Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Today was a very pleasant day spent in Lockport, NY. After a nice drive along Lake Ontario on the Seaway Trail, we turned inland a few miles to reach Lockport. The town was created when the Erie Canal was built – Lockport is the site of the last climb up to the level of Lake Erie. The Niagara Escarpment is a layer of rock that runs thru New York State, rising up suddenly like a wall (the Escarpment is what Niagara Falls plunges over). Lockport is where the canal met the escarpment.

To get over this barrier, which basically was a 50 foot rock cliff, a series of locks was built at what later became Lockport. 10 locks (5 up, 5 down) were constructed to raise or lower boats 10 feet at a time. These locks were considered an engineering marvel for their time, and became quite the tourist attraction when the canel opened in the 1820’s. These were later replaced with 2 larger locks which have a lift of 25 feet. One set of the original ‘Flight of Five’ locks still exists next to the newer locks.

Lockport does a nice job highlighting the town’s history. We started at the Erie Canal Discovery Center, which is a small but very well done museum about the canal, the history, and the people. I particularly liked this museum because so many of the displays involved audio recordings. Vance does much better retaining information he hears compared to reading. He’s also much more willing to spend the time listening to recordings on kiosks or displays than to sit and read. So I feel he gets a lot out of museums that have a large audio component.

Prior to construction of the Erie Canal, a trip from the Great Lakes area of Western New York to the port at New York City took 7 weeks, and freight rates were $100 a ton. Upon completion of the canal, the trip dropped to 7 days, and costs $10 a ton. The Erie Canal provided a direct waterway between New York City (via the Hudson River) and the Great Lakes, and made possible towns like Chicago, Detroit, etc….

The museum had a great hands on display showing how locks worked, where you closed the gates and opened water values to raise or lower a boat. After a few iterations, Vance had it down pat. This was the perfect introduction to our next visit, which was to the locks themselves. We were lucky in that shortly after we walked over to the locks, 3 boats came thru to be lowered, so we observed them in operation.

After a nice lunch at a local diner, we took a trolley tour around town describing it’s history and viewing some surprisingly large mansions for a little town.

We then took the ‘Lockport Cave Tour’, which was cool in every sense of the word. Aside the locks, local industrialists drilled a 1600 foot tunnel to divert water. Taking advantage of the nearby 60 foot drop, several factories used the hydropower to turn turbines, which provided power via leather belts and pulleys for the machinery. The power tunnel still exists, although mostly dried out. You enter the tunnel thru the exit penstocks – literally an old pipe sticking out of the hill! Once inside, you can walk the length of the tunnel, as well as a short boat ride, learning more about the history of the area. The constant 58 degrees in the tunnel was a cool break from the heat outside.

Local son Birdsill Hollis was the resident genius, who is second only to Thomas Edison in the number of patents held. Besides inventing multiple machines to aid in the construction of the canal, he also was a main force behind building the power tunnel, and invented the fire hydrant. His fire hydrant factory sat on top of the power tunnel. In what can only be described as ironic, it later burned down!

Another local industrialist started a wall board company. Due to a lack of supplies at one point, he decided to copy some pictures made from carved wood pieces he had seen in New York City. Printing a picture on his wallboard, and cutting it up into small interlocking pieces, he invented the jigsaw puzzle. Apparently his company, which is still the premier jigsaw company in the world, made far more money from the puzzles than the wallboard.

The highlight of the day was a 2 hour cruise on the canal. On a boat that was built as a replica of the ‘African Queen’, we went both up and down the locks, and under a couple of antique lift bridges. Vance really enjoyed the cruise, and at twilight the canal was very pretty.

Vance: Lockport was an amazing place. There they had locks for the Erie Canal, which are an elevator for boats. To start off, we went to the museum. Later we had lunch and went down to look at the canal. After looking at the canal we had a trolley tour through Lockport. Then we went on a cave tour, and to get in the cave we had go through a pipe. I had a very fun time. Finally we went on a boat tour through the canal. To get the water level they had to drain water from the lock into the other lock.

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