Local Erie Canal volunteers and aficionados will celebrate the canal opening for the season Saturday afternoon.

The ceremonies will begin at 3:30 p.m. with presentation of the 14th annual Key to the Locks Award at Erie Canal Discovery Center. John McKee, who has been the chief lockmaster at the Lockport Locks since 2016, was selected for this year's award for his work with volunteer lock tenders and flower tenders, as well as his efforts to redevelop the Locks District Museum, which opened in 2018.

The celebration will then move to Canal Street for the Lock Tenders Tribute at 5 p.m. Local elected officials and regional trail advocates will honor the work of the Niagara River Greenway Commission and the Ralph Wilson Foundation in enhancing local sections of the Empire State Trail, a planned 750-mile, multi-use trail that will run to each of the three corners of the state.

The tribute will also continue a tradition of honoring lock tenders of years past. This year, the tribute will memorialize Michael Oates, one of the 12 lock tenders shown in the 1897 photo that is currently being commissioned into a 14-figure sculpture (other figures include a photographer and a young girl seated with the lock tenders). 

Sculptor Susan Geissler of Youngstown recently completed the clay models of the first phase of the monument, which includes four figures, according to David Kinyon, chairman of the Locks District Heritage Corporation. The models were shipped to a foundry in Colorado, where they will be cast in bronze. 

Kinyon said the sculptures are scheduled to be finished and installed in time for Locktoberfest in late September.

A ticketed reception will follow the Lock Tender Tribute at 6 p.m. at Lock 34 Bar & Grill. Admission to the Key to the Locks and Lock Tender Tribute ceremonies is free, while tickets for the reception can be purchased at Mills Jewelers or the Flight of Five Winery.