As a kid, when my family visited the Corning Museum of Glass I’d be endlessly fascinated by the glassblowing exhibit. Since it’s been a long time since I was a kid and since I visited the museum, I was delighted this weekend that the museum came to me — by barge. The Glass Barge is the coolest thing I’ve seen on the waterfront this year, and a perfect fit with all the other summertime activity at Canalside. You can watch the glass-blowing demonstrations from the shore, but your best bet is to get a free ticket that gets you a seat in the barge’s stadium seating.
In Corning, they know glass like Buffalo knows wings. During the demonstration, if you aren’t mesmerized watching the work of the glass blower, you’ll be fascinated by the narration. Did you know that glass is water-soluble? The narrator tells you what they do to glass so that it doesn’t melt when you wash it. Did you know the melting point of sand, the raw material for glass, is 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit — or twice the temperature of a glass-blowing oven? The narrator tells you what they add to the sand to lower its melting point from unimaginably hot to just insanely hot. And lots more.
The narrator also leaks the secret (shhh!) that one of the best tools for shaping the molten glass is a folded, soaked section of the Buffalo News — perhaps the best use for The Paper next to wrapping fish.
Given that the Corning Museum of Glass just added a new wing in 2015, that has put that small city on the list to visit or revisit, why did they put their show on the road — er, the water — this summer? There’s some history behind that: 150 years worth, to be exact. In 1868 the Brooklyn Flint Glass Works decided to move, lock, stock, and barrel to Corning, seeking a better business climate and — literally — greener pastures. To move an entire manufactory by rail would have cost a fortune, so they moved everything by water. New York had just the infrastructure for that, with the Erie Canal and branch (or “lateral”) canals connecting to Southern Tier waterways, including Corning’s Chemung River.
This celebration of the history of Corning Glass Works, then, is also a celebration of New York’s inland waterways. A beautifully written and illustrated free booklet given to visitors that documents these dual histories is one of the best such productions I’ve ever seen — a keepsake that’s worth the visit in and of itself. As someone whose very first heritage preservation project involved establishing a heritage corridor along one of New York’s lateral canals I found myself deeply impressed with every aspect of this effort.
Since it’s been a century and a half since Corning Glass Works, which founded the museum in 1951, took a water ride across New York, they wisely looked for waterway-savvy partners to help with this summer’s trek. They wisely chose the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum of Vermont and the South Street Seaport Museum of New York City. The maritime museum sent the Lois McClure, a canal schooner recreated from documentation of an underwater wreck, and the seaport museum sent the wooden tugboat W.O. Decker to accompany the barge. The McClure has visited Buffalo before, and the tug’s crew are no strangers to Our Fair City, either.
In fact, skippering the tug for the trek across New York is none other than Captain Ann Loeding, who is also overseeing the stabilization and restoration work on the S.S. Columbia, currently docked at Silo City while awaiting transport to the Hudson River. I wrote about Captain Ann and the status of the Columbia project in the July issue of Buffalo Spree. Joining Captain Ann on the trek is another member of the Columbia team. In my Spree article I wrote about how the Columbia team has fallen in love with Buffalo, and especially the Old First Ward. And indeed, when I encountered the other team member today he was just back from picking up an order of their favorite wings from Master Market on Louisiana Street.
As for the Lois McClure, she and her crew aren’t just along for the ride. Below decks the crew has a display of canal-era glass-making equipment on loan from the museum. I was astonished to find that the equipment included wooden molds. The well-informed crew explained how the wood could survive contact with molten glass thousands of degrees hot.
One of the side-benefits of having folks from top-notch maritime heritage museums like Lake Champlain and the South Street Seaport in town is that they have a great deal to teach us about success in maritime heritage that has long eluded Buffalo’s grasp, as I discussed in that same July Buffalo Spree article. Buffalo has both canal history and great lakes history; unique among American cities, we were a principal port on both inland waterways. We were the place where east met west. Yet other cities with far less heritage have thriving maritime museums with actual vessels on the water, and even lake freighters available to tour. Why are we so far behind?
On board the Lois McClure today, I had this conversation with her captain, who agreed with me about Buffalo’s unrealized potential in this regard. “If you don’t have history, it’s hard to invent,” he told me. “And Buffalo has all the history, stories, traditions, and tales it needs to benevolently exploit its maritime history.” Isn’t that a great way to put it? When folks like this are in town, we should be picking their brains and tapping their expertise.
These good folks from out of town are no strangers to Buffalo. They love our city and our waterfront and our heritage. This weekend, they have brought a very polished, excellently produced attraction to that magic spot where the land meets the water, where the canals met the lakes, and where east met west. You owe it to yourself to plan a stop to that magic spot this weekend.