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NSG Visit March 25, 2000

Sainte Marie among the Iroquois

and the Erie Canal Weighlock Building


Donovan A. Shilling

A little before 11 on the morning of March 25, 2000, eight autos pulled into the parking lot by the Onondaga County Parks' living-history museum, Sainte Marie Among the Iroquois" Fourteen members of the New Society of the Genesee had come for the unique opportunity this museum affords to take an amazing adventure into the 17th-century by viewing indoor informational exhibits and roaming among the buildings and workplaces that have been constructed to represent life here in 1657 on this site of a Jesuit Mission and trading outpost along the shore of Lake Onondaga.

Although the facility, located on Route 370 just southeast of Liverpool, New York, was closed for renovations, the Society had the exceptional good fortune of arriving at the museum just as Christopher Lenze, its site superintendent, program coordinator, carpenter/joiner, and historical interpreter also arrived. Taking time from his Saturday schedule, this gregarious, well-informed, ex-marine offered to usher our group through the museum.

Chris explained that on July 11th, 1656, a group of 53 Jesuit Fathers, soldiers and traders who had come up the Oswego River from Lake Ontario arrived here on Lake Onondaga. They named the fortified mission they established "Sainte Marie." Local Onondagas made peace with the newcomers for a time. The natives called themselves "Haudenosaunee" meaning "people of the long house." Among the things we learned from Chris, was that the Haudenosaunee, resented being called "Iroquois" by the French who adopted and gave a French spelling to the derogatory name, "bristle-haired boar," given the Haudenosaunee by their enemies, the Hurons. The native game, lacrosse, was also named by the early French explorers who thought the playing racquet looked like "the holy cross." Twenty months after their arrival, when the French became fearful of their Iroquois neighbors, they abandoned the outpost overnight.

Chris led Society members into the modern and impressive two-story visitor center. Here exhibits focused on the Onondaga environment with representations of the wild animals once abundant in the region, and on the daily life of the Iroquois, and the French, while they lived here. The museum is an interpretation of living at the time in the very place where "two worlds met."

Beyond the visitor center is the area of the "living museum" that represents the appearance of the settlement in 1657. Here, a refectory, a dormitory, and chapel have been built using native materials. The buildings together with a garden plot and animal pens, are all surrounded by a palisade. Chris told us that a 1930s reconstruction of the outpost was built with W. P .A. support but had not been carefully researched: the structures were built following the Swedish/Dutch horizontal-log fashion, not the French/Norman vertical-log style. Built again in 1991, the steep-roofed buildings look very French.

Visitors to "Sainte Marie Among the Iroquois" from April 3 through June 16 on Mondays - Fridays, pay $1.75, half price. From June 24 through September 4, on Wednesdays - Sundays, admission is $3.50, seniors $3.00. The museum is staffed by thirty costumed re-enactors: cooks, soldiers, and traders who demonstrate cooking, shelter and boat construction in a native fishing village, and even blacksmithing in a trading outpost. We gratefully thanked Chris for his highly illuminating explanations.

Next our group stopped at Weber's German Restaurant for a Bavarian-style lunch. After eating, we were guided to the Erie Canal Weighlock Museum at 318 Erie Boulevard in downtown Syracuse by a well-detailed map provided by Society member Gerry Muhl. When all of us had gathered again we entered the museum's modern addition adjoining the Weighlock Building and went into a small theater for a talk about the building of the Erie Canal and then watched a multi-slide presentation on the history of Syracuse and the canals.

The weighlock together with its building was built alongside the Erie Canal at the place the Oswego Canal joined. It is the last remaining of three similar structures at canal junctions. The purpose of the special canal-side lock was to weigh each canal boat with its cargo to calculate a tonnage-based toll.

The interior of the Weighlock Building is kept much as it was when barges were being weighed and tolls taken. There is the office of the weighmaster looking out on the canal, and doors opening to a walkway alongside the lock. The weighlock was under an upper story of the building that carried the weighing mechanism which suspended a cradle large enough and strong enough to carry a canal boat when the water in the lock was drained away. A system of levers transferred a portion of the whole weight of the boat with its cargo to a balance beam where the total weight could be determined by sliding a counter weight along a calibrated lever. The mechanism is not in view now nor is there water in the weighlock, but resting in position for weighing is a replica of a canal packet boat complete with cargo stowed on its roof.

Just walking through the boat, brings a feeling of what life on board was like for travelers and the people who lived on the boats as they were pulled by horse teams slowly plodding along the towpath that bordered the Erie Canal for 363 miles across the Empire State.

© 2000, Donovan A. Shilling
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