There were settlers in these parts in the early 1800s, most notably the Comstock family from Connecticut who planted an orchard with some 700 trees and probably dispatched as many rattlesnakes in the effort. But if not for the routing of the Erie Canal by David Thomas, state surveyor, there would almost certainly be no town here today. When excavation began on the canal there was no frame house or barn within five miles in any direction.
Almost overnight there were 2,000 workers in the immediate vicinity. The canal reached Lockport in 1824 where engineers were maneuvering their way through a 60-foot drop in the raceway. The canal was opened in 1825; by 1829 Lockport was a village and in 1865 was incorporated as a city. The surplus water from that precipitous drop became the source of power for the town’s growing industries. Products shipped out on the canal included electric alloy and other steels, towels and linens, thermostats, iron castings, wallboard and paperboard, milk bottles, paper boxes and felt. The surrounding farmlands and orchards made Lockport an important marketing and milling center. In the 20th century manufacturing parts for General Motors became the biggest game in town.
In 1974, the “Lockport Industrial District” was formed, including the Hydraulic Tunnel, a 1700-foot underground power tunnel constructed during the early 1850s by Birdsill Holly. The tunnel provided water for mechanical power to three manufacturing companies employing close to 2000 people. Our exploration will center in the district, where underground boat rides of “Lockport Cave” are available. The city was an enthusiastic player in urban renewal and notable buildings are spaced out between wide swaths of openness and we will begin at one stone building that survived the slaughter...
Hamilton House/Erie Canal Discovery Center
24 Church Street
This stone building was originally constructed as a Universalist church and has served many uses over the years but is notable today merely for surviving when so many of its neighbors near the canal were ripped down. Its most recent duties have been as a visitor center and home to the Erie Canal Discovery Center, a state-of-the-art interpretive center for the history of the Erie Canal.
WALK OVER TO THE CORNER OF ONTARIO STREET AND CHURCH STREET AND TURN RIGHT ON CHURCH STREET.
St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church
76 Church Street
Construction on Lockport’s most impressive house of worship began in 1858 and was dedicated in 1863. It was known around town as the “Irish Church” as it was constructed for, and largely by, the poor Irish immigrants who came to work on the Erie Canal. The 161-foot high steeple of the Gothic-styled church would not be completed, however, until 1902. Look up over the entry for an alcove containing a likeness of Saint Patrick.
TURN AND WALK BACK DOWN CHURCH STREET TOWARDS THE ERIE CANAL.
Lockport First Presbyterian Church
21 Church Street
The congregation first met in a log cabin in 1823, then a small brick meeting house, and since 1855 this Gothic-influenced church constructed of stone quarried at the north end of Church and Lock Streets. The louvered steeple was an 1867 addition. Six of the church's stained glass windows are Tiffany originals.
Erie Canal at Main Street
This is the fourth bridge to carry Main Street across the Erie Canal, the first being merely an assemblage of logs just wide enough for one-way travel. A wooden bridge, 105 feet wide, followed in 1843. It lasted until it was condemned in 1885. An iron bridge replaced that one and in 1911 work was begun on a large modern crossing. When builders were finished in 1914 the bridge covered 399 feet of the Erie Canal, one of the widest bridges in the world. Walking across it you won’t even realize you are on a bridge if you are not on the eastern sidewalk overlooking the canal.
2-4 Main Street at Cottage Street
Lockport maintains a curious role in the long history of the fraternal Masonic Order in the United States, a history that includes George Washington and DeWitt Clinton among many others. In 1826 William Morgan, a veteran of the War of 1812 and variously an itinerant bricklayer and printer thereafter, threatened to publish the secret oaths of Freemasonry in a book. Although such revelatory works had been widely published in England and America apparently they were not known of in western New York. The outraged master of a Masonic lodge in Canandaigua obtained a warrant for the arrest of Morgan on the charge of stealing a cravat and shirt. Morgan was released for insufficient evidence but immediately rearrested for a $2.68 debt which he readily admitted owing. The debt was quickly paid by unknown persons and as soon as Morgan was freed he was seized, gagged and pushed into a covered carriage. His reported words before disappearing into the transport were screams of “murder.” In fact, he was never seen alive again, nor his body ever recovered, presumably carried away in the Niagara River. The incident ignited an angry backlash against the Masons. Governor Clinton issued rewards and individuals were brought to trial in Lockwood but no light was ever shone on the mystery. Orsamus Turner, the editor of the local paper, served some time in jail for refusing to cooperate. The stiffest sentence was given to Sheriff Eli Bruce for his participation in the disappearance. The three-story Masonic temple is a red brick building trimmed in stone with Ionic pilasters separating the window spaces and an iron cresting along the roofline.
