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LOCKPORT – After a decade of planning, construction is about to get under way in downtown Lockport on a history-rich attraction that Niagara tourist officials hope will draw as many as a quarter-million Erie Canal buffs every year.

Work on the first phase of restoration of the Flight of Five – a set of five 1860s-era canal locks that acted as stairs up to and down from the Niagara Escarpment – will begin this week.

The milestone represents “a huge step,” said David R. Kinyon, chairman of the Lockport Locks Heritage District Committee, which is overseeing planning for the project.

“It only further enhances what’s become a very significant part of Lockport’s economy, that being heritage tourism,” Kinyon said. “The whole objective is not to simply restore an old set of locks, but, more so, to build on the city being a destination for heritage tourism.”

There used to be a twin set of five locks on the canal in Lockport. The function of this series of locks was to raise and lower boats traversing the canal to deal with the Niagara Escarpment’s 60-foot change in elevation – hence the name “Flight of Five.”

The locks were originally made of wood when the canal opened in 1825; in the early 1840s, stone locks were put onto the original foundation.

In the early 20th century, one set of the locks on the southern side of the canal was demolished when the enlarged, electrically operated locks were built.

Since the upgrade last century, the old locks on the northern side have gone unused, aside from serving as a spillway.

Today, the 18-foot-wide unused locks still let water flow through but have accumulated sediment and debris.

When this phase of construction is done, visitors will see two restored locks near the top of the flight, with the lock gates and balance beams used to open and close them.

When the entire restoration of all five locks is complete, the site will appear as it did to vessels passing through around the time of the Civil War, heading up the flight toward the west and down to the east.

The costs to complete the first phase of work, including engineering, design and hard construction costs, will eat up all that’s left of the $3.2 million already designated for the project.

Hohl Industrial Services of the Town of Tonawanda was the lower of two bidders for the work and was awarded a $1.7 million construction contract by State Canal Corp., which owns the site and operates the existing locks.

The restoration under that contract is just for work on two of the locks.

To restore the whole Flight of Five, initially numbered in the canal system as locks 67 through 71, officials estimate it will take roughly $10 million. When finished, this will be the only site in the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor where two eras of canal lock technology – historic manual and modern electrical – may be viewed side by side.

Project supporters are also seeking funds to build a demonstration vessel to show how the locks worked, which will cost about $250,000, as well as for interpretive signage to mark the attraction for visitors.

“We hope that as construction proceeds for the restoration of locks 69 and 70 that it will increase interest and encourage our funders to help identify the sources of the remaining funds that are needed,” Kinyon said.

Work on the two locks, which is expected to take about a year, will pick up once the Erie Canal closes for the winter.

Tasks for this phase include dredging; removal of concrete flow barriers; removal of existing railing and the restoration of historic railing; masonry restoration; wood floor restoration or replacement; and installation of arched bridges, new lighting and new wooden lock gates.

The work is starting on these two locks because of the relative simplicity of restoring them when compared with the other locks at the site, which have structures and bridges nearby and in use.

Design and engineering work for the project has been done by Bergmann Associates.

Project officials estimate that when the full restoration of the five locks is completed, it may draw up to 250,000 more people a year.

For many years, the proposal for the restoration project envisioned that all the work – all five locks – would be done at once, said Lockport Mayor Michael W. Tucker.

Monday, Tucker referenced his inaugural address in 2004, in which he stated his goal of restoring the Flight of Five.

Now it’s going to be done in phases, and with about $1 million already spent, admittedly not much has changed visually at the site.

“Once people actually see it, I believe that we can raise the rest to finish it,” the mayor said.

Funding for the project has already come from grants from the Grigg-Lewis Foundation in Lockport and federal and state governments.

Tucker called the project “the economic driver” for that section of downtown, which has seen the recent opening of the Flight of Five Winery, as well as the relocation of Lake Effect Ice Cream.

Tucker said a feasibility study by a Rochester firm hired for the project has estimated $17 million in economic-development activity possible once the project is completed.

The tourism market for history-based attractions is growing, according to the head of Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp.

“Any destination prides itself in historical assets, and we are so pleased that this product is going to come to life for our visitors” who will be able to witness it firsthand, said John H. Percy Jr., the tourism agency’s president and CEO.

Officials involved in the project plan to mark the occasion with a news conference and free public event at the site at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Some officials will ride on a tugboat named for Gov. DeWitt Clinton, who decided to build the canal in the early 19th century.

The event will also include speakers describing the upcoming work, displays about other improvements happening in the Historic Locks District and students from Emmet Belknap Intermediate School singing canal-era ballads.

Free tours of the Erie Canal Discovery Center will be available, as will a free shuttle service from the former Friendly’s parking lot, where there will be free parking.

email: abesecker@buffnews.com