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Mountain Home Magazine

From Edison to iPhones

In the early nineteenth century, a manmade canal about four feet deep and forty feet wide turned New York into the Empire State.

Construction began on the Erie Canal in 1817. Eight years later, at 340 miles long, it measured as the second longest canal in the world. By connecting Albany on the Hudson River to Buffalo on Lake Erie, the Erie Canal offered a clear passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes, synchronizing tributaries and smaller canals across the state. No longer did western outposts or eastern seaports need wagons and unpaved roads to transport hundreds of pounds of goods: canal barges could hold literal tons, and what travel took six weeks by land took six days by the Erie Canal. Transportation costs dropped by approximately 90 percent, and manufacturing increased throughout New York City. Attracting brokers and buyers away from the docks of Philadelphia and Boston, New York’s harbor eclipsed Philadelphia’s as the nation’s chief seaport.

“There never has been a more rapid growth of a metropolis,” says Captain Jonathan Boulware, executive director of the South Street Seaport Museum in Manhattan. “The Erie Canal was a game changer.”

As New York City became a financial mecca, industrial expansion fueled population explosions in and around villages settled along the Erie Canal: between 1820 and 1850, Syracuse grew from a town of less than 2,000 to one of over 25,000 (a growth rate of 1,150 percent). In 1868, near the peak of the Erie Canal’s popularity, the Brooklyn Flint Glass Company used it to relocate from Brooklyn’s banks to Corning, New York. The decision was an economic one. Corning was closer to Pennsylvania’s coal country and positioned along New York’s waterways, which gave the glass works better access to lower energy costs.

Loading their business—bricks, molds, glassblowing pipes—onto canal boats, the Brooklyn Flint Glass Company journeyed north along the Hudson River. Past Albany, the mule or horse-drawn barges turned westward on the Erie Canal, then south towards the Finger Lakes, eventually landing in Corning, where Brooklyn Flint evolved into Corning, Incorporated.

Starting this month, the journey from Brooklyn to Corning will be replicated with a thirty-by-eighty-foot barge full of glassmaking equipment. The Corning GlassBarge will launch from Brooklyn Bridge Park then take a four-month journey along the waterways that carried the company 150 years ago. Joining the tour will be a flotilla of historic boats, including the W.O. Decker, a Brooklyn-built wooden steam tugboat belonging to the South Street Seaport Museum, and the Lois McClure, a replica of an 1862 canal barge owned by the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. At key ports along the Erie Canal, the boats will dock and a traveling team of educators, historians, and artisans will invite the public onboard for history talks and hundreds of free glassmaking workshops.

The tour, organized by Corning Museum of Glass, celebrates 150 years of Corning, Inc. and will serve as New York State’s 2018 signature event for the Erie Canal’s bicentennial. The joint celebration is fitting: the Erie Canal facilitated Corning Inc.’s dominant rise as a glass manufacturer, and the company’s story exemplifies the significance that the Erie Canal had on American industrialization.

“By celebrating their milestone through performance glassmaking on the water, educating and entertaining along the way,” says Bill Sweitzer, Marketing Director for the New York State Canal Corporation, “Corning Museum of Glass illustrates that the Erie Canal is still the innovative waterway that changed New York nearly 200 years ago.”

Seventeen years before it moved, the Brooklyn Flint Glass Company surpassed international competitors to receive the gold medal for glassware at the 1851 World’s Fair in London. One New York Times reporter found the company’s exhibition of a “diotropic lens lantern” for locomotives particularly noteworthy. “By a peculiar formation of the lens, the rays of light are multiplied, and concentrated, and yet thrown a long distance in advance,” read the paper. “The diotropic lens is certainly well worthy the inspection of all who have occasion for a lantern of great power.” Already the object of international recognition, the business retained its customer base when it left Brooklyn at the bidding of investors who wanted a lower premium on coal costs. A glassmaking furnace requires a cord of wood a day to operate at temperatures over 2,000 degrees. With closer proximity to fuel sources, a reputation for quality, and an eye for practical household innovations, Corning thrived in its new location. The company’s decision to move, wrote the Times in 1909, made its president, Amory Houghton, Jr., one of the wealthiest men in Western New York.

