In his senior year at Lander University, Brad Utter needed some real-life direction for a growing, looming problem: he was set to graduate in the spring of 1998 with a degree in History, but since he didn’t want to teach in a school, he wondered what else to do with his degree.
“So my history professor, Dr. Susan Ouellette, recommended that I look into Public History, which generally deals with history done or taught outside of the classroom,” Utter said.
Following Ouelette’s advice after graduating from Lander, Utter earned a Master’s in Public History in 2000 at the University at Albany in New York, and since 2014 he has been teaching in a different sort of classroom: as a Curator and Senior Historian at the New York State Museum in Albany, N.Y.
“It’s the oldest and largest state museum in the country,” said Utter, who also served from 2001-14 as director of the Waterford (N.Y.) Historical Museum and Cultural Center. “And I doubt I would have found the path to be here if not for Professor Ouelette and her excellent guidance at Lander.”
When asked if she remembered the 20-year-old conversation and advice, Ouellette recalled it almost word for word – partly because she and Utter were “fishes out of our normal waters.”
“I got to know Brad at Lander because, at the time, we were both New Yorkers in South Carolina,” said Ouelette, who taught history at Lander from 1996-98 before moving to St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont. “I think that this sort of kindred-spirit-ness is what brought him to my office that day to talk.”
After listening to Utter’s concerns, asking questions about his interests, and discussing plans of pursuing a path of history, Ouelette said, “‘It sounds like what you really want to do is to work in a museum… ’ So we did some research to find something that fit his interest, and from there everything kind of came together for him.”
While museum work is not usually at the top of most students’ career lists, Utter said that once he heard Ouelette’s recommendation, he knew it was exactly the path he had been looking for.
“Working in a history museum and working with objects is exciting for me,” Utter said. “My areas of research at the New York State Museum revolve around the development of industry and transportation in the state of New York, and how that development impacted the lives of New Yorkers.”
Erie Canal: vital to American expansion
One of those developments involves the importance of the Erie Canal, a two-year museum exhibit that opened September 16.
The exhibit, entitled Enterprising Waters: New York’s Erie Canal (Phase One), marks the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the canal’s construction.
In honor of the occasion, CBS Sunday Morning aired a segment in July 2017, which featured Utter as a consulting source. PBS also planned to include his expertise for a canal documentary to coincide with the opening of the museum exhibit.
“Interest in the Erie Canal has certainly increased this year in the regions along the canal system in New York,” Utter said. “It’s also received a lot of national press and press in the mid-west.”
When asked what was so special about remembering a waterway whose last point of original relevance occurred in 1918, Utter said the Erie Canal was the primary element in shaping westward American growth and development.
“Much like the Internet of today, the canal’s impact was dramatic and long lasting,” he said.
As will be shown in the Exhibit, the Erie Canal opened up new opportunities along its 363-mile route from Albany to Buffalo, N.Y., at Lake Erie:
New settlers tapped into the natural resources of the mid-west, sending lumber and grains east while consuming eastern merchandise.
Settlements along the Great Lakes, like Chicago, became cities because of the canal.
Elected leaders in Washington, D.C., no longer had to worry about settlers west of the Appalachian Mountains who could have favored the Spanish, French or Canadians without a commercial tie to the east.
“The canal made that tie and solidified the union,” Utter said.
And, of course, the Erie Canal opened a major door to commerce moving faster and safer.
The Northwest Territories that would later become Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio were rich in timber, minerals, and fertile land for farming. But to reach these precious resources, travelers were faced with weeks of rutted turnpike roads that baked to hardness in the summer sun, and dissolved in a sea of mud in the winter.
Even when they had perfect roads and perfect conditions for traveling them, merchants could only haul a fraction of their goods to early American markets.
In his 1985 book, "Works of Man," British author and historian Ronald Clark pointed out that on a soft road, a horse might be able to draw 5/8 of a ton. “But if the load were carried by a barge on a waterway, then up to 30 tons could be drawn by the same horse,” Clark said.
Only nine years after opening, at a building cost of $7.14 million, canal tolls more than recouped the entire cost of construction – and the Erie Canal was on its way to becoming an engineering marvel of the 19th-century.
Not a bad legacy, considering that it was originally considered a ditch by detractors – including former President Thomas Jefferson, who described the idea of building it as “a little short of madness.”
All this and more – including an original giant windlass used to lower heavy cargo from a warehouse along the canal – will be on display for the exhibit’s two-year run.
Phases two and three of the exhibit will be completed by May 2018 – and Utter said he would love to see members of the Lander community travel to Albany to experience the Erie Canal in a way that no one could have imagined in 1825 – or in 1997 when Utter was pondering over what to do with a history degree.
“I have been working on this exhibit for over three years and am excited to see it come together this fall,” he said. “And I always like to think that part of the reason it did was because a Lander professor, who is still a very good friend, helped steer me in the right direction.”