the years and transforming it into a place where people can come to rest and be renewed in a beautiful nature setting. At this year’s 2016 Global Mural Conference, we are excited Dawn Jordan will paint our second mural during the Erie Canal Heritage Mural Expo. Our new mural will tell the story of the magnificent Richmond Aqueduct built here in 1849 to carry the Erie Canal waters over the Seneca River.
By creating a greater appreciation of visual arts and our historical roots while establishing the face and identity of our Town, Lillibit, by Lillibit we once again are transforming dreams into new realities.
Montezuma Town Historian
July 2, 2016