Erie Canal Discovery
The Erie Canal Discovery Center is located at 24 Church St., Lockport, NY. Phone: 716.439.0431
The Lockport Visitors’ Center is also at this location. We’re a short walk (one block) to the Lockport Locks and other Erie Canal attractions.
The Erie Canal Discovery Center is fully handicapped accessible, and is open to the public year around. Summer hours of operation are daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (May-Oct.) Winter hours of operation are Thurs. – Sat. 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Nov. – Dec.) and Fri. – Sat. 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Jan. – April). Admission is $6 for adults and free for children 18 and under when accompanied by an adult. Group tours are arranged through the Niagara County Historical Society at 716.434.7433.
The Erie Canal Discovery Center is a new state-of-the-art interpretive center for the Erie Canal, and particularly the role that Lockport, NY played in the history of the Erie Canal.
We feature the 13′ x 20′ Raphael Beck mural, “The Opening of the Erie Canal, October 26, 1825.” This beautiful floor to ceiling mural depicts the celebration surrounding then NY Governor Dewitt Clinton’s ceremonial first passage through the now famous “Flight of Five” locks in Lockport to officially open the Erie Canal.
Individuals from the painting “come to life” with the assistance of virtual-reality, through computer kiosks in the Center. A multidimensional orientation film transports the visitor back in time on board a recreation of the packet boat Western Comet.
Additional audiovisual stations such as the “Hard Rock Canal” and “Work the Lock” allow guests the hands-on opportunity to view the dolomite rock wall in Lockport and to navigate a model ship through an actual working series of locks.
The National Park Service rounds out the many displays with their own description of the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor.
New Life for an Old Erie Canal Treasure.
The Erie Canal was responsible for the many 19th century architectural wonders, not only within its 40 foot embankment, but stretching across burgeoning cities and towns. The early architectural growth that accompanied the canal, was probably just as amazing as the canal itself. That is definitely true in the canal-side city of Lockport, New York. A city was born as a result of the construction of the Erie Canal. The famous Flight of Five Locks that were built in Lockport in 1823-1825 was hailed by General Marquis de Lafayette, and others, as a wonder of the modern world. When the General toured Niagara County in 1825 he stated: “Lockport and Niagara County contain the greatest natural (Niagara Falls) and artificial (Lockport Locks) wonders, second only to the wonders of freedom and equal rights.”
Lockport sits on top of a massive ridge of solid rock now known as the Niagara Escarpment, the same prehistoric geology that created Niagara Falls. The countryside to the east of Lockport rests 70 feet below. This rise of 70 feet was the dilemma faced by contractors of the Erie Canal in 1822. An engineering marvel of the time was proposed and built, a double set of five locks, five ascending and five descending the Niagara Escarpment. The resulting public work project required the removal of millions of tons of excess dolostone from the hillside. An early use of the canal stone that was excavated for the Erie Canal was found in many homes and businesses in the growing village. The surplus dolomite stone, was an additional benefit that accrued to the citizens of the surrounding communities. The Erie Canal Discovery Center is located in a canal stone church building, in the federal style, built in the early 1840’s to house the Universalist Church. It joined several other impressive stone churches on Church Street in Lockport. In 1854, the church survived a disastrous fire that consumed the buildings of the Methodist and Congregational Churches. The church changed its name to the Church of the Redeemer in 1879, which it remained until the congregation folded in 1936. The congregation of the First Presbyterian Church, that was located across the street, purchased the property in 1941, and named the building the Hamilton House, in honor of a bequest received from the Hamilton family. The building was used for a youth and recreation center. By the year 2000, the building had fallen into disrepair and lack of use, and lacking immediate decisions to the contrary, would have been a prime suspect for the wrecking ball, a fate typical to most canal-era buildings that once lined the streets in Lockport.
