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ERIE CANAL ADVENTURE: Connecting equal rights dots in Seneca Falls

August 10, 2020

Story Location:
Seneca Falls  New York
United States

Connect the dots.  Frank Capra’s famous film It’s A Wonderful Life, Black Lives Matter, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglas.  What do they all have in common?

Seneca Falls, New York.

This is the town where Stanton and Anthony gathered - along with freed slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglas at one point - to start the ball rolling in the mid 1800s toward equal rights for women, including eventual passage of the 19th amendment in 1920.

The Women’s Rights National Historic Park is located here.

On Saturday, a Black Lives Matter rally was held in the town park along the banks of the Cayuga and Seneca Canal where we stopped for the weekend. We had rented a car on Friday and motored up between Cayuga and Seneca Lakes - of Finger Lakes fame - to get a taste of the buzz generated by the hundreds of wineries overlooking the lakes. When we arrived back in town Saturday evening, the rally that we had no inkling of was over.

One of the boaters tied up along the wall near the park said the rally was attended by 90 people: 87 of them white, three of them Black.

“That’s not really important,” he said.  “It’s the support for the cause that’s important.”

Then I realized the equal rights spirit continues strong in Seneca Falls.  

Those interested in the women’s rights movement as part of US history would appreciate Seneca Falls.  The town has done a nice job of celebrating its role in that movement with historical interpretation signs sprinkled throughout the village along with sculpted statues of the determined  women leading the charge.

A bridge festooned with bell-shaped lights serves as a backdrop for the park where the Black Lives Matter rally took place. A brass plaque bolted to the bridge decades ago says that It’s A Wonderful Life director Frank Capra visited Seneca Falls sometime around 1940 and patterned his mythical Bedford Falls community after this town. The bridge, though without a bridgetender’s shelter, looks like the bridge where Jimmy Stewart’s drunken George Bailey character stood and stared despondently into the rushing waters below. He contemplated suicide, figuring he was worth more dead than alive, and needing the life-insurance money to right a corrupt injustice. 

Clarence Street, leading up to one side of the bridge, is named for George’s guardian angel who earned his wings - and made the bells ring - when he showed George the heartless town that Bedford Falls would have become without the efforts of his savings and loan bank to harness the cooperative spirit of the town’s residents to help people borrow money to follow their dreams.

I can’t help but think that the equal rights spirit of Seneca Falls positively influenced he film’s final celebratory scene when George is vindicated by the power of fair-minded people to right an injustice. Capra makes certain to show Black people, white people, immigrants, rich people and poor people all crowding into George’s house and contributing money, according to their ability, to help lift Bailey out of his predicament. 

Does it bring a tear to my eye every Christmas Eve when I suffer through endless commercials and am the last person awake in the house because I can’t stand to turn it off until I hear everyone laughing and smiling together and singing Auld Lang Syne?  And hear that little bell tinkling on the Christmas tree signaling Clarence’s success? 

Absolutely.  

As New York State is proud to include in many of its promotional materials: e pluribus unum.

As I write this we’ve left Seneca Falls, are back on the Erie Canal and are headed toward the Oswego Canal which will take us northward to the city of Oswego on the shores of Lake Ontario. 

Thanks for reading.  Here are a bunch of photos to give you a flavor of Seneca Falls.

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