TURN LEFT ON MAIN STREET.
Niagara County National Bank
50 Main Street
The first bank in Niagara County opened at the corner of Market and Chapel streets in 1828. The Niagara County National Bank organized on December 6, 1864 with a capital of $150,000 and prospered mightily, moving into this Neoclassical headquarters with engaged Doric columns in 1907. The Niagara County Community College occupied the building in the 1990s.
National Exchange Bank
45 Main Street at Pine Street
This splendid stone vault became the home of the National Exchange Bank in 1920. Paul A. Davis, an architect from Philadelphia, contributed the plans for the oversized single-story Neoclassical building dominated by enormous arched windows. Lancaster, Pennsylvania-born artist A. Raphael Beck, whose father designed the bas-relief at the base of the Washington Monument, moved to Lockport to marry a local girl. He opened a school for artists in Buffalo and every year on his birthday, Beck would walk the twenty-three miles from his home in Lockport to his studio in Buffalo. He was a well-known creator of portraits and landscapes and murals. His mural, “The Opening of the Erie Canal, October 26, 1825,” now the focal point of the Erie Canal Discovery Center on Church Street, was commissioned by the bank in 1925 to highlight its grand lobby.
Farmers Mechanics and Savings Bank
Locust and Main streets
The Farmers’ and Mechanics’ Savings Bank was chartered May 11, 1870 with Jason Collier at its head. Operations began in a store on Main Street and by 1906 the bank was successful enough to construct this six-story headquarters built on thesite of the American Hotel, one of Lockport’s earliest guest houses. The Beaux Arts design was celebrated as an “ornament to the city.” It was constructed like many high rises in the early 20th century to mimic a classical column with a decorative street level story (the base), unadorned upper floors (the shaft) and an ornate cornice at the roof (the capital).
United States Post Office
1 East Avenue
Normally in the early 1900s when the federal governmentdecorated communities with a new post office they did so with formal, sobering buildings. Here supervising architect of the Treasury Department, James Knox Taylor, let his hair down and authorized an infusion of Beaux Arts classicism into the symmetrical Neo-Georgian brick building. Terra cotta trim was even substituted for the wood that was originally specified, adding about $25,000 to the original $105,000 construction tab. When the new post office opened in 1904 the second floor was set aside for a courtroom which operated here for 30 years. The post office is gone today as well and the building is now leased as commercial space.
2 East Avenue
The Palace was hailed as the finest picture house in western New York when it opened on Saturday July 17, 1925. The 1,750-seat theater was packed for two showings that night of Cecil B. DeMille’s silent epic Ten Commandments with Theodore Roberts in the roles of Moses. The Palace was brought to fruition by the efforts of A. Edmund Lee, president of the Lock City Theater Company. Charles A. Dickinson, the builder, gave the theater a stately Colonial Revival look, unlike many stages of the day that sought to transport patrons to exotic spaces of the mind with their flamboyant decors. Like the legion of its fellow downtown theaters, the Palace closed in 1969 but in the intervening years it has dodged the wrecking ball, experienced revivals and continues to operate after 85 years.
