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Cave Tour


I was born and grew up in Lockport, New York, in the northwest corner of the state, a short distance from Lake Ontario and Lake Erie and Niagara Falls. The town is named for the locks built along the Erie Canal to aid shipping and boat travel across the state to the Hudson River. When my father sometimes on Sunday took my sister, my brother, and me to a newsstand and cigar store on Main Street, he would let us cross to the Big Bridge to look down on the locks in hopes someone would be using them to raise or lower a vessel from one level of the canal to another. On the far side there was a pathway that would let people descend to the locks for a closer view.


There are caves underneath Lockport. In childhood my friends found an opening in the wall across the towpath from the Locks, but none of us were brave enough to go deeply into it. We suspected it was man-made, not natural, and someone claimed rattlesnakes lived in it. Rattlesnakes were more believable than alligators under the Big Bridge, and we only peeked into it. Other caves were said to exist under streets elsewhere in town and someone tried to open one up for tourists. From what I now know about the formation of caves and sinkholes in the cuesta, I imagine the escarpment here has many hidden caves. One prominent and accessible cave near the canal is the site of the Lockport Caves Tour, its office above the canal, its entrance off the Erie Canal Heritage Trail. Some years ago, I took that tour.


At noon, Ken, our guide, led me and a dozen others to the top of the trail. We descended with intermittent pauses as he filled us in about the history of Lockport, the locks, and the canal. He was polished, knowledgeable, and entertaining, explaining that scenes in the movie Sharknado 2 were filmed in the Lockport Cave. Past the Locks and remnant stone wall ruins Ken unlocked the entrance door to a large lighted metal tube and then ushered us into a well-constructed, dimly lighted room that would lead us into the tunnel proper and the stone interior of the escarpment.


The New York State Legislature first authorized the construction of a tunnel on the north side of the canal in 1839, to provide waterpower for a mill. Eventually Birdsall Holly, an entrepreneur and hydraulic engineer, expanded the excavation into a 1600-foot-long downward sloping tunnel for hydromechanical power. He constructed a seven-story factory and devised a water distribution system giving firefighters a more powerful and effective way of fighting fires—ironically, one night a worker in the fire hydrants building knocked over a lantern and the factory burned down.


We passed through a stone arch doorway into a lower, narrower passage. The walls were rough and uneven and the lighting minimal. We carefully walked single file on a narrow gravel path alongside a continuous pool of water, pausing sometimes to consider the limestone walls. As in any limestone cave water seeps through the rock and forms small stalactites and traces of flowstone. Irish laborers worked eight years to complete the tunnel in tight, dark, enclosed underground space.


At the far end of the cave the tunnel floor was completely flooded. We boarded a long flat boat lined with benches to float deeper into the escarpment, almost up to the top end of the cave but not as far as the water channel went. In the dank semi-darkness, we sensed the weight of the dolostone strata above us and in the uneven walls understood the challenge of chipping away all that subterranean stone by hand. When we returned to the dock, everyone seemed relieved to be shown a nearby exit—we wouldn't have to retrace our footsteps back to where we started. Outside, in daylight, we started a steep climb up to the escarpment's edge. It felt good to be in the open.


These memories of the canal arose when I encountered recent online news items about that flat-bottomed tour boat capsizing in the tunnel, spilling out 29 passengers and drowning an older man by trapping him under the overturned boat for an hour. Rescue workers soon broke through a wall of the cave. Eleven passengers were taken to a hospital, several suffering from hypothermia, the worst injury a broken arm. Most could wade out. They were all event planners visiting the cave to consider possible tours. None had been required to wear life vests. It was the first such accident since the tourist attraction opened in the 1970s.


If I ever visit Lockport again, I'll likely stand above the locks inviting memory, though my sense of being deep in the cave may have altered.

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