The Locks ~ Robert Root


I open the album, really a set of blank three-ring notebook pages in a simple gray binder. I made several such albums that year, this one devoted to my hometown, Lockport, New York. The section titles have some pretensions about what these photographs record—“The Heart” (the business district), “The Limbs” (the canal and main streets), “The Mind & The Soul” (schools and churches)—but I couldn’t maintain the analogy; I labeled the last sections “The Structures” and “Outwater Park.” All the pictures are small square black and white photos taken with my Kodak Hawkeye camera between January and September of 1961. There seem to have been few sunny days that year, at least not on the mornings I went out for pictures, and in all those photographs only one image captures a person and only a few show vehicles in motion.

I’m wondering what I recorded then of the Erie Canal and the locks that made it possible for vessels to scale or descend the Niagara Escarpment there, bound west to Lake Erie or east to the Hudson River. By 1961, of course, the canal’s role in migration and commerce was over, but it still flowed through my city and its locks were still at the center of the business district. I wouldn’t have been aware then of the changes to come, especially the ravages of urban renewal soon to neuter the downtown business district or the eventual collapse of the automobile industry, which undermined the city’s largest employer. I was an unemployed high school graduate with time on his hands, making cheap thematic albums out of photographs piled in an old cigar-box.

At the end of March, spring not yet apparent, the landscape as gray on the ground as in the photos, I must have walked down Market Street, one of the main streets linking the prosperous business area at the top of the locks with the rundown shop and tenement blocks of Lowertown. Lowertown was not simply the area at the base of the locks, lining the canal’s approach from the east. It was lower in income, lower in upkeep, lower in expectations for its residents. It was as if Lockport was the city on the escarpment that the locks rose to and Lowertown was barely a part of it, something out of sight and out of mind unless you drove down Market Street into the heart of it.

Some of my photos attempted a magisterial perspective, shot from the tops of overpasses on side streets and usually distinguished by leafless limbs of trees in the foreground blocking a clear view of anything. A railroad trestle rose high above the canal and crossed Market Street near the top of the hill. Instead of walking the footbridge that hung from the side of the trestle, familiar to me from boyhood play, I clambered onto the tracks for a more elevated view in either direction. One photo looks up the canal, its skyline lined with the backs of business buildings on Main Street, glimmers of canal water far below in the right hand corner, the locks all but missing from the shot. Another points toward Lowertown, the canal at the center in one-point perspective, narrowing toward the horizon, three bridges growing smaller in the distance, the low level of the water revealing some spits of sediment. The buildings of Lowertown that lined the canal then are indistinct and camouflaged by trees. The camera’s single focus never recorded the items in the image that had caught my attention.

Other photos, dated in April and early May, show the primary business block in Lowertown from the intersection of Market and Exchange streets. In one a row of two story businesses squats on the north side, the Rage Bar and Grill prominent near the center; in another a row of two and three story businesses with signs too faint for me to read line the south side, anchored by a vacant lot on the corner where a building has been removed. I must have gone out onto the Exchange Street bridge over the canal to take the photo in which the backs of the Rage and its neighbors all abut the canal, a narrow walkway perched just above the water, a row of balconies underlining the second story windows and doors. Ripples in the water make the reflection of the buildings jagged and uneven.

Of the locks themselves, the mechanical structure for which the town was named, the early nineteenth century engineering feat that made it possible, even necessary, for there to be any kind of Lockport at all, I have only two photos. The one from the Pine Street Bridge shows mostly a water-filled lock, too close up; the one taken in the opposite direction from the Big Bridge shows the west end of the locks from too far away. Nothing stirs within or around them. They remind me how easy it was to cross the canal on those bridges with little awareness that the locks lay below. When I took those pictures, I was the only one walking on either bridge.

