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Hopes revived for historical accuracy at canal locks

Some brainstorming by the staff of the State Canal Corp. has improved prospects for a historically accurate re-creation of the original Erie Canal locks.

The plan would return the Flight of Five, as the 19th century set of stair-step locks are known, to working condition -- if the city can find $10 million. It has received $3 million in state, federal and foundation money already and is actively looking for more.

But the project appeared to have struck a wall a couple of months ago, when Peter J. Welsby, the project manager, reported that the Canal Corp. was taking a tough stand altering its Lockport operation to accommodate the Flight of Five restoration.

But when he met Monday with the city's Fight of Five Committee, Welsby had better news to report.
He said a test with a Canal Corp. crane will be conducted shortly to determine exactly how wide the concrete bridge above the locks needs to be to accommodate heavy vehicles. The test, Welsby said, is expected to show that the Canal Corp. will find that the bridge needs to be only 8 feet wide instead of the current 16 feet.

Removing 8 feet of concrete will leave enough room for the gate at the topmost lock in the flight to be opened and closed with the same sort of long balance beams that were used when the stone locks were installed about 170 years ago to replace the original wooden ones.

"That's a huge breakthrough," said David R. Kinyon, committee chairman. "It gives us a restored site that has integrity, which is what our goal has been all along."

Without changing the bridge, the beams would have struck the concrete and couldn't have opened the gates. Other systems could be used to open the gates, but they wouldn't have been historically accurate.

The city's plan, by Bergmann Associates, has to show some flexibility, too, Welsby said. The Canal Corp., for example, wants horizontal hinges in the lock gates to open them in case of emergencies if they happen to be in the closed position.

"I personally don't feel that's an unreasonable request," Welsby said. "It would be almost invisible."

The Canal Corp. also doesn't want to move or demolish the lock keeper's building, a small latter-day structure that happens to be loaded with asbestos.

That building also interferes with the movement of the balance beams, but the Canal Corp. suggests moving the topmost lock gate 12 feet to the west to avoid the beams striking the building.

"That's a lot better than not being able to do [the project]," said Jeffrey Degnan, graphic artist for Niagara County and a committee member. "We're definitely in a better place than we were a month ago."

The Flight of Five Committee is to meet March 27 with the board of Lockport's Grigg-Lewis Foundation to tout its request for another $300,000 grant. Three years ago, that foundation gave $120,000 to the project, which has been used to pay for Welsby's services and those of his architectural and engineering firm, Wendel Duchscherer.

Since the two current steel locks opened in 1914, the Flight of Five has been used as a spillway to catch the water that overflows when the steel locks open and close.

Two consecutive city administrations have backed the idea of replacing their gates and making them work as they did in the original canal days as a potential major tourist attraction. In addition to the hoped-for sales tax impact, four seasonal jobs and 35 to 50 construction jobs would be created, Welsby said.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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