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Working to duplicate a historic Lockport photo in bronze

LOCKPORT – In 1897, some of the men who worked on the Erie Canal locks in Lockport posed for a group photograph.

Someday soon – if about $1 million can be raised – that locally renowned photo may be duplicated in bronze.

At a ceremony May 20, several members of the Lockport Fire Department dressed up in period costumes on a set of steps between the original locks and the current locks, looking as much as possible like the men – and one of the workers’ daughters – who posed for the 1897 photo.

That was just for promotional purposes. The Lockport Locks Heritage District Corp. hopes to come up with the cash for Youngstown sculptor Susan Geissler to duplicate the scene with life-size statues.

Geissler brought a clay model of what she hopes to accomplish to a May 20 event that honored today’s volunteer lock tenders, who will be in charge of showing how the original locks worked every Saturday this summer. The demonstration began Saturday and will be held every Saturday between 10 a.m. and noon until Oct. 1.

Geissler’s idea is to create a statue of an old-fashioned photographer, crouching under a cloak behind a box camera, which would be set up a short distance from the steps. The other figures would duplicate the poses in the photo.

It’s part of an interpretive plan for building the Flight of Five, the surviving set of 19th century stairstep canal locks, into a tourist attraction. Two of the five have been restored to working order, and construction is expected to start on a third this year. This year’s demonstrations will include two vintage-looking boats, lent to Lockport by the Buffalo Maritime Center, which will be towed by the volunteers from one lock to another, just as the professional lock tenders did until 1914, when the two modern steel locks were installed.

The volunteers will pull on one-ton beams made of white oak to open and close the 5-ton lock gates, also made of white oak.

To mark the launching of the boats at the May 20 event, Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey and John Montague, president of Buffalo Maritime Center, smashed a bottle of champagne against a lock gate. The mayor’s right foot was doused in splashing wine. “I’ve never done that before,” she told Montague.

Jeffrey Degnan, a member of the Heritage District board and a graphic artist for the Niagara County Economic Development Department, said that it’s clear that the men in the 1897 photo sat on the first set of steps east of the Pine Street Bridge. But Geissler’s figures are to be installed on the first set of steps west of that bridge because that set of steps today has railings installed on three sides. The statue location was chosen “for safety reasons. There’s no through traffic,” Degnan said.

The plan is to erect the figures in three stages rather than all at once, said C. Peter Henderson, Geissler’s husband and business manager.

Geissler would create the statues in clay over a period of 18 to 20 months, and then send them to a foundry to have the bronze castings applied over the clay.

“When Susan gets everything ready, in the 18th month, all five go in. While that’s going through the process, the next five, she’ll be working on those,” Henderson said. “Those would go in another six to eight months, and then the last ones, they would go in in another six to eight months. So it would be like a kinetic installation.”

Geissler created the Freedom Crossing statue in Lewiston and is working on a Millard Fillmore statue to be placed outside the East Aurora home of the 13th president.

Degnan said he has researched the photo extensively, along with Deputy County Historian Craig Bacon.

They found an 1897 newspaper clipping that lists the names of the 20 lock tenders appointed for that year. They were state employees, although they all lived in Lockport, Degnan said. Not all of them are in the photo, but Degnan said he has been able to establish the identities of four workers who are definitely pictured.

They include Frederick J. Wagner, who is marked with an X in the photo, and whose son donated it to the Niagara County Historical Society. The little girl on the right side of the photo is Bessie Wagner, Fred’s daughter.

Others definitely identified include Ira M. McCoy, who later became a Lockport alderman, and foreman Martin Noonan, whose brother became pastor of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Lockport.

Heritage District President David R. Kinyon said the group considers it important “that we are able to tell the stories about the people who were so instrumental in operating the Flight of Five locks. That’s why we’re particularly excited about the tremendous amount of artistic ability that Susan Geissler has brought to this endeavor.”

Geissler said, “It’s really fun to learn the history about the people in these sculptures that I make, to bring them to life and make them come to life for the people that stand in front of them, so that they can own the sculpture.”

She said she thinks it’s necessary to put some emotion into the work. Kinyon said, “We can celebrate what the Lockport lock tenders have meant to us over the years through Susan’s great artistic skills.”