In an attempt to prevent demolition, the Hamilton House Construction Committee was formed by several area men of vision. Strong leadership and direction were provided by former-Niagara County Historian David Dickinson. This committee grew in number and accomplishments as a large grant of support was secured from a private foundation, the Grigg-Lewis Trust of Lockport. Federal funding was also received with the help of Congressman Tom Reynolds. Additional financial assistance with the project came from NYS Senator George Maziarz, M&T Bank, as well as the Niagara Education Foundation. With these funding elements in place, the committee forged ahead on its million-dollar plan to preserve a key element of Lockport history, in a way that would also showcase the role Lockport played in the construction of the Erie Canal. The First Presbyterian Church as landlord, formed an alliance with the City of Lockport, who would operate its Visitor’s Center at the site, and the Niagara County Historical Society, who was to showcase a 21st century interpretive center surrounding the 19th century marvel, the Erie Canal. With Developer Ben Kendig, of Rochester, NY and contractor Robert S. Lindsay of Webster, NY, firmly on board, the restoration began in earnest in 2004 and was completed about one year later.
Explaining the role that Lockport played in the opening of the Erie Canal is the interpretive mission of the new Erie Canal Discovery Center. The visitor is drawn at once to the immense mural that is the artistic focal point of the Center. The mural, “The Opening of the Erie Canal, October 26, 1825” painted by A. Raphael Beck, depicts the grand celebration that accompanied Dewitt Clinton’s passage through the locks at Lockport. Perhaps we can draw a modern comparison of when man first walked on the moon, and the great celebrations and ticker tape parades that welcomed the space travelers’ return home. The opening of the Erie Canal had a similar emotional impact on the citizenry of that day. Raphael Beck, an award winning American artist, made his home in Lockport for most of his life. The mural was commissioned by the Lockport Exchange Bank, and was unveiled September 19, 1928. The mural remained at the bank through several corporate changes. However, cost cutting measures by the last bank at the site, eventually prompted the donation of the mural to the Niagara County Historical Society in 1970. The Society arranged a loan to the Lockport High School, which was able to display the mural in their auditorium. The Erie Canal Discovery Center is pleased that it can now provide a state-of-the-art facility in which the public can view a digital reproduction of the mural. Grand opening of the Center was held on June 1, 2005. Restoration work is planned for the original mural as preservation grants are made available.
The Beck mural forms the basis for much that happens at the Discovery Center. In addition to the beautiful “gallery” in which to display this piece of art, many of the “hands-on” interpretive exhibits draw from individuals depicted in the mural. Computer kiosks stationed in the viewing room allow the observer to meet and dialog with people from the past, as depicted in the Beck mural. After viewing the mural, guests are invited to enter an automated theater, where the audio/ visual recreation will help them to feel as if they really witnessed the events depicted. Following the narration, “passengers” will board a recreation of an actual Erie Canal packet boat, the Western Comet, for a night time “ride” upon the Erie Canal. The trip is fraught with sensory perceptions, sights and sounds from long ago.
After completing the “canal trip,” visitors are allowed to sample from among several other “hands-on” activities. Additional displays are used to offer information regarding the life and times of “canawlers,”- people who lived and worked on the Erie Canal. Even the life of “canal kids” is explained to our visitors, young and old, alike. Interesting persona from Lockport’s past, such as Birdsall Holley, inventor of the fire hydrant and numerous other devices, are met in an area dedicated to “Lockportians.”
Patrons can complete their trip with a visit to the “Lock, Stock, & Barrel Mercantile” gift shop located on the lower level. Modern and bright, but reminiscent of a by-gone era, this warm and inviting shop beckons the visitor to browse and relax, and perhaps enjoy a leisurely snack before making the short trek to the locks. Visitors are also welcome to pose their travel questions to the staff of the City of Lockport Visitor’s Center, located in the lower level, by the gift shop.
The Erie Canal Discovery Center is pleased to have received the “Erie Canalway Heritage Award of Excellence in 2009 from the National Park Service, through its Eriecanalway National Heritage Corridor. The Center is fully handicapped accessible, and is open to the public 7 days a week, from May through October. Hours of operation are from 9AM to 5PM daily, or by appointment. Winter hours are Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Group tours are also available. (716 439.0431 or CanalDiscovery@aol.com)
Start your adventure here.
Learn more about our special connection to the canal and then explore the entire Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor. You’ll find exceptional scenery, history, and adventure along more than 500 miles of waterways and trails. www.eriecanalway.org Erie Canalway Heritage Partners include selected canal-related museums and cultural heritage sites throughout the National Heritage Corridor. Each of these partners shares a different aspect of the canal’s role in shaping New York and the nation. Some have important works of engineering, others have works of art or artifacts, and some highlight the value of the canal today.