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Democrat & Chronicle

August 5, 2007

Underground History (Lockport Cave)
By Christine A. Smyczynski

There are a number of interesting attractions to see in Lockport, located along the historic Erie Canal. Some of these include the Erie Canal Discovery Center, where you can learn about the history of the canal; the Lockport Locks & Erie Canal Cruise, a narrated boat ride on the canal, where you actually “lock through” locks 34 and 35 and the Niagara County Historical Society, where you can learn about area history.


However, one of the more unique attractions in Lockport is the Lockport Cave and Underground Boat Ride. During this 75 minute guided tour, you will learn about Lockport’s industrial heritage, as well as canal history. The tour culminates with the longest underground boat ride in the United States.


My husband and I recently took our two youngest children, ages eleven and five, on the tour. We began at the tour’s ticket office, a circa 1864 stone building, which once housed a milling company, pumping plant and later city hall from 1893 to 1974. Jeff, our guide, led our group down by the locks and crossed us over them via a narrow metal walkway.


As we headed down the canal tow path, he explained how the canal was constructed in the 1820’s. Originally there were twin “flight of five” step locks to move traffic up and down the escarpment; however, when the canal was modernized in the early 1900’s, one set was removed to allow for the set of double locks used today. One set of the flight of five remains intact as a landmark.


Jeff also told us about Lockport inventor, Birdsill Holly, and how he used a water raceway tunnel, now the Lockport Cave, to create power to run machinery in his manufacturing company. Holly Manufacturing covered five blocks and employed about 500 people. While Holly’s name might not be well-known outside Lockport, he was quite a prolific inventor; the only person holding more patents than him was Thomas Edison. Some of Holly’s inventions include the fire hydrant and the water pump.


Two other manufacturing companies were located in this same area and used water power from the same raceway tunnel. Holly’s company closed in the early 1900’s, while the last of the others shut down in the 1940’s.


We reached the entrance of the cave and climbed up stairs through a huge tunnel to a large stone room, which once served as the gate house for the pump mill. Gates in this room would rise up and down to control water flow.


We proceeded deeper into the man-made cave, which was blasted out of solid rock by workers in the 1850’s. It took workers nearly 15 years to make the 2,000 foot long, 20 foot wide round cave, which is about 20 to 30 feet underground. “The cave was made by drilling a hole by hand 12 to 16 inches deep, packing it with blasting powder and lighting a fuse. The resulting hole was roughly the size of a basketball,” said Jeff. I can’t imagine today’s laborers having the patience to do such a painstaking task. Back then, these workers got about $2 a week!


We continued our tour, walking along a narrow footpath in the dimly lit cave. Beside the path was an underground steam, with water at about 40 degrees. The cave itself maintains a temperature of about 55 degrees year-round. Without the lights the cave is really, really dark; as Jeff demonstrated to us a couple times.


The highlight of the tour is the underground boat ride. Be prepared to get wet, as ground water is constantly dripping from the ceiling. Jeff explained that if you get dripped on, you are getting kissed by the cave. I guess the cave really loved us!


If you look up as the battery-powered boat glides along, you may see some “soda straw” stalactites, curtain stalactites and white flowstone; which is white because of the calcium in the dolomite rock. Jeff pointed out a formation called the “line of carrots,” a natural formation that gets its orange color from iron in the rock. The formations in the Lockport Cave grow two to three times faster than in other caves because of the iron and calcium.


The boat ride ended all too soon and we found ourselves exiting the cave into the bright sunlight. We returned to the starting point via the towpath, taking a closer look at the “flight of five” and stopping by the tiny canal museum next to the locks to see some vintage photos and artifacts.


Sidebar note:
Wear comfortable walking shoes and bring a light jacket. The cave is not handicap or stroller accessible. I would not recommend bringing children under age five, as you do walk along the canal, where railings are non-existent or minimal. Small children may also be frightened by the darkness of the cave.

If you go:
Lockport Cave and Underground Boat Ride (716-438-0174; 2 Pine Street, Lockport. Open May-October, hours vary seasonally. During the summer, tours are hourly between 10-5. Admission $9 adults, $6 ages 4-12.

Lockport Locks and Erie Canal Cruise (800-378-0352; 210 Market Street, Lockport. Open May-October, hours vary seasonally. Admission $14 adults, $8 children.

Erie Canal Discovery Center (716-439-0431; 24 Church Street, Lockport Open daily 9-5, May-October. $5 adults, $3 children. The Lockport Visitor’s Center is also located in this building.

Niagara County Historical Society (716-434-7433; ) 215 Niagara Street, Lockport. Monday-Saturday 9-5. Admission $2.

Take the New York State Thruway west to exit 49 (Depew/Lockport) Follow Route 78 north to Lockport. Turn right on Main Street and then left on Pine Street.