Now as I scrutinize the images of Lowertown, I recognize them only as photos I took and mounted in this scruffy album; I can’t seem to recall in color the buildings, the intersection, the canal, the sky above them all. I have no recollection of ever having walked that business block of Market Street, though clearly I once stood at spots around that intersection and on that bridge. I can’t count the number of times I must have driven through—it was on the direct route to Reid’s, the hot dog stand I sometimes visited daily—but these black and white images revive no intimate sense of place for me and, except for that image of the canal reflecting the buildings, I might have looked at the photos with no sense of having seen this location in my real life.

How haphazard, it seems to me now, that these pictures were ever taken. How little I understood of what I was seeing or of what had come before those structures existed, of what history lay behind them. How stable and permanent all that seemed in the moments I framed those images. How transient it all turned out to be.


In my files I have copies of old lithographs and paintings and photographs of the locks. I find the often reproduced 1836 lithograph by J. H. Burford colorized on an old postcard, looking like something by Grant Wood or Thomas Hart Benton. The commerce of the locks is evident in the picture. The point of view is west from the escarpment, displaying the upper village, the spires of its churches, the bulk of its buildings, across the center of the picture. The sky above the village takes up more than a third of the scene, giving the impression of a limitless westward horizon and making the village seem close to the ground despite the aspirations of its buildings—the protruding church steeples, the bulky four story buildings, the one building that rises eight stories from the bottom of the escarpment to four stories above it. Around the left edge of the picture the stone shelves of the ridge are broad and clear and two men stand looking not at the panorama but at the rocks of the escarpment. The locks themselves, five tiers dropping from the top of the escarpment to the bottom, are to the right of the center of the picture. On either side smooth pathways slope alongside, and buildings line the pathways. Broad sets of stairs separate the two sets of locks. Passenger boats and barges anchor in the pond at the bottom of the locks. One passenger boat, looking like a long white sow bug, with passengers standing and sitting on top, departs from the bottom locks, the mule team ahead of it on the towpath. The picture bustles with activity in every quarter. Clearly the point is to portray the locks and the activity of Lockport, to register on the eye the feat of engineering wrought on this spot. It is similar in design and execution to pictures of Niagara Falls from the same period, the same escarpment, the same scale, but the marvel here is man-made, not natural. The writer Caroline Gilman said of the scene in the 1830s that the Canal had “defied nature and used it like a toy.”

Imagine the scene on the canal of a passenger boat coming up from Rochester. They have come the thirty miles or so, through Brockport and Medina and Middleport and Gasport, the canal boat low and flat, passengers seated on the roof, sometimes having to lie flat at the cry of “Low Bridge! Everybody down!” Sometimes they jump off the boat and walk ahead of it down the towpath while the mule team trudges steadily. The passengers find it slow going, but the opportunity to walk stretches their legs and the canal boats go more smoothly and pleasantly than the faster but less reliable stagecoaches, bone-shattering nerve-wracking experiences on corduroy roads of fallen trees, inhibited by mudholes, deep ruts, uneven places where the stages tip over or passengers have to get out and push. The canal boats glide behind the relentless plodding of the mules and the experience is sometimes like a slow ride through a natural theme park, much of it still forest beyond the mounds of excavated dirt.

Lockport must have seemed a marvel when they reached it. All the miles of flat terrain, the level towpath foregrounding the horizon, and then the escarpment looms up to the south in the distance and the canal moves steadily to meet it. The traveller may know that Lake Erie, their destination, is at least as high as Niagara Falls above the surface of Lake Ontario and that a system of locks that can raise a vessel that high must be stupendous. And then the bluffs of the escarpment are not just off alongside but straight ahead, and growing larger and higher in the eye as the vessel progresses, until the horizon rises and rises and a semi-circle of stone and fresh buildings overwhelms the view. Ahead, spires of churches and roofs of buildings sink below the skyline, and there are the double rows of locks, in five stages, and the boat stops to let the passengers off before it begins the slow ascent through the locks. Passengers can trudge up the towpath, a steep man-made slope, or they can climb the intervals of high steps between the double series of locks. They can watch the vessel enter the lock, the gates draw shut, the water level rise lifting the boat, the gates at the other end open and the boat pulled through to the next lock. In easy slow stages they can observe the progress of the boat and at any time see how far above the lower canal the boat and its passengers have come. Or they can go all the way to the top, watch it all from where the town is higher still above the deep cut heading west, unimpeded, toward Lake Erie. Or they can visit the new town, a virtually tree-less man-made place, which a few years before did not exist.

