By Michael J. Billoni
Senior Contributing Writer
Sometime after noon tomorrow afternoon, inside the Longshed at Canalside on Buffalo’s beautiful waterfront, master boatbuilder Roger Allen will look toward Dr. John Montague, who founded the Buffalo Maritime Center in 1989, smile and whisper, “We did it!”
It will be said during an elaborate “Whiskey Plank” celebration when the final plank required to complete the outer shell of the wooden hull of the full-sized replica of the historic Erie Canal “Seneca Chief” packet boat. The original “Seneca Chief,” with Gov. Dewitt Clinton on board, made the first Erie Canal trip on Oct. 26, 1825, travelling 4 mph and being pulled by mules traveling adjacent on towpaths.
The ”Whiskey Plank” celebration, a major milestone in the construction of a wooden boat, is free and open to the public on Saturday, Oct. 7, from noon-3 p.m. in the Longshed at Canalside, adjacent to the Commercial Slip and the Buffalo & Erie County Naval & Military Park. State and local political leaders, along with Maritime officials and many of the volunteers who helped build the boat, will attend the event, which is presented in partnership with the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, the New York State Canal Corp. and the Eric Canal Harbor Development Corp.
How It Began
Montague, 79, who was born in upstate New York and grew up in Florida, returned here in 1984 to set up the history of design program at Buffalo State University. In addition to a 37-year college teaching career in art and design history, he has worked as a practicing designer, artist, illustrator and film animator, and he has played an active role in historic preservation and urban planning. Montague has served for years on the boards of the Preservation Coalition, Landmark Society, the City Preservation Board, and various city planning commissions.
His personal greatest accomplishment was starting the boat-building program in 1988 at Buff State with two colleagues in the design department. It evolved into several entities before breaking away from the college and becoming the Buffalo Maritime Center, of which Montague became the first executive director. He serves as president emeritus of its board of directors, along with being professor emeritus at Buff. State.
The Maritime Center has allowed him to pursue his lifelong passion for sailing and designing boats, as well as his scholarly interests in the history of naval architecture. Through his leadership, the Maritime Center has become a center for studying, building and restoring boats, and an effective program for community outreach and waterfront development.
Allen, 73, a master boat builder who grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, was lured here from the gulf coast of Florida 11 years ago to serve as the Buffalo Maritime Center’s executive director. He specializes in boatbuilding, fundraising and maintenance, and is the primary teacher of the center’s many volunteers.
His background is extensive, including his founding of the “Workshop on the Water” for the Philadelphia Maritime Museum in 1979, where he focused upon preservation of regional, traditional small boats and skills and offered classes in boatbuilding. He collected over 60 boats as part of the museum’s permanent collection. He then went to North Carolina where he produced similar programs as curator of boatbuilding technology and director of the State Museum’s Harvey Smith Watercraft Center.
After nine years, he moved south to Cortez, Florida, to expand his preservation efforts around the village and the traditional lifestyles of its commercial fishermen residents. He also spent time fundraising for habitat restoration of the organization’s 100-acre waterfront preserve.
As the master builder, and teacher of 211 volunteers who have worked on building the “Seneca Chief,” Allen said he believes “Using traditional wooden boatbuilding methods and skills offers an invaluable lesson in problem-solving, self-sufficiency, and the development of a craftsman-like attitude that is rare in modern life.”
“This has served as the core guiding my work since I began my career in 1978,” he proudly stated.
Soon after arriving here in 2012, Allen and Montague had a conversation about 2025, the bicentennial of Clinton’s 1825 inaugural voyage on the “Seneca Chief” to officially open the Erie Canal. The answer was obvious. They had to build a replica, 73-feet long, 12-feet wide, 40-ton wooden boat that could float in 1½ feet of water.
“We both agreed Buffalo must own this event,” Allen said. “The Erie Canal was totally important for the entire country.”
An artist’s rendering of the original “Seneca Chief.” (Photo courtesy of the Buffalo Maritime Center)
That began the planning and a capital campaign by the Buffalo Maritime Center and its board to build the replica. The original plan was to raise enough money and commission as an out-of-town boatbuilder to construct this massive replica wooden boat. After the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., a subsidiary of Empire State Development Corp., provided funding in 2019, things began to get exciting for Montague and Allen. The state followed that with a commitment of $4 million to construct a new, 4,000-square-foot, year-round facility for the Maritime Center, in which the historically accurate, historic wooden canal boat will be built by hand by the center’s volunteers boatbuilders under the watchful eye of master boatbuilder Roger Allen.
