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The boats are in Lockport for demonstration of restored locks

LOCKPORT – Although there was enthusiasm over the restoration of two of Lockport’s original five Erie Canal locks to working condition, visitors and volunteers alike often thought that it might be a more impressive sight if there were a boat in the locks to demonstrate how craft went up and down nearly 200 years ago.

This season, that problem has been solved, and visitors to the Flight of Five, as the old locks are known, will be able to see something more than gates opening and closing to let water in and out.

“We’re very excited about having boats in the locks,” said Brian M. Smith, city planning and development director. “There’s no question the boats enhance it, for sure.”

Buffalo Maritime Center has lent two bateaux – small wooden sailing boats – to the city for use when the Flight opens for the season in early May.

Until then, they have been in storage at Harrison Place in Lockport.

“There may be a donation or sale in the future, we’re not sure,” said Roger Allen, director of Buffalo Maritime Center. “They wanted to get some boats in the locks, and we have the two bateaux that were of a sort of boats that might have been used in the canal when the Flight of Five was finally open.”

The city’s Locks Heritage District Corp., which operates and maintains the Flight of Five under terms of a contract with the state Canal Corp., also plans to start construction this year on restoration on the third of the five locks. The eventual goal is to complete all five, and have the entire staircaselike system of locks working as it did when the canal opened in 1825.

The original locks were made of wood, but by 1842 they had been rebuilt in limestone, and that’s what is being restored, although some of the original wood was found during the work on the first two locks, which were completed in the fall of 2014.

They had been used only as a spillway for 100 years, after the two current steel locks were installed in 1914. Those locks are the ones that will continue to be used for today’s traffic of tour boats, pleasure boats and the occasional commercial shipment.

Commercial shipping was what the canal was all about when it was built between 1817 and 1825, as crews of workmen dug and blasted their way across the state at the behest of Gov. DeWitt Clinton to create a waterway that would connect Lake Erie to the Hudson River, enabling shipments of agricultural and other products from Western New York and the Midwest to reach New York City far more easily, quickly and cheaply than had been possible before.

The small boats were typical of the kind of craft that carried the goods. “They’re going to look great in the locks,” Smith said. “We’re going to put some cargo on them.”

To depict cargo, he added, “There was some interest in barrels. I’m sure the interpretation committee (of the Locks District board) will come up with something good.”

Allen said the wooden boats were made as part of the observance of the bicentennial of the War of 1812. “They’re re-creations of the bateaux that were pretty commonly used in the region. They were used on the rivers locally and on the lakefront. The type of boat, the bateaux, is one of the boats that were introduced by French settlers, voyageurs, that came into the area. They’re an early type of freight boat.”

Christopher Andrle, the crew chief on the construction of the bateaux, said he did the original research and supervised the work on the Maritime Center’s first bateau.

“The ones Lockport has are actually the second and third boats,” Andrle said. “They were built by Erie County Workforce Development students under direction of myself and a couple other people from the maritime center. They were inner-city kids, high school age, who had never held tools before, some of them.”

The first bateau was made in 2010 and was shipped to Montana, where a group of Boy Scouts used it to re-enact the Lewis and Clark expedition. The other two, now in Lockport, were displayed for the past few years in the Commercial Slip in Buffalo’s Inner Harbor.

Allen said, “We want the Flight of Five thing to fly. We think that it’s a great project and we want to support it any way we can.”

Allen said the boats, which are about eight feet wide and 25 feet long, normally undergo maintenance from volunteers this time of year.

Andrle said, “Every winter we would bring those boats into the shop and do some minor repairs and throw a coat of paint on them, and they would really look good.”

Any local residents who would like to take part in such work should call Smith’s City Hall office at 439-6688.

So far, no money has changed hands. Yahoo, the Internet company that operates a data center in the Town of Lockport, gave Locks Heritage a $42,000 grant late last year, of which $30,000 was earmarked for buying a demonstration boat for the Flight of Five – as long as the money was spent in 2016.

“We will buy a boat,” Smith vowed. But it’s still undecided if one will be bought “off the rack” or whether a purpose-built boat will be designed.

Allen said Buffalo Maritime Center has discussed that with the city in the past, and is continuing to do so.

A major packet boat-building project was discussed, starting in 2012, but the cost estimate was $245,000, which was out of Lockport’s price range.

Allen said he’s discussed a “Durham boat” with the city. “They’re probably the next step up from the bateau as far as freight boats were concerned in the region,” Allen said. “When the canal first opened, the first boats were Durham boats that eventually were converted into what became the standard packet boat.”

A 25-to-30-foot Durham boat has been discussed, with Lockport and Buffalo volunteers building it for an estimated $20,000 to $25,000, Allen said. “We were trying to give them the most boat for the least amount of money,” he said.

Smith said, “If we find the right existing boat out there that we can afford, we’ll do that instead.”