William Henry Bartlett’s view to the east from the locks in a lithograph from American Scenery, a popular travel book, shows a rather ramshackle group of buildings along the canal. In Burford’s earlier lithograph, looking in the other direction, at the locks themselves, the trees are all bunched in one corner, few of them taller than the buildings. The skyline of the village is entirely man-made; not a single tree appears. Early travelers often marveled at the feat of engineering that created the locks and brought Lockport into being, but they were often simultaneously dismayed at the village that resulted.

Basil Hall, who visited in 1827, was struck by the human accomplishment, calling the “Deep Cutting” westward “a magnificent excavation . . . a work of great expense and labour, and highly creditable to all parties concerned,” but described Lockport as “a struggling, busy, wooden village, with the Erie Canal cutting it in two, and hundreds of pigs, stage-coaches and waggons occupying the crowded streets; while a curious mixture of listlessness and bustle characterized the appearance of the inhabitants.” He claimed to have learned “that in America the word improvement, which in England, means making things better, signifies in that country, an augmentation in the number of houses and people, and, above all, in the amount of the acres of cleared land.” He added that it seemed to be a maxim among Americans “that a rapid increase of population is, to all intents and purposes, tantamount to an increase of national greatness and power, as well as an increase of individual happiness and prosperity.” If Basil Hall is right, the lithograph of Lockport is a record of the “improvements” made at this point in the escarpment by the energy and will of a determined people in pursuit of “happiness and prosperity.” Fanny Trollope, who had read Hall, agreed with him, declaring of Lockport in 1831, “I never felt more out of humour at what the Americans call improvement.”

What Basil Hall and Fanny Trollope and, before them, William Lyon Mackenzie looked upon in dismay had been, a few short years before, mostly wilderness and village grounds of the Neutral Indians (probably not their name for themselves). What they were all reacting to and against was the wholesale transformation of that wilderness—Mackenzie wrote of “bustle and activity—waggons, with ox-teams and horse teams—hotels—thousands of tree stumps, and people burning and destroying them”; Trollope declared, “As fast as half a dozen trees were cut down, a factory was raised up; stumps will contest the ground with pillars, and porticos are seen to struggle with rocks. . . . Nature is fairly routed and driven from the field . . .” In the name of progress, of “improvement,” the landscape was altered entirely, from nearly impenetrable wilderness (well, not for the Indians) into a portal into lands soon to be similarly transformed.


Near the end of the twentieth century, while visiting in Lockport, my wife and I stroll down Market Street hill. I expect to show her the view from the footbridge attached to the girders supporting the railroad bridge high above the canal, but bushes have grown up through the concrete and camouflage the sidewalk so thoroughly that passersby can hardly realize it’s there. We peer through the bushes but can’t see very far. The wooden planks of the footbridge itself are gone, having weathered and crumbled and fallen in pieces into the canal or been removed once they started rotting through to keep people off the bridge.

In a grove of sumac nearby, a historical marker documents the site of the Merchant Gargling Oil Company, a once lucrative business founded in 1833 and housed until 1928 in a building on Market Street. That’s what the railroad trestle had been for, to speed Merchant Gargling Oil, a patent medicine advertised as “Good for Man or Beast,” to sickly people and animals needing a robust cure or a panacea. I never heard of the company before. Walking for five minutes down a street I’ve driven hundreds of times in the city where I grew up, I already learn something I never knew.

