Former Lewiston resident celebrates region, explores Niagara River
By Joshua Maloni
As the blueberry-colored jet boat circled around the Devil’s Hole gorge class five rapids, Sandy Dugan began to cry what she called “tears of joy.” Strapped in a red lifejacket, gripping the handlebar above her seat cushion, Dugan looked out on the Niagara River from this vantage point for the first time in her 84 years. Taking it all in as the vessel gently rocked up and down, she proclaimed, “This is every bit as exciting as Alaska.” As the jet boat picked up steam and ascended its highest crest, Dugan exclaimed, “I’m so glad we did that. It was wonderful!”
Last Friday’s private Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours excursion was the result of a conversation with president/partner John Kinney – a conversation that began with talk of a 40-year-old painting.
“I got this call – very much out of the blue – from (Sandy's daughter). And when she first called me, I didn't know if it was a robocall. I didn't know if she was telemarketing to me. I didn't know, because she was asking me about my property in Lewiston. And that she had a picture of my property in Lewiston, and was I interested in purchasing it. I'm like, ‘What the hell is this lady talking about?’ ” Kinney recalled. “And then, when she started describing a little bit more about what she was calling about, I realized that she was calling on behalf of her mother, who was the previous owner.”
The painting in question is a portrait of 65 Center St. – also known as the Trafford Mansion – one of Kinney’s waterfront properties. It was created sometime around 1980-81.
“I used to own the building across the way,” Dugan said, as she sat inside the Griffon Brewery & Gastropub following her jet boat ride. “Every summer, they always have artists up and down the street in Lewiston; and I saw the work of this artist and I really liked his work. And so, I asked him was he available for hire. And he said yes, that he was. So, he actually came down and I got to sit and watch him sit across the street with his easel and paint the picture. And then, I paid to have it matted, and I bought the antique frame that I wanted it in.
“It came to life.”
Dugan’s daughter, Deanna Lowe, reached out to Kinney about the painting, noting her mother was moving south.
“She said, ‘Well, really the owner of the property would be the only one that would really have affinity for purchasing this painting.’ Or at least I would have the most interest in purchasing it, versus trying to sell it at a garage sale, or what have you (laughs),” Kinney said. “And so, I agreed to buy it.”
Dugan said, “I was so happy that John wanted it, because it belongs in that building, historywise.”
As he drove out, “When I got out to Sandy's house, I realized that I had met her once, many, many, many years ago,” Kinney said. “Time had created this tale of how we ended up acquiring the Riverside Inn, which she was intimately familiar with. And then, as time went on, we were able to purchase the Village Inn – the Trafford Mansion – all the different names that the property had over the years. The bar down below was called the rathskeller.
“So, I agreed to purchase the painting. And while I was out – while I drove out to Kenmore to pick up the painting – as we chatted, there were many things that she had not done during her time in Lewiston. And one of which was she had never been up in the gorge – up in the gorge hiking, seeing Devil's Hole State Park, Whirlpool State Park – any of these things.
“I said, ‘Well, then you should come jetboating.’ Sandy's eyes lit up at the idea, but I could tell that her daughter was a little bit apprehensive about taking her (almost-)90-year-old mother jetboating. And then I explained the new boat that we have, and how we would make this very much a doable adventure for her; and how we do cater to seniors.
“But there was such a tight timeline because she was moving the next day. And so, we had a very brief window to do it. And she has some mobility issues – but we're used to seniors having mobility issues stepping in and out of the boat.
“Once we had her in the boat, she was able to enjoy the Niagara Gorge – just like all of our guests do. It ended up being a super-cool sendoff for all of her years here in Western New York, on to the next residence in her life.”
Pictured in front of the “Freedom Jet” are, from left, Jim Lowe, Deanna Lowe, Sandy Dugan and John Bell.
John Kinney explains the history of his company, and that of the class five rapids, to his guests.
Kinney’s special passenger agreed.
“I’m loving every minute of it,” Dugan said while on the water.
She noted her family has a history with Lewiston that dates back more than a hundred years.
“My grandfather brought his entire family of five children and his wife, and they landed right down at the old dock. That’s where they all set foot on American soil to begin with,” Dugan said.
It was fitting then, that, on perhaps one of her last days in Lewiston, Dugan set foot on a place she never expected to be – inside an enclosed boat called the “Freedom Jet.”
“People that have spent a lot of time in Western New York and, for whatever reason, have never made it into the Niagara Gorge, you know, the jet boat ends up being this magic conveyance that enables people of all ages to experience what we think is a pretty special place – not just here in the Niagara Peninsula, but really in the world,” Kinney said. “You've got this very majestic gorge, and 20% of the world's freshwater charging down through it, and creating this whitewater spectacle that I'm lucky enough that I get to do pretty much every day.
“This is something that she's obviously going to take with her the rest of her days. And I'm just glad that we were able to give her this experience that she had previously thought was not attainable for her to do.
“It turns out it was very, very doable for her.”
Kinney said his plan is to showcase the painting at 65 Center, inside a building that will be more accessible to the public next year.
At recent Village of Lewiston municipal board meetings, Kinney revealed plans to upgrade that site and his properties at 125 S. First and 115 S. Water streets.
“We're always doing some expansion, but the idea here will be that we're going to do everything that we need this winter so, come next spring, we can really address all the things that we want to do with 65 Center,” Kinney said. “We do plan to incorporate 65 Center St. into the matrix of activities that we do on the Lewiston waterfront.
“We have our jet boat operations, the restaurant component of our business, and we're trying to do some unique group dining and retail opportunities that will revolve around the wine industry. That is the general plan for 65 Center.
“Our plans are to do those things – do what we can over the winter, then into the spring – and have an open-to-the-public date happen in and around the first of July of next year.”
John Bell, Sandy Dugan and John Kinney stand with a painting of 65 Center St. – at the foot of 65 Center St.
Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours’ 2022 season continues until late October – though Kinney said he intends to keep the “Freedom Jet” “operational through November and into early December. Because it can operate any time that the Niagara River is ice-free; and we rarely have any ice in the river before Christmas.”
Depending on the ice boom installment in 2023, jet boats should return to action in late-April.