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Making Waves: The Buffalo Maritime Center

Author: Schyler Norton

The Buffalo Maritime Center started out as a program at Buffalo State in 1989. It was originally part of the design department. One of the founders whom I spoke to, John Montague, taught the history of design at Buffalo State. He and a few other teachers were interested in furniture and wood design, and through that the group decided that they wanted to build a boat.

The first semester John offered the course to build one kayak, and from there the program grew exponentially – the second semester the crew built 20 kayaks, and then 40 the next. It soon became clear that there was an interest among the students, so they started building more sophisticated boats.

The teachers studied at the boat building school in Maine, and soon boat building became a minor at Buffalo State. At that point the center had more boats than it knew what to do with and wanted to give back to the community so the heads of the department began contacting public schools. The group wanted to reach out to inner city kids and give them the unique opportunity to build a boat. Plus, the hands-n experience got the kids onto a college campus to take a look around, which for many was kind of neat.

The program was popular among students and it was clear that building a boat was meaningful to them. It taught them to work with their hands, learn a trade, and gave them the opportunity to interact positively with mentors to create something practical and useful. In addition, the kids were learning math, science, and technology in a real world setting outside of the classroom, thus “teaching them through another pathway.”

Once the building phase was complete, the students were able to test out the accomplishment by actually getting the boats out onto water. For most, it was the first time they had ever been on a boat, and they all enjoyed the feeling of accomplishing such a feat. Finally, the students used the boats for ecology sampling, which showed them the importance of having a purpose behind building something… that it could be fun, and educational and meaningful at the same time.

John Montague retired 10 years ago, but still wanted to continue with his interest in boats, so he took the program off campus and turned it into a non profit. He and a few others then founded the Buffalo Maritime Center. The organization was gifted a building on Arthur Street by M&T Bank four years ago and have grown from there. John is interested in the history of naval architecture, so he and others started doing historical research into what kind of boats originated in the Buffalo area. They then began to restore old boats that were donated to them, while working on building historic models. To date, the team has built historic models that are currently at Canalside, including a Scajaquada boat and three harbor ferries. All of the boats on Hoyt Lake that you can rent during the summer time were built by the Maritime Center.

Anyone can join the Buffalo Maritime Center for 50 dollars a year, even if you don’t know anything about boats. Interested parties will be placed with a mentor that will show newcomers the ropes of boat building.

The Buffalo Maritime Center has continued to work with schools and has been working closely with Maritime Charter School for four years. The students learn the STEAM parts of the school curriculum through boat building with volunteers that are very experienced in the field. The Buffalo Maritime Center is working with the Carpenters Union, which has been making scholarships available for the students. Their work with the maritime center gets them ready for apprenticeships and gives the students an opportunity to be hired right out of high school. Public schools are also interested in programs like this, and the center is currently in discussion with Riverside High School to start a joint program.

Now if workers need a part for a boat or something else, they have a 3D printer that can make the mold and they can pour it themselves.

Buffalo Maritime has become an umbrella organization for many different types of groups that are interested in similar project models. The biggest commonality that organizers share is the special skills that they genuinely want to teach others. While a majority of the space is devoted to boat building, Buffalo Maritime Center also has a bronze foundry, where interested parties can work on projects involving bronze works. This is really special because usually bronze parts are very expensive and have to be ordered online. Now if workers need a part for a boat or something else, they have a 3D printer that can make the mold and they can pour it themselves. The Buffalo art community is also really excited about this because artists will be able to rent out the space and use it to make bronze pieces for their art works. Another room is being used by the Western New York Machinist Club, where members are fixing and restoring different donated machines.

The space that the Buffalo Maritime Center has is perfect for teaching and learning – there are so many different trade skills to be taught, and kids willing to learn once they are exposed to the opportunity. A sail maker is also going to be joining in with the Buffalo Maritime Center – he wants to teach sail making on the second floor of the building and train people to help him with his business.

There are some pretty important things on the horizon for the Buffalo Maritime Center. Workers are currently doing renovations which will provide space for the group to start a lecture series. Members are also going to start a company called Wooden Boat Supply Company where they can sell some of the things they make online for a profit which can then be used to bolster their non profit. There will also be a retail store in their building which will sell t-shirts, mugs, and other things to benefit Buffalo Maritime.

Maritime historians also want to operate the library as a gallery for maritime paintings.

On the second floor there is a research library with historical books about boats, and the center has just received a grant to build shelves for the books – two librarians who have volunteered to archive everything. Maritime historians also want to operate the library as a gallery for maritime paintings. Buffalo Maritime Center is working on an apartment on a second floor that would house artists for a few weeks at a time who would come to do workshops. One of the most exciting projects currently underway at the Buffalo Maritime Center is the project they are doing for the City of Lockport. A group of over 30 people are building a 51 foot long Durham boat, which was used to carry lumber on the Erie Canal – The Erie Traveler. The boat is going to be featured in the festivities of the Bicentennial of the Erie Canal on the 4th of July. In addition, boat building enthusiasts are assembling a Seneca Chief boat for the harbor, which is supposed to be even bigger than the Durham boat.

The Seneca Chief was the first boat that made the Erie canal trip on October 26, 1825. It traveled at a speed of four miles per hour.

The Buffalo Maritime Center is an amazing place for people with unique skill sets to come together and teach others. The organization is focused on providing the community with unique public facilities, so that people can try out new things and potentially discover that they have hidden talents. It also gives kids who might not be thriving in a classroom environment the opportunity to learn the same material in a way that might be better suited for them. John said it best when he mentioned that the Buffalo Maritime Center is “not a private group, but a community group.” Keep up the good work on all fronts!

Buffalo Maritime Center | 90 Arthur Street | Buffalo, NY 14207 | (716) 881-0111 | Facebook

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