“Remarkable things have happened in Corning, New York,” says Rob Cassetti, senior director of creative strategy and audience engagement for the Corning Museum of Glass. The museum, which opened in 1951, hosts one of the world’s most significant glass collections—documents of Corning’s inventions and glassmaking innovations that have “shaped the modern world” beyond china and crockery. Counted among Corning designs and/or discoveries are Thomas Edison’s first light bulbs, PYREX®, CorningWare®, optical lenses, optical fiber, telescope mirrors, television tubes, computer monitors, and LCD television screens. (A reinstated gallery at CMoG entitled “Crystal City” will highlight Corning’s rise as an American and industry center for glass cutting.)

Rob Cassetti attributes the company’s longevity to its aptitude for focusing “high tech glass applications” on “very specific technical problems.” Steve Jobs may very well have agreed. In 2007, he approached Corning with a specific challenge: to create a glass cover for a new product that Apple would call the iPhone (mission accomplished).

Since 2001, Cassetti has taken glassblowing demonstrations on the road, trips that he calls “mobile glassblowing deployments.” His team has traveled to forty different cities across North America, including Salt Lake City, where Corning Museum of Glass launched its mobile glass studio in events leading up to the 2002 Winter Olympics. Ten years ago, realizing the overlap of Corning’s 150th anniversary and the Erie Canal’s bicentennial, Cassetti began pondering the idea of a glassblowing studio aboard a cruise ship. He envisioned a floating barge that would replicate the 1868 Brooklyn move and also incorporate a statewide series of events highlighting the Erie Canal’s history. Cassetti contacted the New York State Canal Corporation for direction. e agency, responsible for running New York’s canal systems, put him in touch with a fishing guide who offered advice on the route and ports of call.

Cassetti’s team then needed to tackle the technological challenges of retrofitting a working barge with a glassmaking studio that would pass Coast Guard inspection and certification. For assistance, they sought the help of the McLaren Engineering Group, a firm specializing in maritime projects. GlassBarge will feature all-electric glassmaking equipment patented by CMoG and used at each port by artisans in hot glass demos. Over the four-month tour, GlassBarge will dock at Yonkers, Poughkeepsie, Kingston, Albany, Little Falls, Sylvan Beach, Baldwinsville, Fairport, Lockport, Buffalo, Medina, Brockport, Pittsford, Seneca Falls, and Watkins Glen. The event will conclude with a celebration in Corning on September 22. During the exhibitions, a narrator will explain the glassmaking process while the artisans work.

“Glass is such an unfamiliar material,” says Rob Cassetti. “You need someone to tell you what’s going on.” Even outside the confines of a barge, storytelling is a tough task for glassblowers using stainless steel jacks, tweezers, and other tools to manipulate molten glass upwards of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. At each port, the team from CMoG plans to give free thirty-minute demonstrations from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. (Reservations are encouraged and will open on, the museum’s website, four to six weeks before each stop.)

Stories of glass innovation aren’t the only ones that the GlassBarge will tell in honor of Corning Inc.’s 1868 move from Brooklyn. Historians and educators in tow will also remember the Erie Canal’s bicentennial anniversary with tales of life aboard a working barge in the nineteenth century.

Although work started on the Canal in 1817 and finished in 1825 (the years of construction being celebrated as a bicentennial period), portions opened in 1820. Horses and mules pulled wooden barges that held up to thirty tons along the water, which then only measured about four feet deep. By 1868, the Canal had increased in depth and could manage barges carrying over 200 tons. In 1872, considered a peak transport year, the Erie Canal facilitated the movement of over seven million tons of goods and collected over three million dollars in toll monies for New York (the state ceased canal tolls in 1883 when railroads competed for shipping business). Throughout the 1870s, propeller-powered steam tugboats became a main driver of canal barges.

