Canal Fest of the Tonawandas
is the largest festival of its kind along the Erie Canal.
Shared by the Twin Cities of Tonawanda and North Tonawanda,
it encompasses a 2 square mile area, jam packed full of fun and entertainment.
Canal Fest originated in 1983, was sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce of the Tonawandas and coordinated by Joe Armenia, then Publisher of the News and shortly thereafter joined by George Maziarz, now serving as a NYS Senator.
The Fest was designed to accomplish 3 goals:
1. Promote the community of the Tonawandas, especially downtown business
2. Provide a means of fundraising for non profit community organizations
3. Provide a joint recreational opportunity for the citizens of both cities
The event was held exclusively within the City of North Tonawanda the first year, but grew substantially the second year and expanded to include the City of Tonawanda. Each successive year saw significant growth in number of participating non profit/civic organizations, in the entertainment offered and in attendance.
The expansion of the event led the Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors to decide that 1994 would be the last year of Chamber sponsorship. The amount of work was becoming too great for its staff to handle and a request was made for others to step forward to continue this community event. At this point three major organizations stepped forward to be the lead agencies in establishing Canal Fest of the Tonawandas Inc., as a separate legal, not-for-profit entity. This new corporation would insure the efforts of all the participating organizations and ensure the continuation of the event.
Currently, there are 15 that sit on the Board of Directors. There is a membership of 70 organizations and support individuals who chair special events such as the parade, Sika Challenge and the Miss Canal Fest Event, only to mention a few. Approximately 50 non-profit/civic organizations raise a significant portion of their annual operating budget during this 8-day event. Many organizations use this added revenue to offer sponsorships, scholarships and awards to local youth organizations. Over $225,000 was invested back into the community through the efforts of the members of Canal Fest of the Tonawandas Inc. Between the organizations, over 500 people contribute approximately 20,000 volunteer hours to make this event successful year after year. They do not only volunteer for the week, many start their planning right after the event and continue right through to the following year.
Canal Fest provides 8 days of entertainment for local citizens and visitors from throughout Western New York and farther. Attendance is estimated anywhere from 200,000 - 250,000 for the 8 day run. The reason we can only estimate, is that there is no turnstile charge to just walk into the Fest, to see the attractions, to watch the events, to meet old friends. That in itself attracts people to Canal Fest. We are the largest event held anywhere along the New York State canal system and considered in the top percentile of events in the State.
The Erie Canal was the first great canal in the United States and helped establish financial and commercial growth throughout the area.
It was designed to connect the interior of New York State and eastern markets with the Great Lakes Region and farmers of the heartland.
Teams of mules would tie up to boats and barges. Then walk the towpaths along sides of the canal, pulling the loaded vessels through an original water depth of only 4 feet.
From our states capital, Albany, on the Hudson River, to the mouth of the mighty Niagara River in Tonawanda, this man made canal extends over 350 miles.
To signify the opening of the canal on Oct 26, 1825, a relay system of cannons firing along the banks of the waterway sent the message across the state (taking 1 hour, 21 minutes). The Erie Canal was officially open.
Today, at Canal Fest opening ceremonies, a commemorative cannon is fired, signaling the cities of Tonawanda and North Tonawanda that Canal Fest has officially begun.