At the Edge of West New York, Small-Town Life Persists

Living in the Niagara Region, we have a select few places we can visit. We’ve gone south to Buffalo and Fort Erie. We’ve gone north to Niagara-on-the-Lake. We’ve gone west to Hamilton—and then farther west, to Ingersoll and Brantford and London. That’s basically the extent of your day-trip options. Unless you’ve got your passport handy.

There aren’t a whole lot of well-touristed spots in West New York. Buffalo is the de facto capital, with other big urban areas, like Rochester and Jamestown. But peppered in between are small towns and cities, including one just a 40-minute drive from us—Lockport, NY.

And since it was Vee’s birthday recently, I wanted to surprise her with a full-blown day trip. As close as we could get to the old days of long-haul travel. Except with a one-year-old. And no backpacks.

Anyway, Lockport seemed as good a place as any, with an interesting history of being the site of a major series of locks that, in the 1800s, let barges make it through an otherwise treacherous stretch of the Erie Canal. This acclaimed piece of architecture—the “Flight of Five Locks”, as it’s known—is mostly forgotten today, since nobody cares about boats. Except for people in Lockport. They care about boats. A lot. Setting aside that the city literally derives its name from these locks, they are also the central tourist draw and feature of the downtown core. You literally can’t visit without seeing them.

On the plus side, they also make for one of Lockport’s more charming features: a lovely canalside walk, part of the 750-mile Empire State Trail.

Vee with our sleepy kid strolling along the canalside multi-use trail.

It helped that the weather was perfect, a chilly sunny weekend day. The dip in the canal, with a trail flanked by trees, shielded us from unusually strong July winds. The farther along you go, the more natural it gets, creating much-needed separation from the urban sprawl up the hill. If you’re not into 19th-century history, the natural element is a good draw.

Beyond the trail, Lockport seemed pleasant. We were there on a farmers’ market day, where yuppies packed into stalls to buy fresh produce from local farmers. (Racial segregation seemed more noticeable, unsurprisingly, in less fancy parts of the downtrodden downtown.) We popped into Steamworks Coffee for a quality brew and a snack, then ventured out by car to our next destination: Olcott.

Olcott’s carousel is a refurbished 1920s original that’s travelled across the country.

If Lockport is a quaint and cozy city, Olcott is like cottage country. This classic beachside town is owning its history perhaps better than any other we’ve visited. It’s all ice cream parlors and barbershops, with the main draw—for us, anyway—being a fully revived vintage amusement park, where every ride costs a quarter and nothing was built after the 1940s. The price is almost a joke: funded by private donors and staffed by volunteers, the kiddy park comprises a carousel, little boats, rocking chairs, a small ferris wheel and carnival games. I suspect the real way they make money is through concessions—two dollars for a bottle of water, etc. But, honestly, whatever. The place is good fun for a little kid.

Keen readers may recall I pointed out this trip was conceived as a birthday gift for my wife. She agreed, however, that our birthday getaways will never be what they once were—now the greatest gift may in fact be the smile on our kid’s face as he rides a 100-year-old wooden horse around in slow circles while listening to tinny piano jingles for three minutes. Worth a quarter, I’d say.


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