Lockport remembers and celebrates those who labored 12 hour days from April through November every year to enable boats to navigate through the Erie Canal Flight of Five Locks and deliver their freight to Buffalo and points west, or east to New York City and subsequent final destinations including other continents. An 1897 photo of 12 Lockport Lock Tenders and a little girl has been hailed as a striking depiction, worthy of memorializing as the Lock Tenders Tribute Monument.
Lewiston artist Susan Geissler has created cast bronze life-size sculptures of the 12 Lock Tenders, the little girl (a daughter of one of the Lock Tenders in the photo) and the photographer. The completed sculptures are installed on the very stairs in the Lockport Locks where the Lock Tenders were photographed over 150 years ago. Phase I of the Lock Tenders Tribute Monument, consisting of three of the figures, was completed in 2020. Five more figures (Phase II) were installed in 2021, and the final six figures were added in 2023.
(Frank) F.B. Clench was a student of renowned Buffalo photographer J.T. Upson and opened his Lockport studio at 76 Main Street in 1864, where he hosted an art and photo gallery. Clench specialized in the use of the powerful stereopticon instrument, and later patented the design of ‘photographic cards’. Clench’s career took him in 1889 to Fairport, New York, where he died in 1914 at the age of 75.
Phase III of the Lock Tenders Tribute was installed September 1, 2023, with the generous assistance of Clark Rigging and D.R. Chamberlain Construction, along with a team of volunteers.
There’s a lot we don’t know about the 1897 photograph by Frank Bernard Clench of 12 men and a teenage girl sitting on the stone steps between two seats of locks at Lockport on the Erie Canal – where their life-size statues, by sculptor Susan Geissler, now are emplaced.
For instance, we don’t know exactly when the photo was taken, or why Clench, a commercial studio photographer, was at the locks that day.
But after a decade of research by a powerhouse team of local genealogists and amateur historians, we do know the name of everyone in the photo. As a result, more than 70 descendants of the 1897 lock tenders were able to attend the dedication of the last batch of Susan Geissler’s collection of statues on September 16, 2023, completing more than four years of work by the Youngstown, N.Y., artist.
The research work by Marie Bindeman, Jackie Connelly, Cynthia Cotten, Jeffery Degnan, David Kinyon, Deanna Douglas Knapp, DeLynn McMurtry and Shelley Richards revealed that some of the people in the photo lived long lives and left historical trails that could be followed fairly easily. Others left little information that future generations could discover.
But there’s one thing we can be virtually certain of – all the men in the photo were Republicans.
We know that all of the men in the photo were Republicans because Erie Canal lock tenders were state employees, and in the late 1890s, all branches of New York State government were firmly controlled by the Republican Party. At the time, there was no civil service law that applied to seasonal employees, such as lock tenders. That meant jobs on the public payroll went almost exclusively to Republicans who were in the good graces of the party’s leaders.
Lock tenders generally worked 12-hour shifts, and the canal was open 24 hours a day from mid-spring to late autumn. But the lock tenders received what at the time was a desirable wage of as much as $576 for six or seven months’ work – the equivalent of more than $21,000 in 2023 dollars.
In 1897, according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report, an American manufacturing worker earned an average of less than $2.00 a day. Money also went farther in the stores; for example, the BLS said the national average price of milk in 1897 was 6.7 cents a quart.
On the navigation season’s opening day, May 8, 1897, an article in the Lockport Daily Journal, a Republican-friendly newspaper, depicted Frank B. Seeley, the Lockport locks superintendent, wading into a crowd on the Pine Street Bridge, which overlooks the locks, and picking out 17 tenders and two foremen. “The time for the gates to swing open had almost rolled around before he gave a thought to who should operate them,” the Daily Journal reported. “Then he hustled up on to Pine Street bridge, where 100 or more stood looking down upon the locks and ‘wishing.’ Some of them got their wish.”
The paper then listed the names of 17 lock tenders and two foremen. Although various newspapers differed in their reporting of the list, all of the men in the Clench photo are mentioned in at least one Lockport or Buffalo newspaper as having been hired that day.
The Daily Journal’s May 8 article explained, “In the hurry of the hour, not enough men into two were secured to fill both tricks [shifts]. These will be hired later. It is needless to say that the lucky ones lost no time in getting down to their places.”
An unwary, or naïve, reader might come away with the impression that Seeley made his choices at random from among a knot of eager prospective workers. Buffalo newspapers explained the situation more cynically, citing hostilities between two Lockport Republican politicians, State Senator Timothy E. Ellsworth and State Assemblyman John H. Clark.
