Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

May 1, 2013

'World class' destination building in progress

By Joyce M. Miles
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — Construction work at the Flight of Five canal locks area will begin in July.

Design of a full size wooden Erie Canal packet boat, circa 1865, to be used for demonstration purposes at the restored locks, is being attempted from scant historical records — and anyone who has literature referencing boat building from the period or, even better, photos, is invited to share with the designers at Buffalo Maritime Center.

Design of a Canal Street “gateway” or front door to the Lockport Locks Heritage District remains in progress. The volunteers who’ve been vetting sketches to date are finding it difficult to pick one that tells the story of the Lock City’s rise accurately, engagingly and in a visually appealing way that’s the opposite of “Disney-fied.”

These are the updates provided to the public in the latest Flight of Five Forum, held Tuesday at the History Center of Niagara County by the volunteers who’ve been managing the raising of a tourist-ready canal district in the city.

Flight of Five locks restoration, to their functionality and appearance in the mid 19th century, is the centerpiece of the volunteers’ efforts.

After 10 years of plotting, pushing for funding and signoffs from the government entities that have a say in the work, Locks Heritage District Committee Chairman David Kinyon seemed proud to report, “this year we are in a totally different mode ... we are mobilizing” to start the restoration, with a pilot project involving two of the five locks.

Creation of a “world-class tourist destination” remains the committee’s goal, restoration Program Manager Peter Welsby said. Despite the financial and bureaucratic challenges, “we have not wavered.”

Welsby took forum attendees through the restoration program briefly. Locks 69 and 70, which are the middle and second-from-top locks in the more-than-150-year-old Flight of Five series, will be made functional again, that is, capable of raising and lowering watercraft through the canal, after a century of being used as a spillway for the parallel, modern locks E34 and E35.

Concrete dams in either old lock will be modified or removed. Sediment that in spots is up to 5 feet high will be removed from the chambers and the original wooden lock flooring beneath will be replaced as needed. Original iron railings, showing the rope burns from boats being pulled by mules, will be preserved and replacement railings replaced. Lighting atop each lock will be returned, albeit electric rather than gas-powered. Existing masonry will be repaired or replaced only where necessary to assure visitors’ safety, Welsby said; the aim is to leave precious original stonework as intact as possible.

Then for the exciting part, Welsby said: “Massive” wooden gates and “huge” balance beams will be installed, so that the locks can be filled and emptied of water, and boat traffic moved through the locks, manually. The balance beams will be hinged, so their ends can be tucked in and not blocking the canal towpath when the locks are inactive. 

The $2.6 million construction project is to be capped off with the floating of a full-size packet boat in the locks. The boat is to be built by volunteers under the supervision of Roger Allen, executive director of the Buffalo Maritime Center.

The boat will be constructed indoors, at Harrison Place, Allen and Kinyon confirmed. In response to a forum attendee’s speculation that up to several hundred community members will want in on the construction, Allen said, “that’s great,” meaning they’ll all be welcomed.

Boat construction won’t take place until the funding is raised, however. The Locks District Committee will solicit charitable funding once boat design yields an approximate construction cost, Kinyon said. An early estimate ran about $168,000.