Part of Lockport’s Erie Canal story is found in its rocks. What is now known as the Lockport Formation of the Niagara Escarpment actually contains the rocks in question. Scientists tell us that the beginning of this story dates back to the “Middle Silurian Age,” nearly 500,000 years ago, when the entire region was underwater, covered with a vast sea. The rocks formed from marine sediments that were deposited on the floor of this great lake eventually building up to form what is now called Lockport Dolomite. This rock formation is up to 198 feet thick at various places in the United States and Canada.

The same geological formation runs across NYS for over 200 miles eastward from Niagara County to Herkimer County. The Niagara Escarpment leaves New York to the west by traveling along the Niagara Peninsula in Canada and thence northward to Lake Huron and Georgian Bay and then southwest to Lake Michigan and again southward to Sault Ste. Marie and eventually coming to an end near Chicago.

The Dolomite name refers to both a rock and a mineral. The rock is now more frequently called Dolostone and the mineral found in the rock is Dolomite. Complicating the situation a little more, the same rock/mineral formation is sometimes called Niagara Limestone. Lockport Dolomite can easily be seen along the Niagara Escarpment at Lockport, especially downtown, near the locks. The formation here is about 75 feet high and it represented one of the most difficult challenges for the completion of the Erie Canal. Back in the 1820s, there were no drills that could penetrate the rock to make a hole in which to pour black blasting powder. The Canal Commissioners solved the matter by issuing a competition and prize. A reward of $100 was offered to anyone who could temper a drill hard enough to bore into the rock. The lucky recipient of the reward, Lockport blacksmith, Mr. Botsford, devised a “star bit” drill that was harder than the rock. It took two men to operate the drill - one would hold and turn the diamond shaped bit and the other would strike the hammer blows. The new drill proved a success and helped to set the stage for the huge transformation to take place in Lockport.

During the building of the Flight of Five and the Deep Cut west of Lockport, thousands of tons of dolomite had to be unearthed and removed from the canal excavation. Often the stone was simply dumped nearby, later, once the canal was completed, some of the stone was transported by barge to other communities, to be used in buildings and bridges. The use of wheel barrels alone to remove the stone from the work site proved slow and laborious. Another invention proved itself invaluable to remove rock debris from the canal bed in Lockport. In 1824, Lockport’s canal engineer, Orringh (Orange) Dibble, designed a more efficient method of removing debris from the canal floor. Dibble invented and built a horse-drawn crane that revolutionized the excavation work. With this crane, buckets full of rock could be raised the 60 feet needed to swing around and empty rock debris from the canal bed. These cranes were set up every seventy feet along the route.

Here in Lockport, canal stone was readily available and plentiful for building. Stonemasons of several nationalities, English, Irish, Germans and others, made many cut-stone houses, churches and businesses that still grace the streets of the community. The masons would often utilize finished, smooth stone for the fronts of their buildings, but would utilize “rubble” or irregular stone for the sides and backs.

The Erie Canal Discovery Center is housed in one such canal stone building. Built in 1843 as the Universalist Church, the building displays the fine craftsmanship of the stonemasons of the time. It survived several disastrous city fires that destroyed all of the other churches on Church Street. The building later became known as the Church of the Redeemer. In the 20th century the site was called The Hamilton House and was used for several decades for youth activities of the First Presbyterian Church located across the street. Many folks from Lockport and beyond still have fond memories of community dances, basketball, or even roller-skating in the building. Today, this 19th century classic Erie Canal building has found new life as a state-of-the art interpretive center for the history of the Erie Canal and especially Lockport’s Flight of Five locks.

Doug Farley is director of the Erie Canal Discovery Center. Contact him at 434-7433. The Discovery Center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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