'Three Generations on the Canal' opens this Friday

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 06/03/10More articles
“Grandpa at the Wheelhouse,” early 1940s. John “Toot Toot” Graham, photo © Robert Graham, used with permission.

On Bob Graham’s first Erie Canal boat ride in 1958, from Fairport to Macedon, he wore a pair of red-framed sunglasses that had a silver cowboy six-shooter in each corner, and he says now what he most remembers is “the wind in my face.” There’s a photo documenting that four-year-old’s sunny day aboard a regular motor boat in his exhibition, “Three Generations on the Canal,” opening this Friday with a reception from 5:00-8:00 PM at the Canal Museum, 318 Erie Blvd. East, Syracuse. For entertainment, the reception features old canal songs performed by the Ilion-based band, Yesterday’s News. Bob Graham crossed paths with the band during his own Canal travels and arranged their Syracuse gig. The reception will also feature Genesee beer, a Graham family favorite, along with the more conventional reception fare of wine and cheese.

Earlier on Friday, according to the plan, Bob and his wife Leslie, along with his father, John “Red” Graham, Jr., and his mother Eve, will arrive by a boat rented from Mid-Lakes Navigation in Baldwinsville, having spent the week progressing at a stately pace from Rochester to Seneca Falls, Frontenac Island, Oswego, and Cleveland after a Memorial Day departure. They have a space reserved in the gallery for a photo of their arrival in Baldwinsville.

Their means of travel has roots in the very beginning of the country. The Erie Canal itself was first built in the years 1817-25 – four feet deep and 40 feet wide at the top, originally 363 miles between Albany and Buffalo, with 83 locks and more than 300 bridges. It lowered the cost of transporting good by 80-90 percent. It was enlarged in the years 1836-62 to accommodate some steam vessels, and enlarged again in the years 1905-18. But George Washington first proposed that navigation could be improved by dredging the Mohawk River, and in 1792 the first canal and lock system in the US was built to by-pass the rapids at Little Falls.

Graham’s grandfather, John Joseph Graham, Sr. (aka “Toot Toot”) was a tug-boat captain and later a pilot of large oil-transporting barges on the Canal for over 30 years beginning in the 1940s. He grew up on the north shore of Oneida Lake, and served in the US Navy during World War II; in 1947 he joined the longshoremen’s union and went to work for Ira S. Bushey and Sons in New York City. He brought his family back to Syracuse in 1950 and went to work on tugboats owned by the Coyne family. Toot Toot worked his way up from cook to captain, retiring in the mid-70s. The Graham family has remained connected to Syracuse through the years and one of Bob Graham’s sisters is a nun at Blessed Sacrament Convent is Eastwood.

Toot Toot’s son, John Graham, Jr. – known as “Red” – was born here in 1929. He pioneered recreational boating from Troy to Tonawanda long before there were any accommodations for tourists, beginning with a small cabin cruiser in 1959 named the Ro-Mar after his first two children, Robert and Mary Ann. Red served in the Navy too and had a long career with Eastman Kodak in Rochester.

Chatting by phone last Sunday, Red Graham recalled, “My plans were to go to St. Bonny’s [St. Bonaventure College in Oneonta] in 1946, but all the GI’s were coming home and they got first preference. I was asked to wait for a year. I was always interested in photography. I got a job as a messenger at Kodak and the lady I worked for had two brothers there – one of them was director of research and the other one had a spot for me in Color Control. My friend Don Delwiche and I would meet Dad for lunch at one of the locks. Then I went in the Navy and went to photo school in Pensacola. I got out just before the Korean War started in 1950. Later I saw a 22-foot cabin cruiser and we got that. Our first trip on the Ro-Mar was to Syracuse and my parents were waiting in B’ville. Bob would ride with my father sometimes on the barges – once he went with him for ten days on the Canal. He learned every card game there was and had some additions to his vocabulary that his mother wasn’t too pleased with.”

In fact, the presence of Kodak in the region may have spurred much of this picture-taking along the Canal. Red Graham worked for Kodak for forty-three years and was at one time coordinator between Kodak and NASA. Although he’d worked for a boat yard as a kid, he began his pleasure trips as an adult with a Kodak friend in a motorboat owned by a Kodak colleague.

“There was an employee store, of course,” said Red Graham. “Most of us took pictures. I always had a camera with me. I was on every continent except Antarctica with Kodak and spent a lot of time in Vietnam and the Middle East.”

So the exhibition that Bob Graham has put together documents an array of Canal experience across three generations – Canal vessels of all sorts, locks, camping trips at Moccasin Island and Frontenac Island and Cross Lake, wildlife and cows along the shore, stretches of wilderness marshes, men relaxing in bars, what is probably a squatter’s cabin on jerry-built pilings, a cook in a barge galley, and family excursions.

Toot Toot’s grandson Bob is a retired history teacher and he’ll talk about the show at the opening reception. Last Thursday afternoon I spent a couple hours in the second-floor gallery at the Erie Canal Museum with Graham and chief curator Dan Ward, getting a preview walk-through. Ward said the lighting wasn’t finalized yet and there were still a few of the photographs that hadn’t been hung yet, but mostly everything was in place. Bob Graham had been in town several days supervising the hanging and he’d intended to return home to Rochester that day, but decided to stay over one more night so Ward could take him over to ArtRage to see Marjory Wilkins’ exhibition on its last day there.

