Locate Finger Lakes Business Journal

Brian Stratton: Embracing the Past, Present, and Future

Editors Note: “The Finger Lakes region is blessed with many beautiful, scenic and iconic waterways that play an essential role in our way of life. This year we celebrate the 198th birthday of the Erie Canal, which opens on May 19th (weather permitting) and we at LOCATE Finger Lakes are pleased to publish this profile of the New York State Canal Corporation’s outstanding Director, Brian Stratton.”
– Mike Nozzolio, Board Chair, LOCATE Finger Lakes.

Marking the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment with dedication of “Ripples of Change” memorial statue, Seneca Falls, NY, September 13, 2021. L to R: Joell Murney-Karsten, Chair, Seneca Falls Development Corporation (now Canal Corporation Manager of Government and Community Relations); Former New York State Senator and LOCATE Finger Lakes Board Chairman Michael F. Nozzolio; Generations Bank President and CFO Menzo Case; and NYS Canal Corporation Director Brian U. Stratton.

The Erie Canal. There’s probably no place in New York State that better embodies the past, present, and future than this great waterway. And the head steward of this unique asset is New York State Canal Corporation Director Brian Stratton.

He and his dedicated team plan and execute all matters relating to New York’s Canal System that totals 524 navigation miles, includes 57 locks and 17 lift bridges along the Erie, Cayuga-Seneca, Oswego, and Champlain Canals. The waterway links the Hudson River with the Great Lakes, Finger Lakes and Lake Champlain and connects hundreds of historic communities across upstate New York. The Finger Lakes region alone has more than150 miles of waterways in the canal system.

“You can travel by boat from the heart of the Finger Lakes to virtually every other port in the world,” Stratton says. Upon its completion in 1825, the Erie Canal became the central and essential economic driver of business and commerce in New York State, and a major factor in New York earning its reputation as the Empire State.

“Our canal system is a central economic engine not only for the Finger Lakes, but all of upstate New York. Its economic impact is substantial, bringing in over $400 million in annual revenue and 3,200 jobs, as well as going through 21 counties and seven of the state’s 10 economic development regions,” adds Stratton.

“We are highly focused on keeping the canal system a potent driver of economic activity. For many generations, the canal was here to transport cargo and people. In the last 40 years, it has become more of a recreational asset bringing people to the waterway in a different way. We’re trying to capitalize on that and grow it as a source of local economic development for the more than 200 small towns and communities along the canal’s path.”


At the 1849 Richmond Aqueduct crossing the Seneca River, Montezuma

Additionally, the Erie Canal is a national historic treasure. One aspect of Director Stratton’s job is working on the 200th anniversary celebration of its opening, which will be held in 2025. “I think 200 years is a highly significant milestone,” Stratton says. “The Erie Canal was the starting point and essential link to Westward migration. If you travel the canal today, you’re often going along many of the same sections first traveled by those original pioneers beginning in 1825.”

Director Stratton stresses that unlike other historic travel routes for migration west, such as the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails, the Erie Canal has never stopped operating. “It has essentially been in continuous use since it opened nearly 200 years ago. It’s wonderful to know that this historic, made-in-New York waterway is still here today. It’s really a living monument.”

Brian Stratton’s Dream Job

Brian’s love of all-things-canal began with his late father, Samuel S. Stratton, a beloved political figure in upstate New York. Sam Stratton had a 30-year career as a member of the United States House of Representatives, and his early Congressional district in the 1960’s included a large portion of the Finger Lakes region. “Even today, people still mention my father’s name, and it’s always wonderful to know that folks still remember him”.

Canal Director Brian Stratton with Nautical Archeologist and Research Team Leader Art Cohn

Canal Director Brian Stratton with Nautical Archeologist & Research Team Leader Art Cohn aboard the R.V. David Folger

The youngest of five children, Brian Stratton and his family moved to the Washington, D.C.area from Schenectady in 1963 as his father began his Congressional career. There in DC’s Maryland suburbs, they lived close to the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, which for nearly 100 years was a lifeline for communities along the Potomac River. Since the 1960’s, much of the old Canal has been under the care and operation of the National Park Service. Brian and his friends often engaged in a variety of recreational activities on the C&O Canal, and it was one of his favorite places to visit.

As a youngster, Brian often joined his father on trips to his early Congressional district visiting places like Geneva, Seneca Falls, Auburn, and Penn Yan. “Coming into this job really brought all that back. You know, I can still remember, as a youngster, where we were, what we did, and which motel we stayed at during those trips. It was a very special time, and I feel blessed by the fact that most of my father’s old district is in the heartland of the Canal System today.”

A graduate of SUNY Oswego, Director Stratton, who now lives in Albany, followed his father’s legacy with more than 20 years in elected public service before being appointed to the NYS Canal Corporation in 2011. Serving nearly eight years as mayor of Schenectady, Brian Stratton helped stabilize the city’s economy, served as Co-Chair of the United States Conference of Mayors Water Council, and received numerous awards including the National Association of Government Accountants (AGA) Distinguished Local Government Leadership Award.

Pulling Stakeholders Together

One of Brian’s strengths is bringing stakeholders together for common goals, an ability essential in his current position. “My job is rewarding because we get to work closely with so many stakeholders, including local and state officials, mayors, town supervisors, businesses, non-profits, and community groups.”

Some of that public collaboration takes place through the On the Canals, program which offers free excursions across the canal corridor. Created during the pandemic to provide canal ‘staycations,’ the popular program includes birding, biking, kayaking, fishing, snowshoeing, and other outdoor activities.

