City of Locks (WT)
In each generation, a particular section of America becomes the nation’s center of gravity as a unique convergence of social, economic, or technological forces put it at the forefront of human endeavor and make it the focus of national attention. It is a place where the very ideals and struggles that define an era are played out in full. In the first half of the nineteenth century, New York was such a place and in particular – Lockport, New York and the Flight of Five on the Erie Canal, the manifestation of those ideals.
Originally completed in 1825, the double set of five locks – one for westbound and one for eastbound traffic – was an engineering marvel of the day and considered a triumph of “Art over Nature.” The Flight of Five conquered a 60-foot rise in elevation allowing people, goods, and ideas to flow west to the Erie Canal’s terminus in Buffalo, into the Ohio Valley, and beyond. In his book Stairway to Empire, historian Patrick McGreevy writes “To the extent that [early travelers on the Erie Canal] saw Lockport as representing the entire canal, it therefore also represented America, its energies and its prospects.”
In the story of Lockport and the Flight of Five, the nation’s history takes on a tangible immediacy and relevance by revealing how the past is connected to the present and to the fabric of a community reimagining itself. The extant westbound Flight of Five, currently under an ambitious, multi-year rehabilitation effort, is a profound reminder that great moments in the American narrative can be found in small places.