There are 130 photographs dating from the 1940s on that Graham has digitally restored, and two display cases of artifacts. One features a selection of his grandfather’s union paperwork – tugboat captains and barge pilots are in the United Marine Division of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. – and a photo of an enormous barge in the East River taken from the World Trade Center; the other, his grandfather’s Knights of Columbus memorabilia, including a sword just like my grandfather’s.

This fall, the exhibition moves to St. John Fisher College in Rochester, where it’ll be across the street from the World Canals Conference that Rochester is hosting September 19-24. ("That," Dan Ward confided, "really is a big deal!") Ward and Bob Graham are also talking about other places that the exhibition might tour.

Graham considers himself an amateur photographer, but he’s had two previous photo exhibitions – one after 9/11 and another the result of a project working with middle school students – plus there’s no doubt that growing up around Kodak-employed adults raised the bar for him. The photographs are both black-and-white and colored, some with the photographer identified but many not.

In mid-May, Dan Ward had told me, “Bob contacted me before he began digitizing the family’s photographs and I was interested in the possibility of having an exhibition that would follow some narrative of the different uses of the Barge Canal over the latter part of the twentieth century. As we talked I realized that Bob recognized the same kinds of things that I had observed over the course of my life experience along the Canal. So I invited the Grahams to the Erie Canal Museum and continued our conversation. The oral history part is a theme that we have been developing at the Canal Museum since I started here last July.”

Jens Lund, the folklorist from Washington State, has been working on a series of interviews here this summer for several projects the Museum is co-producing. He and Ward interviewed and videotaped the Grahams twice – including one five-hour session with thirteen Grahams and Canal friends - for a documentary entitled “Heartland Passage,” about boom and bust cycles on the Canal over the years.

Last Thursday, Bob Graham recalled that his grandfather had plied the Canal mid-century when it was largely a commercial thoroughfare for moving petroleum.

“It was a mess then! Besides pollution from oil spills, the Canal had raw pollution piped into it – it was really an open sewer,” said Graham. “I don’t recall it as being that bad, but the smell was something. The cities along the Canal didn’t face it – there were certainly no accommodations for recreation, no such thing as marinas, when my father bought that first little cabin cruiser. There were metal ladders that the barge crews used, but they ran straight up the sides of the locks. My father had to take a gas can into town on foot and haul it back full to re-fuel.”

Dan Ward said, “It was filthy, yes, but kids swam in it in some places. I lived on a boat as a kid for a couple years on the Canal. At some point, someone said this thing is dead commercially and they started building pipelines parallel to the Canal for the oil and sewer plants. What’s always the fall-back? Tourists! The water got cleaner, people had a little more money and they wanted to travel. Towns started having festivals and facing the Canal, there’d be a restaurant that would appear, then a marina. But the story of the transition has never really been told. The Canal brought massive wealth to upstate and made New York City the most important city in the world.”

Ward hopes that transition will get a telling in “Heartland Passage,” the documentary the Museum is now making with Steve Zeitlin and City Lore, a New York City-based non-profit. In fact, the film project began in 2005 with a meeting Ward called at the Canal Museum – this was before he left the Cultural Resources Council – and Ward says it’s about a third done now.

“We’re working with Oscar-winning filmmaker Paul Wagner,” said Ward. “He is quite a guy. He smuggled a camera crew into Tibet, for example. The film is now more focused than it was originally and it’s slated for PBS. Last Saturday we had thirteen people – Bob’s dad, who is 81, and his sisters, and Don Delwiche – he was a Kodak colleague of Red Graham and there are maybe fifteen of his photos in this show too. This is unusual – usually we film people on location at the spot they’re talking about but we had a chance to have these people all together. So we were looking for things that we’ll re-film on-site. The Museum is making a series of oral history modules this year too that some of the material can be used for. And actually, in 1989 Bob’s grandfather was interviewed by the Museum.”

Toot Toot Graham, says his grandson, tired of the boats sometimes. “He owned a bar up in Cleveland for a while,” he recalled. “He managed the golf clubhouse at Green Lakes Park in the mid-60s. He worked at the county jail in Jamesville and one time he had a little appliance store over on Butternut Street. He only had an eighth grade education and he always went back to the boats.”

And so, it seems, have the rest of his family.

A shorter version of this story appears in the June 3, 2010 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly on the front page, which features the photo of Bob Graham’s first Canal trip, clad in his red sunglasses. “Three Generations on the Canal” is on view through Saturday, July 3, at the Erie Canal Museum, 318 Erie Blvd. East, Syracuse 13202. More info at 315.471.0593 or eriecanalmuseum.org. The exhibition moves on to St. John Fisher College in Rochester where it will be on view this fall during the World Canals Conference, September 19-24. Nancy covers the arts. Reach her at nancykeeferhodes@gmail.com.

TAGS: New york State Barge Canal, Erie Canal, Erie Canal Museum Syracuse, Robert Graham, tugboats, Dan Ward, Heartland Passage film, oral history, City Lore
EDITION: The Eagle

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