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Canal Society’s Lockport trip jibes with boat tour anniversary

LOCKPORT – The Canal Society of New York State will be making a field trip to Lockport on Saturday, the same day that Lockport Locks and Erie Canal Cruises begins its 30th year of operation.

The canal buffs will be taking a canal trip aboard the company’s paddlewheel boat as part of a field trip from their annual spring conference Friday through Sunday.

The event is headquartered this year in the Adam’s Mark Hotel in Buffalo.

Mike Murphy, who owns the tour boat company with his wife, Sharon, said the operation started in 1987 with two 18-passenger pontoon boats operating from Lockport’s Nelson C. Goehle Widewaters Marina. Ridership the first year was about 4,000, Murphy recalled.

Last year, the company’s three boats carried a total of about 40,000 people through the Erie Canal locks.

The fleet now includes Lockview IV, a 40-foot, 50-passenger cruiser launched in 1990, which Murphy said is modeled after the African Queen, the boat in a famous Humphrey Bogart-Katherine Hepburn movie; Lockview V, acquired in 1995, a 55-foot, 150-passenger boat originally built for a whale watching company; and Lockview VI, a 70-foot, 150-passenger Mississippi River-style riverboat with two paddlewheels in the back.

Murphy bought that boat two years ago in Alexandria Bay, in northern New York, and sailed it across Lake Ontario to bring it home for renovation.

In 1997, Murphy opened his Lockport Canalside Banquet Center in a former 19th century factory at 210 Market St.

His company employs 75 people during its peak summer season. “The key to any successful business is good employees,” Murphy said. “It makes life easy.”

The banquet center has been around long enough that it’s attracting second-generation customers.

“We’re getting daughters of people who were married here. Now they’re coming back to have their weddings here,” Murphy said.

“People who were on field trips with different schools, now they’re getting married here. It’s really how to feel old in a hurry.”

But Murphy just renewed his captain’s license for another five years, so his retirement is not imminent.

“My grandson’s working with us. He’s taking on more of the responsibilities,” Murphy said.

Although the public season for the boat tours begins Saturday, the actual opener is a private event Friday night marking the graduation of the Reserve Officers Training Corps students from Canisius College, including dinner and a boat ride.

The company’s season will last until Oct. 10.

For the Lockport field trip, which also includes stops at the Commercial Slip in Buffalo and canal-related sites in the Tonawandas and Lockport, Canal Society president emeritus Thomas X. Grasso said, “We’re hoping for a busload, so that would be 45 to 50.”

“This will be the first time since 2006 that the Canal Society will be holding a major meeting in the Erie-Niagara region,” said David R. Kinyon, president of the Lockport Locks Heritage District Corp. and a Canal Society board member.

The Saturday field trip will include a visit to the Long Homestead in the City of Tonawanda, as well as Gateway Park and abandoned parts of the original Erie Canal in Tonawanda and North Tonawanda, Kinyon said.

In Lockport, the group will see a demonstration of the two restored locks in the Flight of Five, the remaining stairstep locks from the original canal.

Grasso said the Flight of Five project “is very exciting. We want to draw attention to it. It’s what we do.”

Originally there were two flights, one eastbound and one westbound, but the eastbound set of five locks was removed when the modern steel locks were installed 102 years ago.

But Grasso said the principle of the cut through the Niagara Escarpment at Lockport remains intact.

It is “to keep the canal going downhill from Lake Erie … It’s still there. It’s only wider and deeper than it was in DeWitt Clinton’s time.”

Clinton was the governor who persuaded the State Legislature to go along with his canal dream 200 years ago.

“There were staircase sets of locks before Lockport, but Lockport’s were side by side. That was unique in Western civilization,” Grasso said.

The Canal Society gathers Friday at the Adam’s Mark. Events for early arrivals include lunch at Pearl Street Grill & Brewery, a walking tour of Buffalo’s Upper Terrace, including downtown architecture and a trip on the fireboat Edward M. Cotter.

Saturday’s bus trip leaves the hotel at 8 a.m., stopping first in the Canalside district before heading for the Tonawandas. The group will reach Lockport in time for lunch at Murphy’s facility before boarding the Lockview VI.

After the boat ride, the group will see the Flight of Five in action before touring Old City Hall and the historic Mill Race Building at the locks.

Saturday night, Robert Gioia, chairman of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., will address the society’s spring dinner on the topic of “Buffalo’s New Waterfront.”

The 350-member organization’s biggest event is the New York State Canal Conference every two years. This year it is being held from Oct. 6-8 in Auburn.

Meanwhile, the public demonstrations of the restored Flight of Five will begin May 28, from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays. Kinyon said there’s a possibility of adding Monday hours as well.

This year, the Locks Heritage group has acquired two boats, called “bateaux,” which will be used to go up and down in the old locks. Lent by the Buffalo Maritime Center, the 27-foot Black Rock and the 25-foot Robert Irwin were sanded, caulked, primed and painted by a team of volunteers in early April at Harrison Place, where they will be stored in the offseason.

“They’re going to be kept through the season in the locks,” Kinyon said.

For further authenticity, “We’ve pretty well identified some ‘cargo’ from McCollum Orchards,” Kinyon said. That means barrels and crates to ride on the boats, simulating the transport of agricultural products that was Clinton’s original reason for building the canal in the first place.

The locks will be opened and closed by six-person teams of volunteers, manually pulling long wooden balance beams, as the original canal workers did.

Those interested in volunteering as a “lock tender” may call Ray Wigle at the Erie Canal Discovery Center, 439-0431, or send an email to canaldiscovery@yahoo.com.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com