Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

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January 11, 2014

NIAGARA DISCOVERIES: 'Lock City' owes its identity to geology

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — Almost 200 years ago, after the War of 1812 had finally ended, the New York State government began to seriously consider the idea of building a canal across the state. Surveyors were sent out to the wilderness areas of upstate to find the best possible route for it. 

With a few exceptions, such as Little Falls, the land on which the canal was eventually built was relatively flat. A gradual rise in the land between Albany and Rochester resulted in the need for a series of 70 some locks along the waterway. West of Rochester, the Niagara Escarpment loomed 60 feet high in the canal’s path to Buffalo. Somewhere in this part of the state the canal had to surmount the escarpment, but where would be the best place? 

When the canal surveyors reached Orleans and Niagara counties they found several areas where a natural ravine had cut through the escarpment. Located in Holley, Medina, Royalton and soon-to-be-named Lockport, these natural gorges would facilitate the building of the locks since not as much stone would have to be excavated. After studying these natural outlets, it was decided that the best place was located at what would become Lockport. The only problem left was to decide which of the two channels to use. 

Let’s go back 18,000 years to when a mile-high glacier began to recede from Western New York and created glacial Lake Tonawanda above the escarpment and Lake Iroquois (the predecessor of Lake Ontario) below the escarpment. A great waterfall, similar in volume to that of Niagara, crashed over the escarpment at present-day Outwater Park, cascaded down through what would become Glenwood Cemetery and tumbled over Rattlesnake Hill. The force of the water washed away the sand ridge shoreline of Lake Iroquois, creating a bay that spanned from Warren’s to Wright’s Corners. 

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