We descend Market Street briskly. I recognize nothing of what we’re passing. The banks of the canal have been scraped clear of most buildings, debris, and undergrowth. Paved pathways now extend for miles along the canal, turning the towpaths where mules had trudged dragging canal boats into trails for hikers, joggers, walkers, bikers, skateboarders and rollerbladers. Where once the Rage had been raucous late into the night, we pass railings and benches, picnic tables and a playground, a grove of flowers and bushes for reflection and a modicum of privacy, on a path always close to the canal. The water is green and cloudy and its surface only occasionally ruffled by the wind. Nothing remains along the banks of the canal to be reflected in it. That part of Lowertown has been erased from history. No vessels pass in either direction, but one of the mechanical bridges that would formerly be raised to allow passage of barges on the canal has been left permanently open, its street traffic diverted.

The green strips of park, the calm of the water, give the canal a surprising serenity. It almost seems like a natural formation, something carved by the elements into the surface of the earth, a timeless feature of the landscape, ancient and venerable.

Eventually we cross the canal on a new bridge that replaced one I remember as a tricky 90 degree turn. Footpaths extend east on either side of the canal into the distance. We turn back toward the center of town. A factory once close to the canal is now gone and the view is open across the roofs and down into the back yards of people’s houses. The south side of the canal is the escarpment side, paralleling the ridge; the north side, where we are now, parallels Lake Ontario, several miles distant, and the gradually sloping lake plain that supported rich fruit farming. Walking above those homes I realize how much of this terrain was formed by hand. The southern canal banks seem a natural surface flattening out from the bottom of the escarpment, but the northern side reveals that the slope had been continuous and more pronounced. It was the canal that interrupted the slope, flattened it on the south and increased the sharpness of its angle more on the north.

Moving back in the direction we came from changes our perspective on the escarpment, makes us realize how much of a descent we made. As we walk toward the escarpment it closes us in more and more. We will have to scale it to find the next pedestrian bridge, and the way up the escarpment is the way industry and ingenuity provided, the Lockport locks.

On this side of the canal, except for an enclosed streets department storage area, the debris of nearly two hundred years has been cleared away and a narrow city park established. Once, stone buildings stood here, already in ruins when my childhood friends and I had explored them cautiously, wary of the hoboes who made camp beyond the thickets. In the middle of the city it was a secluded area, easy to reach from the railroad but hemmed in by the canal on one side and the overgrown side of steep and unpopulated Clinton Street hill. Now enough undergrowth has been removed that the remains of stone buildings are starkly evident, especially the walls closest to the escarpment, with their window openings giving a view of more enduring but nonetheless impermanent stone walls.

The pathways and landscaping further from the escarpment give the impression that the canal has always been a site for casual recreation, but here we encounter inescapable, irremovable evidence of a lost past. There are ghosts here, windows with no view, bricked-over doorways that once led into the escarpment itself, the still discernable partial outlines of businesses that lined the canal in its triumphant early days. Except for those persistent remnants of walls, the past has eroded away; the purposes to which those buildings had been put and the identities of the people who had built and furnished and later abandoned them had washed away in the relentless current of history. Trees now towering over the buildings often have their roots in some of the rooms. Their height suggests how long this area of canal commerce has been superseded by the commerce the canal itself had made possible.

We stroll up the paved path toward the locks. Looking toward them, I remember the feeling I had as a child approaching from this angle: the sense of inferiority, insignificance, the weight and mass of the locks and the encircling escarpment with its collar of squat gray office buildings. I was probably about eight or nine, one of the shortest, slightest boys in the group I ran with; the scale of the locks, the railroad trestle and footbridge overhead soaring across this alcove in the escarpment, intimidated me, made me feel miniscule, a mere speck.

Runners and rollerbladers in sleek colorful polypropylene costumes race down the slope towards us. We watch them warily while trying to take in the double tier of locks. On the other side of the canal the locks are wider, the confining doors larger, and passage swifter. That side was rebuilt several times and is still used by pleasure boaters and tour boats. It has two long, deep, wide locks. On our side of the canal is the older set of locks, five narrow sections. Originally one set had been used by eastbound traffic descending the escarpment, the other by westbound traffic ascending. Boats lined up on either side of the locks, passengers strolling along the towpaths or wandering among the shops and diversions of Main Street. Today, glancing back east as we start across a narrow arched bridge leading to the center of the locks, I see a sleek, expensive powerboat approaching slowly, its captain and crew a tanned, meticulously underdressed couple.

