Designing and Constructing a Replica of DeWitt Clinton's Seneca Chief

By John Montague, Buffalo Maritime Center

Join the Erie Canal Museum on Facebook Live, 10 a.m. May 7, to learn more about this project.

In anticipation of the bicentennial of the opening of the Erie Canal in 2025, the Buffalo Maritime Center has undertaken a project to construct a replica of DeWitt Clinton’s packet boat Seneca Chief.  The building of the  vessel now underway represents years of research, preparation, design work, fundraising, community engagement, and political negotiating. 

Because Buffalo was the Western Terminus of the Erie Canal, the city’s identity and very existence were from the beginning bound up with the Grand Canal’s construction and subsequent success.  

As Buffalo continues its process of recapturing its historic harbor and waterfront, the Canal’s heritage has naturally become a central theme. Significantly, the discovery and re-watering of Buffalo’s Commercial Slip exposed the actual original terminus of the Canal–the very site where the waters of the “Inland Seas” were finally connected to the Atlantic.  

In an effort to contribute to the development of Buffalo’s waterfront, the Buffalo Maritime Center has been  active in a number of community projects such as mooring historic boats in the harbor, designing a bicycle ferry and other undertakings. The first initiatives for building a canal boat as a focus for Buffalo’s historic harbor were proposed over 20 years ago. Fortunately, over the last few years, with the community’s growing appreciation of its waterfront and its history, those initial visions have come to fruition.

In my presentation I will outline briefly how the idea of building the Seneca Chief packet boat came about, and discuss future uses of the boat as both a community asset for Buffalo and an educational outreach to New York’s canal towns. I will also discuss how, as a not-for-profit, we have been able to fund the project through public and private partnerships.

It is remarkable that, for all the brilliant scholarship devoted to almost every aspect of the Erie Canal from  lock construction  to the Canal’s socio-political dimensions, there is relatively little information about the hundreds of early vessels that plied its waters. There are many reasons for this. One reason was that most boats were built without plans. Building sites were abandoned, the boats themselves rotted away or were broken up, and consequently the activity left few traces. There are no photographic records as early boats predated even the daguerreotypes of the 1840s. The absence of plans and surviving boats has made the replication of early packet boats difficult but not impossible.

Fortunately, our team of researchers and craftsmen were eventually able to arrive at a credible set of building plans to allow the project to begin with confidence. The process has taken considerable patient investigation and interpretation of literary sources, historic documents,  prints, crude drawings, and witness sketches. We were particularly fortunate to have team members who could supplement the visual and literary sources with extensive knowledge of general boat building techniques of the 1820s. 

We are in the early phases of constructing the Seneca Chief and awaiting the completion of the Longshed where it will be assembled at Canalside. I will discuss the building process for the boat from the “lofting’” cutting out parts, and preparations for final assembly. I will discuss the  plans for community involvement throughout the process  – volunteers, students, and programming with cooperating institutions. Finally, I will briefly lay out the plans for a re-enactment of the  Wedding of the Waters in 2025 and the use of the Seneca Chief as a canal ambassador into the future.