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Walking tour brings canal back to life Lockport-area residents portray figures in history of city, construction and operation of waterway

Many local people, as well as out-of-towners, don't know what the Flight of Five and the Erie Canal locks are all about.

At a dress rehearsal Monday morning, dignitaries and the media got an advance look at a walking tour designed to tell the canal's story.

The program, developed by the Erie Canal Discovery Center, will make its debut at 10 a.m. Friday.

The tours will begin at the Discovery Center, Church and Ontario streets, at 10 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays through the end of August.

Tickets are $5 for adults, $4 for children and $12 for families.

Robert Nemi, a recent Niagara University graduate, leads the tour in the guise of Patrick, a canal worker.

Melding the past and the present, Nemi explains what once stood on the sites through which he leads the tour. At other times, he speaks as if the canal were currently under construction.

"Lockport is a city of water and stone," Nemi told the first-day audience. "The stone provides unlimited resources for the Irish stonecutters."

The Irish immigrants who answered newspaper advertisements for canal diggers were paid $12 a month plus a bed in a canalside shanty town and free whiskey, Nemi said.

Other locals who may pop up from time to time include Clinton J. Starke, who portrays Gov. DeWitt Clinton, the man who pushed for the construction of the canal 190 years ago.

Karen Cassidy plays Aunt Edna, the wife of Isaiah Smith, Lockport's first doctor, who lived in a log cabin on Main Street.

Patrick Hannigan takes the role of John Allen, a "pick-and-shovel Irishman" who worked on the canal and later became mayor of Rochester.

Some other old-time Lockport figures also might appear during the tours. Kay Burgess, for example, portrays Dr. Sarah Lamb Cushing, Lockport's first female physician, who hung her shingle here before the Civil War.

Marsha Zimmer plays Isabella Sutherland, one of the seven Sutherland sisters whose exceptionally long hair made them local celebrities more than 100 years ago.

"She was the ugly one," Zimmer said of Isabella. "Look at the photos."

The use of locals in period costume is not new here. The Niagara County Historical Society, which operates the Discovery Center, has used actors at several special events over the years.

"We used to do it only occasionally. Now we're trying to make it a permanent part of the venue," Cassidy said.

Nemi and the others are working from a script by Diane Koplas and Lois Begley.

The tours are a first step toward an interpretive program telling the canal story to what organizers hope will be a growing influx of tourists, especially if Mayor Michael W. Tucker succeeds in his plan to return the Flight of Five -- the 19th century locks -- to operating condition.

Today, the old locks are merely a spillway for the two huge steel locks. But the city has received $3.3 million in state, federal and foundation grants for restoration.

The city is looking for more money for the project, which might cost as much as $14 million, although Tucker said last week the city might have to borrow money to cover the total outlay.

The city's consultants and the New York State Canal Corp. are working on solutions to engineering issues that might impede the restoration.

Even though restoration work might be two years away, Tucker said the tours will be useful.

"Whether we're restoring the locks or not, there's a story about the locks and how our city was founded. The restoration will just add to it," he said.

"The people who are most enthusiastic about the tour are the Canal Corp. employees who work at the locks," said David R. Kinyon, chairman of the city's Flight of Five Committee. "They end up talking to a lot of the visitors."

The tour will take visitors from the Discovery Center to the locks a block away and then down the towpath a short distance before cutting over to Upson Park.

There, they will hop on Tour Lockport Trolley to return to the Discovery Center.

The trolley, formerly known as the Towpath Trolley, is owned by Ridge Road Express, which supplies two drivers.

The trolley will operate from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week through Labor Day, according to manager Jonathan Griffiths.

The city and the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. are paying $7,000 each to operate the trolley, which has an hourly route of nine stops.

Douglas Farley, director of the center, said no fare is charged but donations are accepted.


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