LOCKPORT – With construction underway on the restoration of two of the five 19th century Erie Canal locks, planners are readying for a public boat construction effort to produce a replica craft that can be used to show visitors how the original locks worked.
The boat is considered a vital part of the city’s hopes to use the old locks to create a buzz among history-minded tourists and create an impact Lockport has needed since the downsizing of the auto parts plant now called GM Components weakened the city’s economic position.
The Flight of Five, as the set of five stair-step locks is called, has been used for nearly a century only as a spillway to carry water displaced as the two huge steel locks, used since 1914, open and close.
A ceremony was held Oct. 7 to mark the beginning of the fulfillment of a dream Lockport’s leaders have had for about 15 years – to make the old locks work again.
Because of financial constraints – restoring all five locks would cost an estimated $10 million – it proved impossible to restore all five locks at once, so two were chosen to begin with because they are the easiest to access, with no overhead structure obstructing the work.
They are Locks 69 and 70, the middle lock and the one second from the top of the Flight, which in full is referred to by the state Canal Corp. as Locks 67 through 71.
The Canal Corp. awarded a $1.74 million contract this summer to Hohl Industrial Services of the Town of Tonawanda. Its construction work is steadily progressing in the canal while it is dewatered for winter.
The target date for completion is July 15, said David R. Kinyon, chairman of the Lockport Locks Heritage District Committee.
Mayor Michael W. Tucker said all the debris was cleared from Lock 70 by late November, exposing the original 1825 wooden foundations, and the same was to occur at Lock 69 after that.
A feasibility study almost a decade ago estimated that if the complete Flight was restored to working order, as many as 250,000 visitors a year could come to Lockport to see the historic site. Whether that comes true or not, city leaders have long believed there would be a substantial economic boost from the project.
When the Erie Canal opened in 1825, there were originally two flights of five locks each, one for eastbound traffic and the other for westbound traffic. Lockport was chosen as the best place for the canal to slice through the Niagara Escarpment, given the technology of the time. The purpose of the locks was to raise or lower boats about 60 feet.
The original locks were constructed entirely of wood, but in 1838, the state started a project to rebuild them in limestone.
The stone work on the surviving Flight of Five, the westbound set hugging the north side of the canal, was completed in 1842, and that’s what the restoration plan seeks to recreate by installing new gates and lifting mechanisms on the 18-foot-wide locks, to replace those long removed.
To go along with the restored Locks 69 and 70, a wooden demonstration boat that can go up and down between the locks is to be built.
The construction site for the boat is an open space in Harrison Place, the city-controlled former auto parts factory at Walnut and Washburn streets now leased in part to businesses.
Kinyon said an open house will be held there during the week of Jan. 13, with boat construction expected to start in late January.
Peter Welsby, a veteran engineer and committee member, said Buffalo Maritime Center, originally chosen to supply the craft, turned the planning job over to another company, Fast Forward Boats.
“The plans, I was told about a month ago, are 95 percent complete,” Welsby said.
Kinyon said the committee needs construction personnel to make those plans come to life.
“I’ve talked to four or five individuals locally who have boat-building experience, but we need a leader,” Kinyon said.
The target date for completion of the boat is July 1, which is two weeks before Locks 69 and 70 are supposed to reopen. The boat is to cost an estimated $250,000, Kinyon said, and the committee is moving forward behind the scenes to nail down funding from the state or foundations.
Also, a public contest to name the boat is anticipated in the spring.
The boat is one of three major interpretive efforts surrounding the Flight of Five restoration. Another is the plan for an interactive model of how the entire Flight of Five worked, which is to be erected next to the Erie Canal Discovery Center at Church and Ontario streets, a block from the locks.
Kinyon said the Niagara County Historical Society, which operates the Discovery Center, applied for a $65,000 grant from the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor Commission, a federally funded agency, whose response is expected by Jan. 1.
The third interpretive effort is the conversion of Canal Street, a pedestrian-only street on the canal’s north bank above the Flight of Five, into a period “gateway” with special structures and signs.
Kinyon said funding sources being discussed for that project, estimated at $290,000, include Niagara River Greenway funds and a potential state grant being requested through the office of State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane.
Becky Burns, another committee member, said an upgrade to the existing Canal Museum, operated next to the locks by the state, is “essential.”
The tiny museum, which focuses on canal engineering and technology, will stay put, Kinyon said, but it needs a makeover.
Burns said, “There are a lot of things in that building that could be storytelling assets.”
City Historian Margaret F. Truax said an effort to install good signs to direct visitors to the locks also is vital. It’s a local truism that many outsiders don’t know where the locks are, even when they are right nearby, because they are far below street level.
“It’s very important to get people to the right place,” Truax said.
Burns also said something should be done to make the Pine Street and Big bridges, respectively east and west of the locks, look more attractive from beneath. Even a coat of paint would help, she said.