History of the Seneca Museum for Waterways and Industry

Nelson and Edith Delavan , with funding from the Delavan Foundation, purchased a storefront on Fall Street in Seneca Falls, and refurbished it to establish the Seneca Museum of Waterways and Industry in 1998. This 9,000-square-foot, three-story museum borders the Cayuga-Seneca Canal, which was built to connect Cayuga and Seneca Lakes. The Seneca-Cayuga Canal opened in 1818, the Erie Canal opened in 1825, and once the Erie Canal was connected with the Cayuga-Seneca Canal in 1827, Seneca Falls grew to become a hub of industrial activity with access to the rest of the commercial world. The Cayuga-Seneca Canal changed the lives of the people; from the food they ate to the clothes they wore; to the ideas they embraced and their dreams of the future. Seneca Falls was the center of three major transportation and communication routes at a crucial time in the 19th Century. With the new affluence generated by this activity and increased population, everybody and everything went through Seneca Falls – even ideas. Seneca Falls was now connected by canal, rail and the Great Genesee Road to several upstate cities and became the central hotbed of a number of reform movements, including but not limited to those advocating temperance, abolition of slavery, and of course women’s rights.

In 2007, the Seneca Knit Development Corporation, a local not-for-profit group, purchased the building in which the Museum is housed, with no change in the exhibit focus.  The Museum leased the building from Seneca Knit for $1 annually. In 2008, the Town of Seneca Falls purchased the Museum building from Seneca Knit, and has renovated ¾ of the canal-level floor as a Boater’s facility.  The Museum currently pays $1 annually in a similar lease agreement with the Town, who has assumed infrastructure maintenance.

The Museum exists in a village rich in history, and rich in related institutions with a differing but complementary emphasis.  Early activism concerning women’s issues culminated in the Seneca Falls 1848 Convention where the now famous “Declaration of Sentiments” was signed and the beginning of a national Women’s Rights movement was launched.  Two local institutions focus on these events, namely the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Women’s Rights National Historical Park.  The Seneca Falls Historical Society purchased its present location in 1961, and is a “marvelous document of Victorian lifestyle and culture”.  The Seneca Falls Heritage Area Visitors’ Center, now co-located with and operated by the Museum under contract with the Town following dissolution of the Village in March 2010,  interprets the Village’s development and role in the Reform Movements of the 19th century, focusing on the setting for the first Women’s Rights Convention in 1848.  Co-location of the Visitor’s Center and the Museum, provides a secure NY State revenue source for the combined core operations.  A merger of the Heritage Area Visitors’ Center with the Museum was a natural evolution because the themes of each were similar.

The Seneca Museum occupies a unique niche in this town of historical museums.  The canal, its construction and the industry it spawned, led to a more affluent society which could concentrate on social issues such as the women’s movement and abolition among others.  Our Museum offers a historical perspective on this critical piece in the history of the village  (now the Town) which presaged the early activism.