Boat building

Maritime Center Provides Bridge between Community, Historic Waterfront

The days of enormous commercial ships, magnificent passenger vessels, and quaint water taxis gracing Buffalo’s waterways may be a distant memory for most Western New Yorkers, but a visit to Buffalo State College’s Maritime Center evokes the proud maritime heritage that fueled the region’s growth in the late nineteenth century.

The Maritime Center, an 18,000-square-foot facility off Fuhrmann Boulevard at the Port of Buffalo, showcases many of the boats that once plied Lake Erie, the Niagara River, and the Erie Canal. In addition, the center features a boat-building shop, designed to engage students and the community in the restoration and re-creation of historic watercraft.

“Buffalo’s waterfront is an incredible treasure,” said John Montague, director of the Maritime Center. “The Great Lakes are as rich in maritime history as New England. This is something that we are trying to pull back into people’s consciousness.”

Those efforts started more than 20 years ago when Montague, while teaching in the Design Department, discovered a common interest in wooden boatbuilding with a pair of colleagues, Richard Butz, associate professor and chair of the Technology Department, and William Bartoo, associate professor emeritus of technology and design. Upon learning of the bond, the trio began to explore ways to incorporate boatbuilding into the curriculum.

“In the Design Department, we wanted to look at the design of everything,” Montague said. “Boat design was every part as interesting as painting and graphic design in terms of incorporating form and function.”

It started with a simple introductory woodworking class in the late 1980s, when a group of 12 female students opted to build a kayak rather than a traditional woodworking project. The success of the kayak led to the development of a boatbuilding course and an eventual minor in boatbuilding as Buffalo State became the first four-year college in the country to offer such a program.

Today, the Technology Department is home to the college’s boatbuilding class, offering the course as an elective for technology education students. “We use it for students who need a more hands-on experience with woodworking processes,” said Butz, who is working toward restoring the boatbuilding minor.

Partnered with the research and courses offered through the Great Lakes Center, Montague said, the Maritime Center is adding to the college’s reputation as a leader in Great Lakes studies.

“We are offering courses and opportunities that get people concerned about Lake Erie,” Montague said. “We are really an extension of that initiative. In a sense, the Great Lakes kind of belong to Buffalo State.”

To strengthen the connection between the Great Lakes, the environment, and the college, the Maritime Center continually involves the community through youth boatbuilding activities. Next month, the center, along with student mentors from the Technology Department, will work with children from the Valley Community Center and a local foster care agency in a Saturday boatbuilding program, which starts on April 5 and culminates on May 3, when participants launch their rowboats on Hoyt Lake.

“We have found that boatbuilding is a great way to increase self-esteem,” Butz said. “By working with the college mentors, the participants are able to enjoy a big-brother type of relationship. In addition, by seeing a project through from start to finish, it is a very rewarding process for these kids.”

On launch day, the participants also take part in aquatic ecology activities, collecting water samples and performing simple water-quality tests. “If you get people on the water, they will care about it,” Butz said.

A concern for the environment is evident in the Maritime Center’s most recent re-creation—a solar-powered water taxi. Based on a century-old design, the water taxi incorporates the elegance of the early 1900s with the technology of today. Four 12-volt batteries will power the 12-passenger boat, which will recharge by connecting to a solar-panel station on the shore.

“The idea is that a fleet of these boats would give everyone the opportunity to reconnect with Buffalo’s waterfront,” Butz said.

In addition to the water taxi, dozens of historic boats are on exhibit at the center including the pilot house of the Canadiana—a once-magnificent boat that shuttled thousands of people between Buffalo and Crystal Beach every summer in the early to mid-1900s.

The Maritime Center is open to the public Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 10:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. The center is located at 9016 Fuhrmann Boulevard. For more information, please call (716) 878-6532.