Traveling back in time on the Erie Canal

By: Maria Allard | C&G Newspapers | Published April 5, 2018

 Musician, songwriter and storyteller Michael Deren gets into character March 21 while displaying artifacts related to the Erie Canal at Macomb Community College’s Lorenzo Cultural Center in Clinton Township.

Musician, songwriter and storyteller Michael Deren gets into character March 21 while displaying artifacts related to the Erie Canal at Macomb Community College’s Lorenzo Cultural Center in Clinton Township.

Photo by Maria Allard

MACOMB COUNTY —  The Erie Canal — the waterway that begins at the Hudson River in New York and drains into Lake Erie — is 363 miles long.

The canal was created as a passable water route from New York City and the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes, and was the topic of conversation March 21 at the Lorenzo Cultural Center, located on Macomb Community College’s Center Campus, 44575 Garfield Road in Clinton Township.

Historical storyteller, musician and re-enactor Michael Deren gave two presentations about the Erie Canal in a show that included music, fun and a number of facts from his “The Past in Person” repertoire. 

Deren transformed himself into a canal boat captain of 1840 and took his audience on a journey back in time to when construction began on the Erie Canal. Deren had everyone imagine themselves on a watercraft making a trip from New England to the Michigan wilderness via the well-known canal. 

“A canal is a waterway that has been made by people,” said Deren, a former teacher. “It’s not a river. It’s not a stream. A canal has to be totally flat.”

The group left Albany, New York, en route to Detroit, which Deren said was the state capital at the time. He even had everyone stand up and walk in place to mimic a boat on the canal.

The former educator used many volunteers from the audience to act out various parts to help tell the story of the watercourse. When Deren called out “low bridge,” everyone had to bend down in their seats like on a real boat. 

As the story unfolded, Deren played several instruments, including a concertina, which is played by stretching and squeezing between the hands to work a central bellows that blows air over reeds, with each note being sounded by a button. 

He reminded everyone that mules pulled the boats across the canal. It would take about 89 days to travel the entire length of the canal from the beginning to the end. 

“We go the amazing speed of 4 hours per mile,” Deren said.

And imagine riding from New York to Michigan for that length of time with no phones, televisions, video games, computers or internet. Those musical instruments came in handy.

“We have no other entertainment on the boat other than ourselves,” Deren said. “What you have is me.” 

While connecting with the audience, Deren mentioned that there were 2,900 people living in Macomb County in 1830. Fast-forward 10 years to 1840, and approximately 9,200 people had settled in the county. 

“By 1850, one-third of people in Michigan had been born in New York state,” he said, adding that many of Michigan’s towns were named after cities in New York, including Rochester, Troy and Utica. 

Toward the program’s end, Deren sang the catchy “Erie Canal Song,” by Thomas S. Allen. 

Deren’s presentation was one of many events offered through the center’s “Making Macomb: A Journey Through 200 Years,” which began Feb. 28 and continues until May 5. The exhibit — filled with artifacts, displays, guest speakers and performances — takes a look at the history of Macomb County. Highlights includes a scaled replica of the Gratiot Drive-In, locally built vehicles in the 1950s and personal belongings of the county’s namesake, Alexander Macomb.

Lois Jackman, MCC’s manager of cultural programming, exhibits and grants, said the exhibit has “been going great.”

“The presentations are picking up,” Jackman said. “Everybody who comes in has a story about the Gratiot Drive-In. The kids presentations are really popular with the schools, and we do scavenger hunts.” 

For more information on Michael Deren, visit www.pastinper son.com.

Events at the Lorenzo Cultural Center are free. For more information and to view a complete list of activities, visit www.lorenzoculturalcenter.com or call (586) 445-7348.