‘Agents of Transformation’

By Kathy Hill

It’s safe to say that the famed Erie Canal that transformed New York state has more stories than miles.

Recently, Melanie Littlejohn, vice president, Customer and Community Management, shared one such story with attendees of the World Canals Conference 2017, for which National Grid served as lead sponsor.

Marking the bicentennial of the canal’s groundbreaking, WCC 2017 drew enthusiasts and speakers from around the globe to Syracuse in late September. Exploring topics impacting the world’s waterways and surrounding communities, participants attended presentations, tours, demonstrations, exclusive public events in and around the city, as well as recreational opportunities along the wider canal route.

Welcoming attendees to the week’s final event – hosted by National Grid in the Syracuse Office Complex auditorium – Littlejohn described how the Erie Canal once flowed past what is now the building’s front door, before the canal was filled to become Erie Boulevard in 1923. On this site, beginning around 1850, the canal delivered coal to one of the region’s many gas manufacturing plants, operated by the Gas Lighting Company of Syracuse and then the Syracuse Lighting Company – both predecessor companies of Niagara Mohawk and National Grid.

Littlejohn then told the story of perhaps the most infamous disaster in Erie Canal history: In 1907, the bottom fell from the canal aqueduct – adjacent to our building – over Onondaga Creek, draining the canal for miles in each direction.         

“Today,” said Littlejohn, “National Grid’s connection to the Erie Canal corridor and its many communities is stronger than ever. The nearly 700 villages, cities, and towns we serve across upstate New York State include many along the canal corridor and barge canal system. Our company has a rich history of fostering economic development and supporting communities along the canal corridor and across our upstate New York service territory.”

Touching on our many canal-related community engagement and employee volunteer activities, Littlejohn highlighted National Grid’s portfolio of economic development grant programs supporting job growth, capital investment, brownfield redevelopment and urban revitalization around the region.

“The Main Street Revitalization program was specifically designed to serve our canal communities,” she noted. “It works to jumpstart the redevelopment of central business districts while leveraging assistance from other local, county, state and federal sources. Since 2003, National Grid has awarded 200 grants through this program, representing $11.5 million in funding.” Littlejohn added that, over the same period, National Grid programs have helped create or retain nearly 50,000 jobs in the communities we serve.

“The theme of this year’s World Canals Conference, ‘Agents of Transformation,’ is one that really resonates for our company,” Littlejohn said. “In our minds, serving as agents of transformation is a mission we all share.”

Kicking off the five-day event on Sunday, the WCC 2017 Public Day at Syracuse’s Inner Harbor offered glimpses of history, boat rides and kayaking, along with local foods and entertainment.


Exploring the buoy boat at WCC 2017 Public Day at Syracuse’s Inner Harbor.


WCC 2017 Public Day visitors watched glass-blowing demonstrations from shore at GlassBarge, a unique new Corning Museum of Glass watercraft. Sharing the story of glassmaking at waterfront communities around the state next year, GlassBarge will travel the same waterways – including the Erie Canal – that brought the former Brooklyn Flint Glass Works to its facilities in Corning 150 years ago.


The Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum display table at the WCC 2017 Public Day. Visitors to the museum, 20 minutes east of Syracuse, can experience 19th century canal life at the recreated historic site within the Old Erie Canal State Historic Park. For more, visit clcbm.org.


Indoor display at the World Canals Conference Public Day.



Melanie Littlejohn welcomed WCC 2017 attendees to the Niagara Mohawk Building in Syracuse.


Celebrating the announcement that the New York State Canal System received designation as a national historic landmark at the Marriott Syracuse Downtown – the former Hotel Syracuse – Grand Ballroom earlier this year.



Missed WCC 2017? Visit the Erie Canal Museum next time you’re in Syracuse, learn more here, and look for the 2017 public television documentary Erie: The Canal That Made America, narrated by David Muir.

Got vision? Through their Reimagine the Canals Competition, the New York Power Authority and the New York State Canal Corporation are looking for implementable ideas to promote the Canal System’s heritage, foster economic development and tourism, and improve the Canal System’s long-term financial sustainability. There’s still time to enter – and help make history all over again.

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