With Buffalo Maritime Center President Emeritus John, Montague (L) and Executive Director Brian Trzeciak at Canalside, Buffalo

“With eighty-five percent of upstate New Yorkers living within 25 miles of our canals, On the Canals is an effective way to encourage more people to visit the canal both locally and regionally. You don’t have to be a tugboat captain or own your own power boat to utilize the canal. You can go out on an afternoon and have a safe and fun adventure virtually in your own backyard.”

On the Canals also promotes local economic development, particularly for small businesses who can submit a proposal for consideration for future excursion opportunities. “Our local partners have great things to say about how this program has impacted business in such positive ways.”

For instance, companies like family-owned Stivers Seneca Marine in Waterloo joined the program to provide historic paddle boat tours. Rochester-area’s Erie Canal Boat Company partnered with non-profit Rochester Accessible Adventures to offer adaptive equipment for numerous water and trail outings.

Looking to the future of the waterways, the Reimagine the Canals Initiative was launched in January 2020. The New York Power Authority (NYPA) committed $300 million to revitalize the Erie Canal corridor as a tourism and recreation destination, while boosting economic development and improving the resiliency of canal side communities. The New York State Canal Corporation is a subsidiary of NYPA.

Projects supported by the Reimagine the Canals initiative include:

  • Constructing a new pedestrian bridge connecting SUNY Brockport to the Empire State Trail;
  • Developing a pocket neighborhood along the old Erie Canal in Canastota;
  • Installing LED lighting to highlight historic infrastructure including the Fairport Lift Bridge, Oneida Lake lighthouses, and Erie Canal lock 17 in Little Falls;
  • Fall fishing program where water is released from the Erie Canal into Lake Ontario tributaries in Western NY each fall to extend and enhance angling;
  • Piloting an ice jam mitigation program to help reduce the impact of seasonal flooding along the Mohawk River;

Looking to the Past and Future

When Director Stratton talks about the past, it is with a keen eye on the future. And a big part of the future is the Erie Canal Bicentennial in 2025, which will spotlight the canal system across the globe.

“Planning this celebration entails a good deal of work by many, but it’s also quite enjoyable. We’re talking about a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really showcase something that changed the face of our nation and continues to be a vibrant and vital part of our region, state, and country.”

The canal’s importance is why the World Canal Conference chose Buffalo to host its annual event in 2025. Hundreds of canal enthusiasts, professionals, and scholars from around the world will convene in the Queen City to share best practices about protecting and revitalizing canal systems. Both Syracuse and Rochester have hosted the conference in past decades, which is a tribute to the Erie Canal and the work of the NYS Canal Corporation.

Director Stratton and his team are also getting ready for the bicentennial with projects like supporting the Buffalo Maritime Center’s construction of a full-scale replica of Governor DeWitt Clinton‘s packet boat, Seneca Chief. Governor Clinton is often referred to as the “Father of the Erie Canal,” and packet boats transported mail, passengers, and freight on canals and rivers during the 18th and 19th centuries. The replica is currently being constructed at the Buffalo Waterfront and will go on tour starting in 2024.

Full-scale replica of Governor DeWitt Clinton‘s packet boat

Progress on replica project of Gov. DeWitt Clinton’s 1825 packet boat Seneca Chief, Buffalo Maritime Center, Canalside

Packet boats also are front and center in another collaboration with the Seneca Lake Archaeological and Bathymetric Survey Project. Using state-of-the-art equipment, the talented team of researchers took never-before-seen images of shipwrecks in some of the deepest regions of Seneca Lake. More than 50 early 19th century canal boats have been discovered, including an original packet boat used by passengers on the Erie Canal 200 years ago.

As part of his desire to spread the word about the Erie Canal, Director Stratton connected Nautical Archeologist Art Cohn, the principal investigator for the survey, with artist, Len Tantillo, to create an image that early packet boat found at the bottom of the lake. Tantillo received a commission for the project from a couple who live out West and whose ancestors were immigrants from the Netherlands and who traveled along the Erie Canal in the mid 1840’s.

Martin's Journey West

Martin’s Journey West. Collection of Dean and Joan Hampton. Painting by L. F. Tantillo

“This was before the stone aqueduct crossing was built, and there was an elevated wooden towpath on which horses and mules walked to pull the boat across the river,” says Director Stratton as he tells the story of the painting. “In fact, individual pilings from that 1823 wooden walkway are still there today.

The painting and the story behind it reflect Brian’s passion and enthusiasm for future generations to share a piece of history while enjoying the canal system today. He is highly aware of the importance of places to anchor people in their lives, a value he attributes to his mother, Joan, who came over to the United States from Dublin in 1942, while shadowing German U-boats that threatened her family’s voyage to the United States. “She was a remarkable woman, and the rock of our family”.

When you look at their records of outstanding public service, Brian’s parents, Joan and long-serving Congressman Sam Stratton, who are buried together at Arlington National Cemetery, it’s clear that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. One might say Brian Stratton is also a rock, drawing on his experience and commitment to public service to preserve and reimagine the Erie Canal.

To learn more about the New York State Canal System, please review the following links:

New York State Canal Corporation.

Stivers Seneca Marine

Erie Canal Boat Company

Rochester Accessible Adventures

Buffalo Maritime Center

Seneca Lake Archaeological and Bathymetric Survey Project.

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