Allen has been especially appreciative and proud of the many volunteers who have literally built the “Seneca Chief.” With only two professional shipwrights leading the building, it clearly has been 99% volunteer-built. He said this has become one of the largest community boatbuilding projects taking place anywhere in the world right now, and one of the very few being built on public display.
Allen said the boat’s keel, frames and other structural timbers are of white oak. The keelson is a single, 60-foot-long piece of reclaimed Douglas Fir. This donated timber was previously used in the early 1900s as a gin pole crane. Planking is two layers of 1-inch-thick cypress with a waterproof Dynel cloth set in epoxy between the layers. The outer layer of planking is caulked with cotton in the traditional manner. This combination of modern and traditional planking methods should help the boat stay watertight, even if it spends winters out of the water.
Another unique aspect of the project is that almost all the bolts used in the backbone structure were forged in the BMC’s own machine shop by a crew of volunteers. This crew has also produced several specialized tools and hardware needed to build the boat.
The interior of the cabin will be outfitted with cabinet-grade hardwood and finished in a style consistent with the 1820s.
Master boat-builder Roger Allen by the “Seneca Chief,” which he oversaw as it was built. (Photo by Michael J. Billoni)
Allen said Saturday will also be the last day the public can freely walk around the Erie Canal Boat Project at the Longshed until it’s launched in May. It has been estimated that tens of thousands of guests from around the world have toured the facility over the past couple years.
Beginning Monday, Allen and his team of volunteers will begin to caulk the hull, putty its seams, and paint the hull. It also needs to finish the cabin of which the frame is in place. There will be an enclosed cabin for passengers, much like there was when Clinton took the first voyage, except this will be much fancier.
On May 7, a trailer will be backed under the boat and will transport it, with much fanfare, to the former Lackawanna Steel Plant slip where it will launch. Rather than mules that led the original “Seneca Chief,” a 33-foot tugboat from Maine will escort the boat from Lackawanna to the Erie Canal Commercial Slip adjacent to its current home. The tugboat, which was built in 1962 and has quite a history of tugging similar boats, will be loaned to the Buffalo Maritime Center from the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.
The goal is to have all the work completed on the boat by July so it can be tugged to Lockport for sea trials late summer and the fall, where it will be kept in mud to seal the hull.
In the fall of 2025, with enormous fanfare, a crew, with Allen and Montague in the tugboat, will set off on their journey to New York City to recreate the “Wedding of the Waters,” 200 years after Clinton ceremoniously poured Lake Erie water into New York Harbor, officially “wedding the waters.”
The Buffalo Maritime Center has said the Erie Canal Boat is central to the story of the Erie Canal and the history of this state. It aims to tell that story in a rich and inclusive way, opening up the conversation about history and community. The BMC will invite communities and organizations along the Erie Canal and the Hudson River to educate their communities and to learn about the Erie Canal’s past, its present, and to create a shared vision of its future.
“Seneca Chief” will remain as an educational exhibit that considers the ecological, cultural and economic impacts that the Erie Canal had on this country.
The journey along the canal will close the 2025 World Canals Conference, which will be hosted in Buffalo and will bring together hundreds of canals and inland waterway enthusiasts, professionals and scholars from around the world to learn about a variety of topics related to canals.
“The Erie Canal Boat is central to the story of the Erie Canal and the history of New York state. The ‘Seneca Chief's’ journey will be an exploration of the canal's past and a look forward to its future,” explained Wendy Creighton, a member of the Buffalo Maritime Center’s board of directors.
The Buffalo Maritime Center is located at 90 Arthur St., Buffalo. Call 716-881-0111 and, for more information on the museum and boat shop, visit www.buffalomaritimecenter.org.
This public event will take place at noon Saturday, Oct. 7, at the Longshed. It will feature speeches from local and state officials, members of the boatbuilding team, representatives from BMC, as well as music by Erie Canal band The Heenan Brothers, beer tasting by Big Ditch Brewing Co., and custom-designed whiskey by Buffalo Distilling for the traditional whiskey toast. Nonalcoholic options will be available and food trucks will be on-site, too. Visit https://buffalomaritimecenter.org/.