CANANDAIGUA — Twenty students at St. Mary’s School have become Erie Canal experts without ever leaving their classroom.
On June 9, George Reineke, the grandfather of fourth-grader Kaitlyn Johnstone, brought in his working model of a set of Erie Canal locks, complete with signal lights and a toy boat. The students were intrigued by the model — which was approximately 5 feet in length and sat on a table at the front of the room — but Reineke didn’t indulge the students’ curiosity right away.
“Why do we have a canal that runs from Albany to Buffalo?” he first asked the students.
Several of the children correctly guessed that one of the canal’s original purposes was to transport goods. Reineke told them how the government also hoped to use the canal to push westward, gaining access to more land and resources.
The canal ran 363 miles from Albany to Buffalo, and since the land was uneven, it encountered many small waterfalls along the way, Reineke said.
“Now you know that a boat just can’t go down falls and then go on its way,” he said, drawing a diagram on the chalkboard as he began to explain how locks work to help boats climb up and down falls and uneven places.
Reineke likened the chamber of a lock to a shoe box with a gate at each end. Large pipes called flumes carry water into and out of the lock chamber, and four lock valves control the water going through the flumes.
After explaining the parts of the lock, Reineke showed the students pictures of Lock 33, which is located in Henrietta, and he and Kaitlyn used the model to demonstrate how locks work. Reineke, acting as the lockmaster, operated the model lock while Kaitlyn, acting as the ship’s captain, guided the toy boat through the lock.
When a boat is within three or four miles of a lock, its captain will radio the lockmaster with his location, Reineke said. If the boat is going down a hill or from a high point to a low point in the canal, the lockmaster will open one set of valves to let water flow into and fill the lock chamber. At the same time, he’ll close the other set of valves so the water stays in the chamber instead of just flowing through it.
Once the chamber is full, the lockmaster will open the gates, the captain will bring his boat into the chamber and the gates will be closed again, Reineke explained. The lockmaster will then open the second set of valves and slowly lower the water level inside the lock chamber until it is level with the water at the lower point in the canal. Once the water level is even on both sides of the gate, the lockmaster will open the gate and the boat will be on its way.
After Kaitlyn had taken her boat through the locks safely, Reineke asked her to take it though again, but this time it would be up to her classmates to tell them what to do and make sure all the steps were completed in the right order.
Fourth-grade teacher Suzanne Giovenco said her students had learned about the history of the Erie Canal earlier in the year and had been looking forward to Reineke’s presentation, which she said they enjoyed.