Lockport Public Library
23 East Avenue
The first books were lent in Lockport in 1847 through the newly developed school system. For many years the Superintendent of Schools also served as town librarian with the collection housed in his office where an assistant checked out books. In 1891, after some years of existing in rented space in the downtown area, the library was given first floor space in the new Union High School on East Avenue. The popularity of the library grew every year until circulation was topping 150,000 books per year in the overburdened space in the 1930s. Using Depression-era relief funds, bequests from Mrs. Elvira Wheeler and Mrs. Ann M. Sawyer, and $18,000 from the city, this Colonial Revival library building was dedicated in 1936 with a price tag of $140,000. In the 1990s when an expansion more than doubled the usable space with an addition on Chestnut Street, the cost was more than $12 million. Checking out a book in Lockport had come a long way from knocking on the School Supervisor’s door 150 years earlier.
WALK AROUND THE BACK OF THE LIBRARY AND HAVE A LOOK AT THE MODERN SECTION. THEN KEEP WALKING OVER TO CHESTNUT STREET AND TURN LEFT.
Lockport Ice Arena & Recreation Center
34 Chestnut Street
This old retail space, most recently a grocery store, has been purchased with the hope of bringing recreational ice skating back to Lockport for the first time since the mid-1980s.
TURN LEFT ON MARKET STREET.
Market and Main streets
Possibly the most resplendent building ever constructed in Lockport was the Hodge Opera House, erected by John Hodge. Hodge made his money in the 19th century with Merchant’s Gargling Oil, a patent medicine “for diseases of horses, cattle and human flesh” that could trace its pedigree to Philadelphia in 1833 but was manufactured in Lockport. Hodge joined the company as a teenager, married one of the owner’s daughters and eventually gained control of the company in 1865. It was the biggest and most prosperous business in the city. He imported 55 tons of Ohio sandstone to construct his domed, block-long Victorian showplace. Opened in 1872, the Opera House was on the top, or the third floor, and below were some 50 offices and places of business. America’s most famous performing acts beat a path to Lockport to appear at the Hodge until the stage was ripped out in 1914. The Hodge Opera House was twice engulfed in icy flames, the first time on January 5, 1881. Hodge immediately rebuilt but a second fire on February 25, 1928 sealed its fate. Firemen poured over 11,000 gallons of water on the fire that burned for the better part of 24 hours and destroyed the Opera House and the Merchants Gargling Oil building next door. Richard C. Bewley constructed the present building on the foundation of the Hodge Opera House - now fire-resistant. Stone from the original buildings is visible in the rear of the structure. In 2003, the building received a facelift of new marble, awnings, and windows bringing back the look of the building when it opened in 1929.
TURN RIGHT ON MAIN STREET AND GO ONE BLOCK TO PINE STREET AND TURN RIGHT, HEADING DOWN TOWARDS THE ERIE CANAL.
Old City Hall
2 Pine Street
Benjamin Moore built a trapezoidal-shaped flour and grist mill of Lockport limestone here in 1859. In the 1880s the building was converted into one of the first water pumping plants in America. Its industrial days were to end in 1893 when the building was spruced up and the town government moved in. During the Barge Canal Improvement between the years 1905 and 1918 the north foundation wall was used to form a retaining wall at the foot of Locks 34 and 35. The old Canal Raceway runs underneath the building. It served as Lockport City Hall until 1974.
Locks 34 & 35
Erie Canal at Pine Street
Of all the challenges to be overcome in digging “Governor Clinton’s Ditch,” none was more daunting than cutting through the Niagara Escarpment. The first Lockport locks were designed by Nathan Roberts who was in charge of constructing the Erie Canal from “the mountain ridge” at Lockport to Lake Erie. To break through the bedrock first a specially hardened tempered drill bit was invented for the task. Then DuPont Company blasting powder, another newly invented creation, was packed into the holes and the rock blown apart. The canal was opened in 1825 but crews were back enlarging these locks by 1836. The enlarged Lockport locks operated until the southern tier was removed in 1910 for the construction of Lock 34 and 35 of the Erie Barge Canal. The north tier of the combined locks was left intact and passed vessels during Barge Canal construction. The old locks today serve as a visible reminder of the genius of the first canal builders in New York State.
AFTER CROSSING THE CANAL, TURN LEFT ON ONTARIO STREET TO RETURN TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT.