Nov 20, 2011

Exploring Niagara County

The city of Lockport, just a few miles east of Niagara Falls, straddles the Erie Canal. In fact it is another place that exists because of the Erie Canal. The Flight of Five locks was considered an engineering marvel of its day and allowed canal boats to change elevation. It was replaced in 1918 by two much larger locks and the original locks are now used as a spillway. There are storyboards along the canal and a great little museum. I applaud people who create something out of what many people though was nothing. People can take a boat ride on the canal but next to the canal is a one-of-a-kind underground boat ride that claims to be America’s longest underground boat ride. The guided tour includes a walk through a 1,600-foot tunnel blasted in the mid-1800s and used for waterpower and a ride on an underground boat. There are stalactites, various geological formations and artifacts left behind by the men who built the tunnel. It is especially popular around Halloween when it becomes a haunted tunnel.

We used our Priority Club Points to stay at the local Holiday Inn. The next day we drove north to Murphy Orchards. It was another example of someone thinking creatively by creating a multi-use property. There is an orchard with a country store selling all sorts of apples and pumpkins. They offer wagon rides but they added to the experience by creating tearooms in the historic brick house. The main reason we visited was because we heard it was an Underground Railroad site. In the barn there is a very small room beneath the floor where, between 1850 and 1861, the McClew family hid runaway slaves on their way to freedom in Canada. The runaways would only be sequestered when they were in danger of being captured. The words “underground” and “railroad” have led to some confusion as it was never a railroad and most “safe” places were not underground. It is thought that the room was originally built around 1812 as a place for the family to hide from the invading British troops during the War of 1812. There is a good video and several informative signboards.

I was surprise to learn that the word “stranger” in a cemetery census was used as a way to indicate that a runaway slave was buried there. They didn’t want to indicated where a slave was buried for fear that a slave catcher would dig up the body and take it South for the money offered for runaway slaves “dead or alive.”

We continued north to Olcutt to see their lighthouse, which is a replica of one from the 1870s. At one time Olcutt was a popular beach destination and served as a port of entry receiving grain from Canada that was sent onward to Rochester and Oswego. Around 1930 the lighthouse was no longer needed, it was relocated and deteriorated. A citizens group formed, raised money and built a replica lighthouse. The area is experiencing a “rebirth” with another group working to restore the original 1928 Herschell-Spillman carousel. The Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum is in nearby North Tonawanda. The company was one of the most prolific carrousels makers specializing in ones that were portable and could be used by traveling carnival operators. The company produced over 3000 hand-craved carrousels, many of which are still in operation. It is a fun tour.