In the fall of 1825, John Henry Hopkins traveled from Buffalo to Albany on the Erie Canal just days after the 363-mile waterway had opened. Along the way, the Episcopal minister from Pennsylvania drew scenes of what was then considered a marvel of modern engineering.
This month, the co-founder of a Vermont history museum is traveling by tugboat on the canal, stopping at about 30 communities over the next six weeks as he discusses the waterway’s impact on the nation’s growth in the 19th century and hands out prints of Hopkins’ artwork, many of them never published and rarely seen by the general public.
“He left us an incredible series of images of the communities, of the canal, that fill in a tremendous amount of information,” Cohn said in a telephone interview from aboard the C.L. Churchill, a 52-year-old wooden tugboat owned by the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vergennes.
Starting this weekend, Cohn and his fellow crewmembers will visit communities along the canal as far west as Rochester, giving public talks about the waterway and presenting copies of Hopkins’ artwork to local museums and historical societies. Cohn was meeting Friday with state Canal Corp. officials to iron out the details of his itinerary, which will be posted on the museum and canal agency’s websites starting early next week.
The voyage is aimed at bringing attention to next year’s 200th anniversary of the beginning of construction of the Erie Canal, with events planned each year through 2025, according to Canal Corp. spokesman Shane Mahar.
The waterway was officially opened in October 1825 by Gov. DeWitt Clinton, who traveled on the canal by boat from Buffalo to Albany, then on to Manhattan. Once there, he dumped a cask of Lake Erie water into New York Harbor to signify the “wedding of the waters” linking the Great Lakes to the East Coast.
Around that time the Irish-born Hopkins, then a 32-year-old newly ordained clergyman from Pittsburgh, began his own voyage by canal boat from Buffalo to Albany, eventually headed for Manhattan to attend a religious conference. A talented artist and architectural illustrator, he created 37 watercolor and pencil sketches of canal scenes. They include a rendition of the Genesee River falls at Rochester and the elevated towpath built over the Cayuga swamp in central New York. The 1,300-foot-long timber structure was replaced by an aqueduct in the 1840s.
“It’s a priceless document as well as a wonderful painting,” Cohn said.
He came across the Hopkins collection last year while doing research at William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
One Erie Canal expert said he was “blown away” when Cohn showed him prints of the Hopkins drawings, considered some of the earliest images of the waterway before the invention of photography in the late 1830s.
“We don’t have a lot of images of the very first version of the Erie Canal,” said Duncan Hay, historian for the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor. “Finding drawings tucked away in a manuscript collection in another part of the country is pretty exciting.”
Filed Under: Infrastructure