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Friday events to mark opening of Erie Canal locks for season

LOCKPORT – The city will hold two special events Friday to mark the opening of this year’s Erie Canal navigation and raise funds for this year’s demonstrations of how the canal locks worked almost 200 years ago.

The first-ever Lock Tenders Tribute starts at 5 p.m. and will honor the volunteers who will open and close the restored locks for the benefit of tourists this summer.

Also, the boats leased by the Locks Heritage District Corp. will be dedicated. They will go up and down between the two restored 19th century locks in the so-called Flight of Five, adding more authenticity and interest to the demonstrations of how the system worked between the canal’s opening in 1825 and 1914, when the two large steel locks in use today were installed.

The 25-foot boats, called bateaux, were lent to the city by Buffalo Maritime Center. The Locks Heritage agency has a $30,000 grant in hand from Yahoo to buy a boat, but the money must be spent this year.

David R. Kinyon, president of the locks agency, said finding a permanent boat is a priority for the corporation. Without a boat, all visitors see are gates opening and water flowing in and out.

The gates are opened manually by crews pushing and pulling on long wooden beams. Last year, about 75 people volunteered for the work as “lock tenders,” and with that number, they only had to work about once a month.

This year, Kinyon says he doesn’t know how many there will be. In addition to manning the gates, the boats have to pulled into place by two extra people using ropes, Kinyon said.

“Canal enthusiasts and those who appreciate our rich local history will really enjoy the event,” Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey said.

Besides the boats and the volunteers, a clay model of proposed statuary for the locks area will be on display. Youngstown sculptor Susan Geissler has been hired to produce a cast bronze work depicting the 13 figures in a mid-1890s photo of Lockport canal workers.

“It’s called a concept model,” Geissler said. “It’s maybe 20 inches long by 12 inches high.”

She said the price of producing the 13 figures in bronze will be just over $1 million. “They have to be life-size so they can sit on the steps,” Geissler said, referring to a flight of concrete steps in the locks area.

Kinyon said that for funding, “We’re primarily looking at foundations and other non-governmental sources.” Geissler said the work would take 2½ to three years to complete. The model, she said, took her four days.

The model will not leave Geissler’s studio except for special events like Friday’s, Kinyon said.

At present, Flight of Five demonstrations are scheduled for 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays from May 28 to Oct. 1. Kinyon said Mondays may be added. “Traffic counts from the Erie Canal Discovery Center show Monday is a heavy traffic day, more so than Sunday,” he said. That seems to be because tourists who come to Lockport from Niagara Falls tend to spend the weekend in the Falls.

After Friday’s event at the locks, the fundraiser, “Selfies from the Past,” will start at 6 p.m. in Old City Hall, 2 Pine St. The building will be decorated with 19th century scenes, and historical re-enactors from Lockport’s Step Back in Time players will be available for photos.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com