The Tonawandas: Western Gateway to the Erie Canal
The twin cities of Tonawanda and North Tonawanda are referred to as the Western Gateway to the Erie Canal. Despite the fact that these two cities are located in two separate counties, North Tonawanda in NiagaraCounty and Tonawanda in ErieCounty, they are joined by a common focal point, the historic Erie Canal. From Rochester you have two options to travel here, by car or, if you have the time and ambition, by boat.
While today the canal serves as a recreational waterway, back when was constructed in 1825, it was primarily used to ship goods and these two communities developed rapidly after the canal opened. The Tonawandas are also referred to as the “Lumber City,” because back in the 1890’s, lumber shipped from the western US and Canada passed through here as it was being shipped to the east coast via the canal.
One of your first stops, whether you arrive by car or boat, should be the GatewayHarborPark, a two-block park bordering both sides of the canal. It is one of the seven major harbors along the New York State Canal System, with docking facilities available for boaters. One of the highlights of the summer is the free concerts that take place in the park on Wednesday and Friday evenings. There are also concerts on Thursday evenings at nearby VeteransPark.
This park is also the site of the annual Canal Fest of the Tonawanda’s, which takes place this year July 18-25. This eight-day festival, which encompasses a 2 square mile area, is the largest of its kind along the Erie Canal. The festival, which first began in 1983, includes parades, midway rides, tours of historical sites, musical entertainment, food and more.
Another must see site is the North TonawandaHistoryMuseum, which is located just down the street from the canal in a 41,000 square foot building which once housed a variety store. This museum, which is a work in progress, has exhibits that focus on the history, vulture, and industry of North Tonawanda. They offer a number of monthly programs and special events.
Across the street from the museum, the Riviera Theater offers concerts, plays, movies, and more in a circa 1926 venue that features stained glass windows in the foyer and a 15 foot chandelier in the main auditorium. Monthly concerts are featured on the theater’s original 1926 Wurlitzer organ, which was manufactured in North Tonawanda.
A few blocks away, the HerschellCarrouselFactoryMuseum has a collection of carousel animals and exhibits on the early carousel industry. The factory was founded in 1915 and over 2,000 hand-carved carousels were created on this site in the early 20th century. Visitors can even ride on an antique 1916 carousel, located inside the museum. One of the current exhibits, “Herschell Spillman Motor Company-The Pick of the Field,” displays a little known aspect of the factory’s past, they were also involved in the early stages of automotive technology.
On the Tonawanda side of the canal, visit the Long Homestead, a museum that is operated by the Historical Society of the Tonawandas. This 1829 house, constructed of hand-hewn timber and decorated in period furnishings, was the home of Benjamin and Mary Long. Mr. Long was one of the organizers of the Town of Tonawanda.
There are also a number of places to eat and shop located within a few blocks of the canal. Of note is Hodgepodge, which features a variety of items, including Tonawanda and North Tonawanda merchandise, artwork, gifts, and cards. Located within Hodgepodge is the Palette Café, which serves soups, sandwiches, baked goods, and even afternoon tea in a newly open tearoom in the back of the store.
Chamber of Commerce of the Tonawandas, 716-692-5120, www.the-tonawandas.com, 15 Webster Street, North Tonawanda.
Canal fest of the Tonawandas, 716-692-3292, www.canalfest.org.
North TonawandaHistoryMuseum, 716-213-0554, www.nthistorymuseum.org, Webster Street, North Tonawanda
Riviera Theater, 716-692-2413, www.rivieratheatre.org, 67 Webster Street, North Tonawanda
Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum, 716- 693-1885, www.carrouselmuseum.org, 180 Thompson Street, North Tonawanda
Long Homestead, 716-694-7406, www.tonawandashistory.org24 East Niagara Street, Tonawanda
Hodgepodge, 716-694-4715, 72 Webster Street, North Tonawanda.
Take the NYS Thruway west to exit 50. Get on the I-290 west (towards Niagara Falls) get off at exit 1B Delaware Avenue North