Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

November 30, 2013

NIAGARA DISCOVERIES: Eighteen Mile Creek enabled industrial giants

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Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — Throughout its history, Lockport has had many places that would be considered “industrial.” The area immediately around and just below the Flight of Five was a hub of activity during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Companies such as Holly and Richmond Manufacturing, Norman and Evans, Western Block, Lockport Paper, Thompson Flour Mill, Carlos Holly, United Box and Board, Oliver Brothers Bedstead and many others lined the banks of both sides of the canal.

Just slightly to the north of the canal is Eighteen Mile Creek. Before the locks and canal were even built, early entrepreneurs were using the water from the creek to power small shops and mills, hence the name Mill Street, which runs parallel to the waterway. 

With the building of the locks and canal, Eighteen Mile Creek was routed underground (and under the canal), dammed to create mill ponds, and became another center of commercial and industry. Here is a brief history of a number of these companies.

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The Cowles Chemical Company was founded in Lockport in 1886, by brothers Alfred and Eugene Cowles. They used a method developed by Charles Martin Hall of Ohio to extract pure aluminum from bauxite by using an internally heated electric furnace. 

The company was located in a stone building on Eighteen Mile Creek at 555 Jackson St., at the foot of Gooding Street. 

By 1890, the price of pure aluminum went from $15 per pound to 50 cents per pound. In 1903, Cowles was bought out by the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) but kept the name Cowles. The company produced aluminum until 1938. Harrison Radiator of Lockport was one of the major buyers of aluminum. 

From 1938 to 1960, the company produced laundry detergent, then went out of business.

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Norton Laboratories was started in 1915, to produce “metallic magnesium.” It had previously been imported from Germany but due to World War I the supply was cut off. Metallic magnesium is a strong but lightweight metal that was used in the manufacture of military aircraft as well as in photographic development. 

After World War I, the company began making bases for radio tubes and developing products made of synthetic plastics, including collaborating with Eastman Kodak to manufacture an inexpensive camera in 1933. Later in the 1930s the company began to make car parts for Cadillac and LaSalle automobiles. It also produced Bakelite for use in pot and pan handles and other cooking equipment. 

The company was bought by Auburn Plastics in 1958 and continued production until 1981, when the plant closed unexpectedly under unexplained circumstances.

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United Indurated Fibre Company was started in Lockport in 1885, with a three-story building on the south side of the Gooding Street hill across the road from Eighteen Mile Creek.

Its products were made from wood pulp, the advantage of which is that products made from it would not shrink, swell, leak, water-soak or rust. Wood is a non-conducting material, so the outer surface would stay cool when filled with the hottest liquid.

The problem with wood pulp is that it is very flammable. In 1893, the buildings were destroyed by fire and rebuilt across the creek on Mill Street. Fires occurred again in 1900, 1909 and two in 1915. With the continued risk of fire and the production of galvanized steel containers, the company ceased operation in 1922.

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Today, these industries are gone and the area has become a mecca for industrial historians and archeologists.

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