Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

January 11, 2014

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

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Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

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. 

Now fast-forward 6,000 years to 10,000 B.C., when the water volume began to decrease. Instead of one enormous waterfall, two smaller ones emerged creating an island similar to that of Goat Island in the Niagara River. On the western side of the island the water flowed over the escarpment at Upper Mountain Road near the Harrison Radiator plant creating what is now called the Gulf. On the eastern side of the island the water flowed over the escarpment at the present site of the Flight of Five. Both streams met below Rattlesnake Hill to form what is now Eighteen Mile Creek, which ran into Lake Iroquois (later Lake Ontario).

Fast-forward again approximately 12,000 years to 1816, when the canal surveyors arrived in Niagara County. Faced with two gorges to chose from, the surveyors decided upon the dried-up eastern channel. Work was started on the five twin locks in 1822 and they officially opened on Oct. 26, 1825. 

The western channel is now a trickle of what it once was and much of it is hidden behind the city dump. The other feature that still remains from thousands of years ago is the Lockport-Newfane Bay and Delta area. From Warren’s to Wright’s Corners, the distinctive ridge disappears and the land is flat. This section of Ridge Road was once a large swamp that inhibited travel through the area. The U.S. military partially drained the swamp and built a corduroy road through it in 1811. The former swamp is now a productive growing area.

Had it not been for Mother Nature’s hand, the famous Flight of Five would have been located in another place.

Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.