14 bronze statues complete in tribute to canal lock tenders

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 18 September 2023 at 11:44 am

400 attend celebration as Lockport finishes 10-year, $1.5 million project

Photos by Tom Rivers

LOCKPORT – It was a day of celebration in the City of Lockport on Saturday for the dedication of a 14-statue Lock Tenders Tribute Monument.

The top photo shows descendants of the people memorialized in the statues. The descendants are wearing the blue sashes.

The monument honors the canal lock tenders who worked 12-hour days and were responsible for opening and closing the locks for boats to safely pass through. They also worked on maintenance at the site.

One of the descendants sits next to one of the new statues. Six were unveiled on Saturday. The first three were unveiled in 2020 with five more added in 2021.

These 12 Lockport Lock Tenders plus a young girl were photographed in 1897 by Frank B. Clench. The tenders were part of a 20-person workforce at the locks in 1897.

A big crowd of about 400 gathered to celebrate the completion of the monument. Thirteen of the statues are installed on the stairs in the Lockport Locks where the tenders were photographed nearly 125 years ago.

The other statue of the photographer shows Frank B. Clench taking the iconic image.

This photo shows David Kinyon, chairman of the Lockport Locks Heritage District which pushed for the Lock Tender statuary.

“Lockport’s intent has been to explain the role of the workers who made the Erie Canal such a tremendous success in opening the interior of our country to development,” Kinyon said.

“Other communities have celebrated the Erie Canal by depicting those who dug the canal, the captains who operated canal boats and even the mules who pulled the packet and freight boats,” Kinyon said. “Lockport celebrates those who manually opened and closed the 5-ton wooden gates that raised and lowered boats through the 363-mile man-made waterway.”

Kinyon speaks during the ceremony on Saturday after the six new statues were unveiled. The six new statues were covered up until their names were announced later in the program. The descendants were given VIP seating for the event.

Kinyon said the $1.5 million project has been a decade in the making. The group hoped to have it done by 2025, the 200th anniversary of the 363-mile-long Erie Canal.

The project reached the finish line two years ahead of schedule.

He praised contributors to the project, including $575,000 from Niagara County (using funds through the relicensing of the Niagara Power Project), $550,000 from the state and Canal Corp., $150,000 from the Grigg Lewis Foundation, $100,000 from the John R. Oishei Foundation, and 35 businesses in Lockport that gave $100 or more. There were also numerous fundraisers with raffle tickets, and merchandise celebrating the lock tenders, from mugs, jewelry, magnets and shirts.

Susan Geissler of Youngstown, center, designed and crafted the statues which is now the largest outdoor bronze monument in Western New York.

She sits on the steps after the ceremony for a group photo with the statues.

“It’s been a wonderful journey,” she said about the project.

She said she has develop many “wonderful friendships and relationships” through the effort that honored the lock tenders.

“I’m very humbled and proud I could you something historic that will last forever,” she said.

Geissler was presented a citation and commendation from the State Legislature which was presented by State Sen. Rob Ortt and Assembly members Michael Norris and Angelo Morinello.

Norris praised Geissler for her painstaking artistry, “right down to a wrinkle on a forehead.”

Ortt noted his Senate district includes canal communities from Niagara, Orleans and western Monroe counties. Throughout the state all canal towns are proud of their heritage, but Ortt said no community is more synonymous with the canal than Lockport.

“She has done a remarkable job with this,” Ortt said about Geissler.

Brian Stratton, director of the State Canal Corp., said the tribute to the lock tenders highlights people who were critical to the canal’s operation at its peak. He praised the Lockport community for adding an attraction along the historic waterway in time for the bicentennial celebration in 2025.

Niagara County Legislator Richard Andres praised the volunteers who pushed for the lock tender tribute, who worked for a decade to line up financing, select an artist, research the people in the original photo, and get the community to back the ambitious effort.

“We certainly wouldn’t be here without vision and a lot of communities are lacking vision,” he said. “We are happy to support people with vision and tenacity and follow through, which is sometimes rare in government.”

Andres, the county legislator, said the Erie Canal deserves more prominence locally and nationally. The canal helped turn cities on the eastern seaboard into world powers, he said.

“The canal changed the world and you’re sitting right here in the midst of it,” said Andres, a history teacher at North Tonawanda. “We need to tell people what the canal did for the world.”

Craig Williams, president of the Canal Society of New York State, said the statues will help people better connect to the history of the canal.

“It’s not just a paragraph being read,” he said. “Getting people to pay attention is essential in history. Here people can get up close and touch these statues. Once you have that attention, you get a better appreciation of history.”

People enjoy sitting and interacting with the statues after the dedication ceremony on Saturday.