The Erie Canal is one of the most famous man-made bodies of water in the world. Designed, financed, built, operated, and maintained by the people of New York, the canal was one of the largest public works projects ever attempted anywhere in the world when the first shovel of earth was turned near Rome, New York, on July 4, 1817. Men with talent and vision (but little training in engineering) charted the 363-mile course of the canal between Albany and Buffalo. They designed stone aqueducts to carry boats across rivers and locks to lift them over New York’s varied terrain. Thousands of laborers dug the ditch itself and built massive reservoirs to ensure the canal was constantly supplied with water. When it was completed in 1825, the Erie Canal connected the port of New York City on the Atlantic Ocean with the Great Lakes, dramatically transforming trade, industry, and communication in the region and across the country.

The Erie Canal was so successful that it was enlarged three times to accommodate more traffic and increasingly larger vessels. Great cities and commerce grew along the Erie Canal. Diverse people traveled east and west across its length, some spreading powerful ideas for social change. In the mid-twentieth century, canal traffic began to decline, and the famous waterway momentarily faded from public use, only to reemerge today as a vehicle for heritage tourism, recreation, and education.

Flyer, speaking engagement of Albion Winegar Tourgée on the subject of "The Race Problem," at Union Park Congregational Church on April 11, 1893.

Albion Winegar Tourgee’s fortitude and irrepressible spirit of determination to help construct a new social and political order after the American Civil War based on absolute equality were hallmarks of his character, acknowledged by both supporters and detractors throughout his lifetime. The bestselling novel to which Eaton refers, A Fool’s Errand, gave Tourgee a meteoric, though brief rise to fame that he was never able to completely regain in his lifetime. However, the notoriety of the book as well as other subsequent literary works by Tourgee did indeed act like a lightning rod for political and social dialogue on race (and to a lesser extent gender) equality in the last half of the 19th century; creating a path of convergence for American citizens who wished to express their views on the issue that impacted all people across the country after the war. Whether it was political action, social organization, literary expression, educational reform, or just plain talk, the correspondence Tourgee received in his lifetime – over 12,000 items make up the collection – reveal a national mood of tension, anger, anxiety and resistance, from which would ultimately erupt into the major upheaval known as the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

“We are ready to Work beside you/ Fight beside you and/ Die beside you – Let Us Vote Beside You/ Vote for Woman Suffrage November 6th,” 1917. Courtesy of the New York State Library.

This exhibit charts the development and evolution of the Women's Suffrage movement in New York State. Early suffragists drew inspiration from native cultures and learned activism from other movements. As their movement coalesced,  activists began practicing civil disobedience. Suffragists trumpeted their cause through a variety of media. Along the way, they faced divisive issues of race and strident opposition from male and female anti-suffragists. World War I demonstrated the importance of women's contributions outside of the domestic sphere. Women in New York State won the right to vote through a November 6, 1917 referendum.