Canal Basin visitors center opens

HOLLIDAYSBURG – After years of inactivity, Canal Basin Park’s visitors center was reopened, with hopes of creating a hub for regional education and tourism activities.

And in only four weeks, officials said the historical building has generated significant interest within the community.

Main Street Manager Michael Balchin said the building, which had previously been staffed by volunteers, was closed for at least two years because of a lack of willing workers.

However, this year’s borough budget included funds to hire two part-time employees, allowing it to be reopened, he said.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to make this a destination for people who want to explore the history of Hollidaysburg,” he said. “We want this to be a gateway for people.”

The center is set up within the historical Reiser House – built at the location of a former lock tender’s house between what were once the upper and lower canal basins in Hollidaysburg, according to borough information.

“During the 19th Century this was a major terminus point for the Pennsylvania Canal,” the borough’s website said.

According to a Mirror article from 2014, the park was opened in 2002 after a 12-year, $2.5 million project by the borough and the Allegheny Ridge Corp. to renovate the Reiser House and construct a play park.

On Wednesday afternoon, Balchin led an impromptu tour of the Victorian-period building’s first floor.

Displays along its walls housed artifacts, such as a canal boat anchor and railroad whistle, as well as a cider press and candle molds.

And when Balchin pressed buttons on a diorama, historical sites in the miniature Hollidaysburg lit up.

“We will be bringing in different artifacts. We will be bringing in different displays,” Balchin said, revealing future plans for the center. “We want this to be an educational destination.”

The Reiser House’ interior, with its murals and wall hangings, looks much like it did before its closure, Balchin said, but there are plans for upgrades.

Screens on tabletops served as interactive displays, and Balchin said he hopes to one day integrate additional technologies. Children’s programs and revolving exhibits were also among ideas he mentioned.

But while building upkeep is to be paid for by the borough, Balchin said programming will have to be paid for and depend upon grant funds.

In the meantime, borough officials are partnering with other area organizations to promote and improve the site, Balchin said.

The Hollidaysburg Area Public Library, which has a small store setup near the center’s entrance, and the Blair County Historical Society were mentioned as collaborators, in addition to numerous others.

“For a number of years, the mission of our organization was very Altoona-centric,” said Jared Frederick, president of the Blair County Historical Society.

Now, Frederick said it’s time to “expand that story and live up to the organization’s title.”

In doing so, the society has loaned several artifacts to the center and hopes to do more, he said.

“What we hope to do in the forthcoming months and years is to work with the National Parks Service to expand some of the existing displays What I see and what I think is coming out of conversations and collaborations like this is more and more regional historic sites working together” he said, explaining that stakeholders hold meetings to discuss the center’s future.

Joe DeFrancesco, the society’s CEO and executive director, elaborated on that concept.

“Basically, what we are looking at doing is helping to promote tourism throughout Blair County through our historic sites,” he said, mentioning specifically the canal’s importance in shaping area transportation and industry. “It makes sense to have the Reiser House serve the public and then to segue into the other historic sites of Blair County.”

Balchin said he hopes the center also will inspire interest in community events, such as the Aug. 13 Canal Basin Park Festival.

And center attendance has been impressive since it opened four weeks ago, Balchin said.

“We’ve had an overwhelming response,” he said.

Mary Sedor, who was manning a front desk, said 204 visitors have already stopped to check out the building and its displays.

Some of those visitors were from nearby locations, such as Duncansville, Bedford and Altoona, but some have visited from other states, including Hawaii, she said.

Sedor said the visitors often tell her stories about Hollidaysburg’s past and the people who inhabited it.

“That is so amazing to me,” she said.

Jane Sheffield, executive director of the Allegheny Ridge Corp., talked about the site’s journey from a dilapidated area to what it is today, and she praised borough leaders for acting to keep the center open.

“I just think it’s fantastic that our current leadership in the borough has figured out a way to reopen it for our community. … I truly understand the challenge that presents for the borough,” she said.

The visitors center is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. seven days a week, barring some holidays, Balchin said. There is no charge to get in.

Mirror Staff Writer Sean Sauro is at 946-7535.