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Lockport zip line hoping to snag tourists from U.S. side of Niagara Falls

A new zip line is adding some zip to local tourism.

The Niagara Zipper, which opened in late August, gives visitors and locals the chance to ride a wire as much as 110 feet above the waters of the Erie Canal in Lockport.

The U.S. Coast Guard, one of the agencies that had to approve the project, says it's the only zip line ride over a navigable waterway anywhere in the nation.

"Awesome," Carrie Ryan of Lockport said after taking the ride Sunday.

She said she's done the zip line through the woods in Ellicottville, but Ryan said, "It's so much more thrilling to look at the canal."

"I think by next summer, everyone's going to be out here," said another rider, Tiffany Mikits of Lockport. "It's a nice addition to Lockport with everything going on."

The thrill ride, operated by Hydraulic Race Co., owners of the Lockport Cave underground boat ride, puts an adventure component into a mix of attractions that some have regarded as a little too earnest.

Lockport still offers a look at how the Erie Canal locks worked nearly 200 years ago, through its weekly demonstrations of the partially restored 19th century locks, called the Flight of Five. There's a boat ride through the locks, as well as a couple of canal-related museums and other historical sites.

But there was nothing like the zip line.

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"This adds an adventure tourism component that Lockport did not have, and that's an entirely different demographic than we have brought into Lockport," said Thomas P. Callahan, co-owner of Hydraulic Race.

"It shows that coming to Lockport can appeal to all different types of visitors," Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey said. "If you're a history buff, you can come and learn about the history of the Erie Canal. If you're a more adventurous person, you can come and take a thrilling zip line ride over the canal."

Complements Niagara Falls

For many years, Lockport has been trying to lure some of Niagara Falls' annual 8 million visitors to stop off on the way to or from the Falls, and Niagara Falls has been looking for a way to keep tourists in the area longer.

The zip line might help with both goals.

"This new product to me is one that ties in perfectly with our new brand, 'Where Adventure Comes Naturally,' " said John H. Percy Jr., president of Destination Niagara USA. "The U.S. side is known for more of its natural assets and the adventure that can be found here."

"If we can contribute to that and have folks come to Lockport for a day, doing our attractions and then going back to their Niagara Falls hotels, that's really contributing to the region," McCaffrey said. "That's something we're really striving together for."

And the Niagara Zipper presents an early cure to a potential case of zip line envy. On the Canadian side of the border, zip lines to the base of the Horseshoe Falls and over the Whirlpool opened this year.

Callahan said his long-range plans call for a rope course or adventure course along the steep bluffs near the locks.

But Lockport isn't giving up on its canal history theme. The city has received a $160,000 state grant to upgrade the small museum at the locks, and construction may begin this winter on restoration of the third of the five original locks.

Also, the state Dormitory Authority has just released a $300,000 grant, which it approved two years ago, to shore up the long-vacant Electric Building beside the locks. The private owners of that five-story building have ideas ranging from a banquet center to bungee jumping down an elevator shaft.

Financial challenge

Callahan wouldn't say how much he and his business partner, Clarence "Clancy" Burkwit, spent to make the zip line a reality, except to say the investment was "not for the faint of heart."

"Every part that went into this was a special order that would take up to a month to deliver," Callahan said.

He and Burkwit used only local contractors and U.S.-made parts for the project, with different crews working on all three towers simultaneously. Two of them are on state Canal Corp. property; the state is charging $4,450 a year for the permit.

Callahan charges $24.99 plus tax for the ride, with online-only reservations. The Zipper will be open limited hours and only on weekends and some Fridays until it closes for the season Nov. 5, as the staff become accustomed to their duties on the ride.

Callahan hired 12 part-time employees just to work on the Zipper. Next year, he might hire another dozen.

For now the number of riders is being restricted to 20 per hour.

Zip line ride filled with fear, fun

"We're controlling the ridership to make sure the staff is performing their duties and it's being operated in a safe manner," Callahan said.

The ride starts 110 feet above the water and takes the rider more than 400 feet diagonally across the canal to a platform on the opposite side that is 25 feet lower than the starting point.

A second diagonal glide back across the canal is more than 600 feet long and makes a 57-foot drop along the way.

"I'm terrified of heights, and this was on the bucket list," said Kristie Maynard of the Town of Tonawanda. "That second platform was harder to get off of. Once you get going, it's fun."

"I'd recommend it for older people. It's not really scary," said David Downey, 71, of Lockport, who also took the ride Sunday.

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