By Joyce Miles
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal
Waylon Edmister received an unusual birthday gift from his wife Brandi this year: An 18-by-36-inch illustration of the Flight of Five canal locks.
Around an image of the series as seen from Upson Park, in the 1820s, reproduced shop drawings show components of the system that magically moved canal boats up and downhill in Lockport.
The assemblage is cherished by 35-year-old Edmister, who proudly describes himself as “a bit of a history dork.” He’s eager to see it hang in his Roby Street home, once he’s finished crafting a wooden frame that befits it.
As gifts go, this one is almost prescient. Within days of receiving it, Edmister learned that his employer, Tonawanda-based Hohl Industrial Services Inc., clinched the job of restoring Locks 69 and 70 in the dormant Flight series —and that he, Hohl’s fabrication shop project manager, will have a hands-on role in a public works project that’s so important to his hometown.
"It’s exciting enough for me as a city resident to see (restoration) happening. To do it is incredible,” Edmister said. “I’m over the moon. There’s still six weeks until the canal closes, I can’t wait.”
The state Canal Corporation hired Hohl to make the roughly 170-year-old locks operable again, a century after the series’ companion on the south side of the canal was torn out and replaced with larger, modern locks E34 and E35. The picturesque remnants have served as a spillway and garbage collector for the modern locks ever since.
To restore function to the old locks, Hohl and its subcontractors will undertake 40 specific tasks, from cleaning, repairing and/or replacing stone masonry, iron and cable railings and wooden flooring in the lock chambers, to building and installing manually operable wooden lock gates, arched foot bridges over the locks and electric service to juice historic replica light fixtures.
According to project field manager John Bordner, Hohl will produce four copies of an existing original light fixture at the locks, install one on a footbridge and turn over the rest to the Canal Corporation for future use.
The company also will produce a removable steel weir, or dam, to use in the two-locks project, then turn that over to the state for future use as well, Edmister said.
Hohl’s fabrication division has the challenge, and the fun, of producing elements of the locking system to match the damaged or lost originals as closely as possible: not just gates, footbridges and weirs but their antiquated fasteners, square-head bolts and 50-penny (5.5 inch-long) nails, as well.
"Those are the little things, but they’ll make the difference in terms of authenticity” of the restored locks, Edmister said.
Edmister, who wrote Hohl’s bid for the fabrication work, said he felt “like a kid in a candy store” as he researched and priced out the jobs. He’s awed by the thought of what men were able to achieve back in the day, without modern machinery — and glad to be working in 2013, when his job is to copy the product, not the process.
"What probably took hundreds of hours then takes tens of hours now. If I had to build those doors (lock gates) the way they did, we couldn’t afford it, that’s for sure,” Edmister said. “It’s crazy to think that they did this with such rudimentary tools; it’s boggling.”
Hohl Industrial Services has undertaken plenty of public asset restoration work during Edmister’s seven-year tenure there. The company currently has the job of updating the mammoth St. Lawrence Seaway locks near Massena. Past projects include restoration of the Delaware stone bridge at state routes 198 and 33 in Buffalo.
Flight locks restoration is more than a job for Edmister, though. He can trace his fascination with locking, and local history, to his first cruise through the Lockport locks when he was 8 or 9 years old. On his uncle’s watercraft as it approached E-34, “I thought, how do you get a boat uphill? It blew my mind,” he said.
Twenty-five years later, Edmister knows a lot more about “Clinton’s Ditch,” including: The Erie Canal connects the Hudson River and the Great Lakes, and its operation, beginning in 1825, had a transformative effect on the nation. It wouldn’t have been possible had Nathan Roberts, a self-taught engineer, not figured out how to float boats over a 60-foot elevation change created by the Niagara Escarpment in Lockport. Canal building was accomplished by ingenuity, willpower and the hard labor of immigrants, thousands of whom died helping forge the path.
Standing on Canal Street overlooking the Flight remnants, Edmister tries to imagine the uncut escarpment and says restoration is a fitting tribute to those visionaries and laborers.
”It is truly astonishing to think of somebody standing up here 150 years ago and dreaming this up. It was an incredible undertaking,” he said. “I’m not necessarily a pioneer — somebody else already thought of it — but certainly I feel a responsibility to honor their work. Our nation grew tremendously because of this. Restoring it shows the world how it was; it’s teaching another generation. I think that’s important.”
Restoration work will go into full swing after Nov. 15, when the canal is closed for the year. As soon as it’s dewatered, Bordner said, crews will be assigned to remove sediment from the dormant lock chambers, and clean, repair and/or replace stone masonry. Work will be ongoing at the site through early July.