At the base of the division between the two sets of locks a small stone building now houses the canal museum. Steep, wide, high stone steps, considerably worn in the center, lead upward, level by level, lock by lock, to the upper course of the canal. The stone structures were constructed from the stone blasted from the escarpment itself. At the highest level we see the “Deep Cut” stretching off in the distance, the portion of the canal that demanded excavation through the escarpment to maintain the slow even flow of Lake Erie water downward, at a rate of one foot per mile, toward the Mohawk, the Hudson, and the Atlantic. This was the rest of the marvel, after the locks themselves, this canyon created by the industry of man.

The walls of the canal rise another thirty feet above us. Pine Street Bridge arches overhead to the east, and the Big Bridge, once touted as the widest bridge in the world when it was built in 1914, looms overhead to the west. In this man-made canyon we have little sense of what is happening beyond the rim. The canal seems a remote and self-contained world, even when random traffic noises reach us from above.

The powerboat enters the first of the two modern locks, the huge water-sealed doors winch shut accompanied by a hydraulic grating sound, and the waters begin to rise. The boat stays along the inner wall of the canal, the man holding a rope to keep it from drifting as it rises with the water level.  The woman sits on the bow of the boat, alternately squinting at the man or raising her face toward the sky with the closed eyes of a contemplative. Her left leg is bent and her feet plantar-flexed to tauten thigh and calf muscles.  She looks like a figure in a boating ad, all the more since she behaves as if she is unaware of the few random kibitzers along the lock.

The water pumping into the lock shuts off with the boat still some distance below us. Then the grating sound starts up again and the gates at the western end of the lock shudder open. The boat moves forward into the second lock, the man resumes his position along the starboard deck in a new location, the gate winches shut, and water begins pouring into the lock. The boat floats upward on the rising water once more. We can see the line on the far wall where the water will stop rising, where the concrete has been permanently scummed and discolored over thousands of fillings and emptyings of the lock, and we watch the head of the man, his shoulders, his torso, the top of the boat’s windshield and the top of the reclining woman’s head reach and then rise above the line. The pumps shut off, the western gates crank open, and the boat, level with the surface of the upper canal, throttles forward slowly into the open stretch beyond the locks.

Glancing at the upper canal ahead of them, the lower canal behind, I suddenly think of the thousands upon thousands who had also risen through the locks, lifted above the east they’d left behind, set in motion toward the open waters of the west.  In the first century of the canal, in addition to tourists and business travelers, the packets had carried emigrants from New York and New England and the Old World bound for Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, filling in the empty spaces on the map of a nation extending first to the Mississippi, then to the Pacific Ocean. They had stuffed their pasts into their valises and trunks and moved at five miles an hour behind a team of horses or mules toward their futures, steadily, steadily. The greatest obstacle for them to overcome was this escarpment, and that was what the locks were for, to raise them through a series of enclosures that first constrained them and then set them free.

I gaze across at the now defunct five tier locks and recall the placid park that replaced that tawdry Lowertown block, the young rollerbladers hurling toward us down the slope, the solitary pleasure craft rising in the lock. I don’t begrudge the sun-tanned powerboat-owners their outing, but when I think of their solitary presence on the canal, observed only by a handful of idle bystanders, I wonder what all those insistent changes over two centuries were for. All that effort and expense and energy, all those persistent improvements, all led to these circumstances, to this moment. Compared to what’s recorded in my old city album, what we walked through today seems to have made things better, found a purpose for the canal and the locks—less ambitious than the one they were created for, but still a purpose. Perhaps it’s all right for improvements to be small in scale.

I’d grown up in Lockport. It seems to me now, here on the wall at the top of the locks, that in my own way I’d risen up the escarpment in a series of necessary confinements and ventured through the Deep Cut myself. I look once more at the boat’s progress beyond the locks and then follow my wife up the stairs toward the world above.