Photo by Will Van Dorp

Last week MLF got a press release about the Preservation League of New York seeking support for its efforts to save the historic Tug Urger and other Erie Canal vessels, many of which have visited Little Falls.

The New York State Canal Corporation plans to beach the tug and set it up as a permanent dry-land exhibit at the new NYS Visitor Center on the westbound side of the throughway in Fonda.

On the surface of it all, I’m all for preserving our history and the past.  However, one doesn’t have to go too far to see what a hornets nest can be stirred up by something that on the surface seems so logical.

Just look at the battle the Adirondack Railroad has been involved in over the years and the issues on both sides of whether to restore the tracks or turn it into snowmobile and hiking/biking trails.

So when I started calling people to get some quotes to support the initiative, I got an earful about what the issues really were and whether or not the tug should be saved and what the costs were going to be.

I was told about the poor condition the fleet was in and the amount of maintenance that would be needed to really bring them back to where they needed to be. I was also told about the budget deficit of the canal as well.

So, I did some research on the numbers I was given. The 2016 budget showed that they needed $53.75 million to operate. For revenue? They listed $2.86 million from ALL sources. Fees for the craft that ply the waters amounts to only about $200,000 a year.

That’s about a $51 million dollar deficit just to operate the canal. But, there is the economic and tourist impact that the canal has on local economies, and that number, whatever it may be, is not factored in. There are studies estimating that visitors can generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for the local economy, so it’s closer than it initially looks.

On January 1, 2017, control of the canal was transferred from the New York State Throughway Authority to the New York Power Authority. The trucking industry sued the state for using highway tolls to fund the canals and won in federal court, so the transfer was made. The Throughway had always made a descent profit, so they had been able to easily cover the canal deficit, but it was taxpayer money.

In a written statement to NPR, the New York Power Authority said revenue from its hydropower plants, not taxpayers, is funding the canals from now on. But, when it comes to cutting budgets and saving money, the Power Authority is going to see all the red ink on the canal and like any other responsible organization, will have to act.

“It’s completely upside down from a commercial standpoint,” says Darren Suarez, director of government affairs for the Business Council of New York State. “It will continue to lose money.”

Awareness about this legendary “Gateway to the West” has fallen to the wayside, according to Natalie Stetson, executive director of the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse.

“The canal suffers from the fact that people don’t know it exists anymore,” Stetson says. “They think it’s a piece of history.”

The good news according to the New York constitution, is that the working parts of the Erie Canal will stay under the state’s “management and control forever.” So, shutting it down is not an option.

However, “the Governor has launched an initiative to deploy materials including tug boats, barges, and scows, to support the development of six artificial reefs on Long Island.” So, if they are not saved, they’ll be scuttled.

For me, Rotary Park, the harbor, the ‘little’ falls, the ships that go up and down the waterway and Lock 17 are not just history, but part of the fabric of this city. I can’t imagine taking the tugs away that pass by or tie up at the harbor.

However, if in the end, they CAN’T raise the funds to save the tugs and they are going to be pulled from the waters, I think we need to start thinking now about how a dry-land display of one of those tugs would look in Little Falls. It would clearly be something to see for the increasing number of tourists that are coming to town and another draw for the community.

So, are there just a few people sitting around in Stewarts who want to take this on?

Editor’s Note: I talked about the folks in Stewarts last editorial, so I thought I’d keep the theme going.