June 30, 2008

Myth-Busting Couple Saved Canal History

By Donn Esmonde

They sat unnoticed on a recent sunny day, an older couple on a bench next to the historic Commercial Slip. Downtown workers on lunch break strolled the riverside Central Wharf. A father and his young son sat beneath the bowstring bridge, eating sandwiches.

Our page in America's story has been reclaimed. The Erie Canal's western terminus is excavated and rewatered, building ruins uncovered. People come to the site near the old Aud as if drawn by magnetic force. It is an overnight success that was a decade in the making.

Erie Canal Harbor officially opens Wednesday, with pomp and politicians. What will be celebrated would likely not be here, if not for Ross Giese and Pat Costanzo.

The events that prompted the state to uncover our history, instead of leaving it buried as it planned, were strung together by a series of circumstances. Arguably the most vital thread was the one connected by the husband-and-wife geologists. It was Giese and Costanzo who exploded the infamous "exploding stones" claim, and with it the state's argument for not excavating and rewatering the historic Commercial Slip.

It was 1999. Digging on the state's generic boat slips-and- landscaping project uncovered the stone walls of the western terminus. It was here that Gov. DeWitt Clinton in 1825 officially opened the canal that changed America, with Buffalo as the east- west nexus. Yet excavating and preserving the canal walls, cobblestone streets and building ruins was not in the state's plans. As public pressure mounted, state officials claimed that the canal stones, if uncovered, would "explode" in the winter's freeze-thaw cycle.

"To me, it sounded impossible," Costanzo said.

She is white-haired, 66, and speaks in straight lines. Giese is 72, beanstalk thin, his eyes lively behind wire-rimmed eyeglasses. He has taught geology at UB for 40 years.

Upon hearing of the "exploding stones," they did what any self- respecting geologists would do. They went to the project site, on a bone-numbing winter day, and chipped off a sample from an unearthed canal stone. A water-immersion test at the UB lab confirmed that the stone did not absorb liquid. It would not flake or "explode" in winter.

Giese contacted fellow geologists who supposedly were the source of the "exploding stones" theory. Both said the same thing: They never said the stones would explode. Their casual conversations with the state's archaeologist had been twisted to support the bizarre claim. Costanzo told Giese he had to reveal the truth at an upcoming public hearing.

"She insisted that I go, if I wanted to continue living in the house," said Giese, laughing.

State officials running the hearing front-loaded speakers who were sympathetic to their anti-history cause. The TV cameras and most reporters were gone by the time Giese got his turn, well after 11 p.m. Not being on deadline, I hung around. When Giese told his tale, I knew we had the smoking gun. I shared the information with a News reporter. Days later, the story was front-page news.

The explosion of the "exploding stones" claim shattered the state's credibility and its argument for not unearthing history. It gave then-County Executive Joel Giambra, who privately backed preservationists, the cover he needed to urge George Pataki to change the project. Pataki soon announced the site's history would be unearthed and celebrated.

Fast-forward to Wednesday. Giese and Costanzo sat, hand in hand, at the historic site they helped to save.

"It's an overwhelming feeling," said Giese. "It's always nice to beat Goliath."

It wouldn't have happened without them.

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Originally published by NEWS STAFF REPORTER.

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