Built in 1797 as a house and tavern, the building was a rest stop for weary canal travelers. The combined museum and Mid-Hudson Visitor Center — scheduled to open in the first quarter of 2022 — will also serve as a rest and departure point for the growing number of outdoor enthusiasts who use the network of trails in the region, such as Wallkill Valley Rail Trail and O&W Rail Trail.
After the restaurant closed in late 2015, the D&H Canal Society purchased the building at auction with the help of a $600,000 grant from the Open Space Institute and $500,000 from the State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, says board member Peter Bienstock.
In its current location on Mohonk Road, the museum draws only 500 to 1,000 people a year, he says. Exhibit space is small and in need of a refresh. He estimates the larger new museum and visitor center (located in the former kitchen of the restaurant) will draw 10,000 to 20,000 visitors within two years of opening.
“High Falls is a nexus of the major trails west of the Hudson, so we are plugging our visitor center into that system,” Bienstock says.
The Delaware and Hudson Canal transformed communities along its 108-mile route in the 1800s. Exhibits will explore life along the waterway — the people; the industries that produced bluestone, cement and coal; and the economic influence they had in the region, New York City, and beyond. Designed by Ferwerda Creative Services and Paul Orselli Workshop, the exhibits will blend the charm of the historic site with the latest in museum design. Interactive elements will highlight canal technology and spark learning in STEAM topics. Possibilities include working models of a canal lock and a gravity railroad (used to transport coal) and a “fuse” visitors can light to create the “explosion” of black powder used to dig the canal.
The visitor center will have a gift shop, information on area attractions, and flexible space for events; organizers envision space for conversation and community programming.
A giant illustrated mural will highlight prominent sights within 50 miles on both sides of the river. Potential sights that will be highlighted include Vanderbilt Mansion State Historic Site, Catskill Mountains and Hinchey Visitor Center, Culinary Institute of America, and Opus 40 Sculpture Park & Museum.
Adjacent to the mural will be an interactive map with a touch screen that showcases local businesses and other items that will be a resource for tourists.
Just as important will be the center’s role in outdoor recreation. An adjacent half-mile trail follows the original towpath — now a National Historic Landmark — where early designs suggest placing sculptures and life-size silhouettes of canal activity. Inside, visitors can take a break and use the map to plot routes for hiking and biking an ever-expanding network of trails.
“The growth of tourism has been absolutely amazing in the last few years,” says Bienstock. “A lot of it is around trails, and a lot of it is historical and cultural sites, which we are rich in. We think it’s going to become a major center for locals and outsiders and also for the considerable trail traffic.”