This year marks the beginning of the centennial celebration of America’s most grandest and influential man-made waterway, the Erie Canal first known as Clinton’s Ditch. To kick off honoring this extraordinary event that took only eight years to complete through 363 miles of wilderness, an epic drama is being brought to Central New York this summer just prior to 200th anniversary of the first shovel of dirt dug in Rome, NY, on July 4, 1817.
The play chronicles the creation of the canal from the moment it was conceived in the mind of the Canandaigua jailed debtor, Jessie Hawley, to being championed to its completion by DeWitt Clinton in 1825. It will depict the setbacks through the disruption by the War of 1812, to the crippling, back-breaking digging by thousands of Irish immigrants and some escaped slaves, and the immense struggle to complete the middle section of the Canal through the Montezuma swamps.
The playwrights are Anne Paris and Hugh Pratt from Buffalo, NY, with a strong interest in social justice. The husband and wife team spent five years writing the play together. Producing and directing the play is Joni Lincoln, a recently retired drama coach from Port Byron Central School who has over 30 years of work with local community theater artistry. Lincoln’s passionate ideas about the power of theater and her interest in Erie Canal history are closely tied with that of the Pratts’. Together they will bring to life the story of building the canal through the eyes of its advocates and opponents, of engineers and low-wage diggers, of Native Americans and Irish Immigrants, through those who lived and those who died, of adults and children. The play tells the story of the great hope that built the Erie Canal, and, at the same time, the production of the play itself represents how this kind of American spirit and ingenuity has the potential to revitalize the very towns and villages that once prospered from it.
It wasn’t just the workers who suffered. Clinton’s body, mind, and career were all affected, and his family was devastated by malaria as well. Immense pain preceded the prosperity the canal would yield on completion. The life of DeWitt Clinton was full of challenges – his bouts of depression following political defeats and ridicule were overcome with the help of family and close friends. It is for this reason that we are honored to have the non-profit partnership of the National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI) of Cayuga County. One of our goals is to reduce the stigma of mental illness while celebrating our local ties to the Grand Erie Canal.
The first showing will be on Monday and Tuesday, June 26 and 27 at Devaney’s Riverside Grill in Weedsport, NY. Devaney’s is located conveniently off NYS Thruway Exit 40 located on the waterfront of the Seneca River and Barge Canal. Admission will include dinner prior to the play starting at 7:30 PM. The Montezuma Historical Society is hosting the event on Thursday and Friday, June 29 and 30 beginning at 7:30 PM, located in the Town of Montezuma. The stage for this performance will be set in Giardina Park along the site where the middle section of the Canal was first completed and opened.