Captain Boulware, of the South Street Seaport Museum, remembers meeting Rob Cassetti at a maritime event a few years ago. Hearing about the GlassBarge idea, Boulware learned that Cassetti hadn’t yet identified a tugboat to pull the barge along.

“I said to him, ‘Why, we’ve got a Brooklyn-built tugboat,’” recalls Captain Boulware. The W.O. Decker, considered the last surviving New York-built wooden steam tugboat and part of the museum’s fleet, will tug the GlassBarge. The 1930 boat is currently being refit for the journey. Its participation, says Rob Cassetti, “made the story that much richer.”

Also accompanying the GlassBarge are two vessels from the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum: the C.L. Churchill, a 1964 tugboat, and the Lois McClure, a replica of an 1862 canal barge.

Erick Tichonuk, co-executive director of Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, has studied underwater archaeology and the hidden stories of shipwrecks, many of which were canal boats, over his thirty-two-year career at the museum. The presence of the Lois McClure, says Tichonuk, adds to the event’s tangible history. Both boats on loan from the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum will be open for the public to explore while Tichonuk and his team discuss what everyday life was like on a canal barge in the nineteenth century.

In 1835, Nathaniel Hawthorne recorded his observations of traveling along the Erie Canal in an essay called “The Canal Boat” that ran in the December issue of New-England Magazine. Hawthorne was taken with life on the boat at night, when lanterns burned against the darkness “at either end” of the vessel and only a curtain separated the bunks of men and women inside the cabin.

Hawthorne reported a “diversified panorama along the banks” during the day, scenes that included dark forests of white sylvan trees, “thriving” villages of crowded docks and taverns, and “Poverty personified” in one isolated area where a woman in tattered clothes watched “while a tide of wealth was sweeping by her door.” The writer also likened the Erie Canal’s attitude towards capitalism to the path of the humans riding along it.

“Through the thickest of the tumult goes the canal, flowing between lofty rows of buildings and arched bridges of hewn stone. Onward, also, go we, till the hum and bustle of struggling enterprise die away behind us, and we are threading an avenue of the ancient woods again.”

By 1845, 25,000 men, women, and children operated over 4,000 boats on the Erie Canal. Some of these vessels were passenger boats, known as “packets,” but the majority were cargo boats, with many engaged by families. Crew positions were among the thousands of jobs enabled by the Erie Canal’s shipping boom.

Erick Tichonuk says that running a canal barge offered financial independence to anyone who could get a bank loan and purchase a vessel. Trips began when an operator visited a broker, selected cargo, and found a tow and any help in loading the boat. Families, says Tichonuk, would often participate in this process together. Once on the water, “Canallers” had to account for cooking, cleaning, minor repairs, security, and tending to any cargo and animals. While families did associate with one another, canal life could be violent. Navigators often had to fight for positions in the narrow lines that approached locks and bridges, usually while maintaining delivery schedules.

Tichonuk’s team is researching and authoring a forty-page booklet on the histories that converge in the GlassBarge tour, and at each port will convey stories from the annals of their museum in a unique format.

“In the past, events have included a moving boat and talking about history,” says Tichonuk. “This time, we’re adding the arts (with glassblowing) to the humanities.”

Rob Cassetti always looks forward to the response of people who watch glassblowing for the first time. “It’s fascinating to see something being made in front of your eyes,” he says. “In fifteen to twenty minutes, a molten gob of goo becomes a finished thing you are familiar with, a blown object like a vase or a bowl.” The experience “captivates groups of third graders just as it captivates senior citizens.”

Cassetti emphasizes, however, that while GlassBarge features Corning’s history, it aims to highlight a much larger narrative.

“This is our canal story,” he says. “There are equally compelling other ones.”

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