Buffalo and Lockport share an important strand of heritage DNA: the Erie Canal. Without the unique geological opportunity presented in Lockport to climb the Niagara Escarpment, the Erie Canal wouldn’t have been the “Erie” Canal — because it never would have made it to Lake Erie. Instead, a much shorter canal would have linked New York City with Lake Ontario at Oswego, taking the path of least resistance. The final link to the upper great lakes might well have been what became the Welland Canal, which could have meant a Canadian city, rather than Buffalo, becoming the gateway to the midwest. In a real sense, Lockport’s locks unlocked the continent.
Present-day Lockportians have been very savvy in conserving and leveraging their unique heritage. My first visit there as an adult was in the 1990s, when I served on the Canal Corporation’s Canalway Trail Steering Committee. We visited Lockport and the surrounding area looking at options for completing the multi-use trail along the waterway between Niagara and Erie Counties. That day I met Dave Kinyon, who is still prominent among those looking out for the city’s heritage, as chair of the Lockport Locks Heritage District Corporation. The corporation, in partnership with the City of Lockport, has an amazing cadre of volunteers: lock tenders, trail tenders, boat tenders all pitch in at the site where the canal locks up and down fifty feet of vertical distance.
For decades, their biggest dream has been to restore the pre-“Barge” Canal locks to working order. A century ago, to compete with heavy railroad investment, New York State expanded the canal to accommodate barge traffic. In the process, stone locks with wooden gates were replaced with reinforced concrete locks with steel gates. Across the state, most stone locks were obliterated, but in Lockport a set was retained, stripped of its gates, and used as a water overflow channel. A multi-year fundraising campaign to return the locks to service reached a major milestone this year, with the first lock to be returned to function.
But to properly celebrate, and give demonstrations, how can you have a lock without a boat? That’s where the Buffalo Maritime Center came in. The Maritime Center built two boats specifically for the Lockport locks. Friday was the christening, and the Maritime Center’s John Montague was on hand.
The next project on deck at the locks is a major heritage art installation. While we’ve all seen the monumental historic photos of the Lockport flight-of-five locks, the human side of the locks was perhaps best captured in an iconic photo of thirteen lock tenders and a little girl. This photo will soon be memorialized — and immortalized — in a set of bronze sculptures to be installed on the stairs where the photo was taken.
Amazingly, we know the names of everyone in this photo, and those names were read on Friday. Afterward, a group of Lockport firefighters and a little girl, all in period garb, posed for a recreation of the photo — perhaps the first ever attempted.
The sculptures will be created by Youngstown artist Susan Geissler, who also created the Freedom Crossing monument at Lewiston landing, and also the Tuscarora Heroes monument in “upland” Lewiston. On Friday, she was introduced and showed off her model of the upcoming installation.
In grand American tradition, dating back at least to the undertaking of the Erie Canal, after the presentation of dignitaries and speechifying, it was time for the folks in the work clothes to get things moving. Ropes were heaved-to, levers were leveraged, and strong backs were once again brought to bear on the massive wooden beams of the lock gates. Upstream, a sluiceway was opened, and Lake Erie water once again flowed east into the lock chambers. Everything worked as intended. Our ancestors would have been proud.
Into the lock were pulled the Buffalo Maritime Center’s boats (See lead image).
As for their predecessors in the canal’s heyday, the work of Lockport’s lock tenders and heritage keepers will never be done. Like the original “canawlers,” they have promises to keep, and miles to go before they sleep. Although their labors may not help lay the foundations for the modern midwest, every year they will have something new to show you — and tell you about. Consider including Lockport on your yearly rounds of local places to visit and support. Don’t forget: after climbing all those stairs, Lake Effect Ice Cream is your reward at the top. The original canawlers just got whiskey.