Clark ran against Ellsworth for the State Senate seat in 1895, igniting the intraparty brawl. By 1897, Ellsworth was president pro tempore of the Senate; today, we would call him majority leader. Ellsworth was allied with John A. Merritt, a longtime Niagara County Republican power player, and Seeley, a former vice chairman of the County Republican Committee, took their side in the factional feud. Seeley, like Ellsworth, had formerly held the coveted political post of toll collector at Lockport’s Pine Street Bridge, where 100 or more stood looking down upon the locks and ‘wishing.’ Some of them got their wish.
An unwary, or naïve, reader might come away with the impression that Seeley made his choices at random from among a knot of eager prospective workers. Buffalo newspapers explained the situation more cynically, citing hostilities between two Lockport Republican politicians, State Senator Timothy E. Ellsworth and State Assemblyman John H. Clark. Clark ran against Ellsworth for the State Senate seat in 1895, igniting the intraparty brawl. By 1897, Ellsworth was president pro tempore of the Senate; today, we would call him majority leader. Ellsworth was allied with John A. Merritt, a longtime Niagara County Republican power player, and Seeley, a former vice chairman of the County Republican Committee, took their side in the factional feud. Seeley, like Ellsworth, had formerly held the coveted political post of toll collector at Lockport’s Pine Street Bridge.
Reporting on the lock tender appointments, the Buffalo Courier said Seeley “acquitted himself very creditably in his selections, especially as to taking care of members of his faction of the party; as for the adherents of the other or Clark side, they do not get so much as a taste of anything.” In 1897, Merritt had just been appointed third assistant postmaster general of the U.S. Post Office Department by President William McKinley. But he kept his hand in local affairs, returning to Lockport on May 8 to deal with the question of hiring canal lock tenders.
The Buffalo Express said Merritt “arrived from Washington at midnight. Late as it was, the list, which had been made out by Senator Ellsworth and his lieutenants, was submitted to Mr. Merritt, and at 3 o’clock this morning the list was finally agreed upon.” Merritt went home while Seeley, after paying off the men who had worked on off-season canal maintenance, publicly designated the lock tender appointees. There were over 100 candidates for the positions on the locks,” the Express continued, “and the [Republican] machine bosses, who had the distribution of the places, are much-hated men today.”
In October 1897, Lockport and Buffalo newspapers reported the hiring of another batch of lock tenders, bringing the total on the payroll to a record high of 44, twice as many as the previous peak. The newspapers sought to explain this by noting that the state public works superintendent, George W. Aldridge, had just barred canal workers from receiving a “scale” – today we would call it a tip – from the captains of boats going through the locks.
Perhaps this rule, reducing the workers’ income, made a lock tender post less attractive, but it still was considered valuable enough to fight over. At least, that was the opinion of Michael Finnegan of Lockport, who sued Seeley to get his lock tender job back after being omitted from the 1897 list. At the time, New York had a law that any Civil War veteran on the state payroll never could lose his job except for a cause, such as misconduct. Finnegan, a veteran who had worked at the Lockport locks in 1895 and 1896, said Seeley, a fellow Civil War veteran, ousted him only for political reasons.
According to the Buffalo Commercial, Seeley’s lawyer argued in court that Finnegan “was incompetent, that he was too old to be of use, and that he was an abusive and a profane man.” Finnegan’s lawyer replied, according to the Buffalo Enquirer, “that he did not think swearing incapacitated a man from working on the Erie Canal.” Finnegan lost his lawsuit and was ordered to pay $10 in court costs, according to the Buffalo Evening News.
Ironically, a decade later, Seeley used the same veterans’ preference law in a suit to win back his sectional canal superintendent job after he was fired and accused of misconduct. During the investigation, Seeley, who said he was a merely a victim of Republican infighting, was accused of permitting numerous no-show jobs on his section’s payroll, failing to enforce the ban on “scale” payments, and having a state-owned boat deliver lumber from Medina to his home.
But in December 1907, the State Court of Appeals ruled Seeley should be reinstated. Perhaps Seeley signed his legal paperwork on the “fine desk” that his lock tenders gave him as a gift at the end of the 1897 navigation season, according to the Buffalo Commercial.
Appreciation is extended to Thomas Prohaska, author of 'Who Were Lockport's 1897 Lock Tenders?'. Prohaska was the news and sports director of WLVL Radio in Lockport from 1985 to 1995 and a Niagara County reporter for The Buffalo News from 1995 to 2022.