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LOCKPORT – Bids will be sought in June for restoration of two of the five locks in the Flight of Five, the 19th century Erie Canal locks, a project that is expected to cost $2.62 million.

The Flight of Five is a stone version of the original wooden stairstep locks constructed when the canal opened in 1825. The stone locks were built on the original foundation in the early 1840s.

They were relegated to use as a spillway after the current steel locks opened in 1914. The restoration project involves the installation of lock gates that will open and close to demonstrate how canal craft climbed and descended the Niagara Escarpment during the canal’s first nine decades of operation.

Restoring all five locks would cost an estimated $10 million, which is more than the city has on hand after years of seeking state, federal and foundation grants.

A feasibility study several years ago estimated that a fully functioning Flight of Five might lure as many as 250,000 visitors a year.

But all of this might go to waste if no one can find the locks or appreciate their importance, said Becky Burns, a member of the Lockport Locks Heritage District Committee. She and David R. Kinyon, chairman of the committee, explained to the board its plans for interpretive signage at the site.

It’s become something of a running joke in Lockport that visitors can drive on the Big Bridge over the canal near the locks and never realize how close they are to the site. Because of buildings, railings and the angle of the bridge, many drivers aren’t able to see the locks as they pass.

“Our asset is below grade,” Burns told the Lockport Planning Board last week. The committee feels the solution is better signage, and once visitors stop, to tell them why the Flight of Five is important.

“If they’re going to come here, we have to tell them the story,” Burns said.

The committee hired Eisterhold & Associates of Kansas City, Mo., to design an interpretive plan. Burns wouldn’t give a cost estimate.

“This is a very expensive interpretive plan, so it needs to be phased,” she told the board.

Step One is a gateway at either end of Canal Street, adjoining the locks. To be built of canal stone, its general appearance is supposed to match the one in North Tonawanda’s Gateway Park. The gateway would span the entire street at the east end and only the sidewalk at the west end.

Burns said its purpose is to lure foot traffic to Canal Street, a pedestrian-only street, which is the only place to access the locks on foot, via a steep concrete ramp.

Other ideas include plaques along the Canal Street railing showing what the vista looked like in 1825, and bronze statues based on an old photo of canal workers. “They’re still conceptual. They’re not in final design,” Burns said.

Another idea is to move the demonstration model of the locks out of the Erie Canal Discovery Center a block away and place it outdoors.

“We need to interest children in what we do as well as adults,” Burns said.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com