Ghosts of the Past: The Chemung Canal

Downtown Montour Falls in the 1860s.

It might not occur to someone driving on Route 14 south from Watkins Glen, through Montour Falls, Millport, Pine Valley, Horseheads and then Elmira, that this picturesque byway was once an important artery of commerce. Route 14 follows the path of the Chemung Canal, which, in its heyday from 1833 to the late 1870s, changed the landscape and economy of the area, and opened this part of the Finger Lakes Region to the outside world.

The Chemung Canal connected Seneca Lake at Watkins Glen to the Chemung River in Elmira, with a navigable feeder canal that stretched from Horseheads to Corning. By joining the Erie Canal System with Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River Watershed, it opened a portal to trade and business that transformed the local communities on its path into boomtowns.

Today, canal boats seem impossibly quaint and the epitome of unhurried travel, but the canal system was the Internet of its time. The roads then were rough and unreliable and subject to impassability due to weather, making shipping and travel difficult and expensive. Many people in the Finger Lakes area depended on the infrequent visits of traveling peddlers to buy the things they couldn’t make themselves.

After the Erie Canal opened in 1825, though, the Finger Lakes Region was consumed with canal fever. As the ribbon of urban growth spread westward across the state, the benefits of canal travel and shipping were immediate and obvious. With a canal, a single mule could pull up to 30 tons – as much as a modern tractor trailer. Rochester became the fastest-growing city in America by 1830. Many communities, including Elmira, Penn Yan and Ithaca, vied for the chance to tap into the new canal system.

In the Jacksonian America of the 1820s and 1830s, states were on their own for big public works projects like canals. A full-court-press lobbying effort, mostly by business leaders from Elmira, Watkins Glen and Geneva, was waged in Albany for the money and permission to build the waterway. Ultimately, it was decided in 1830 to build both the Chemung Canal and the Crooked Lake Canal (From Penn Yan on Keuka Lake to Dresden on Seneca Lake) in the Finger Lakes Region. Naturally, this was a bitter disappointment to Ithaca, which had hoped to make the Erie Canal-Susquehanna River connection through Cayuga Lake.

Engineering and building the Chemung Canal was not at all simple. While the distance between Elmira and Watkins Glen is not great, the elevation climbs over 400 feet. The canal and feeder canal had 51 locks, with 44 locks between Horseheads and Montour Falls, a distance of 15 miles. By comparison, the Erie Canal had 83 locks spread over its 363-mile course.

The canal was dug by hand, using picks and shovels, over the course of three long years. Difficulties plagued the project. The soil, while easy to dig, was also loose and often gave way, creating landslides. There were also rattlesnakes. North of Elmira lay a huge swamp. Unreliable subcontractors often did shoddy or incomplete work. There was also the unexpected: south of Montour Falls, the canal had been surveyed to run through a Seneca Indian burial ground. The workers moved the graves to a small hill nearby, located near today’s B. C. Cate Elementary School.

Of course, in the 1830s, the canal was constructed and operated without needing to import outside materials or energy. The canals themselves were made of dirt, the locks constructed of wood, and the “energy source” used for power was homegrown oats and hay for the mules.

While locals along the route made up much of the labor force, the contractors imported many additional, mostly Irish, workers for the digging. In fact, transient canal workers made their presence felt well out of proportion to their numbers throughout the life of the canal’s construction. Pay for canal diggers ranged from $17 to $26 a month, plus whiskey, which was provided throughout the work day. According to canal lore, when inquiring about work, a laborer wouldn’t ask, “How much do you pay?” He’d ask, “How many jiggers do ye give?” Those were different times! In 1822, a Penn Yan jury decided that a man was not a “habitual drunkard” unless he was drunk more than half the time.

The area was quickly transformed. Businesses flourished and the population exploded. The surrounding territory was almost completely deforested for lumber since there was a way to transport it. Barges full of coal from Pennsylvania passed through the canal. Also, since the canal system connected towns from Millport to Corning to New York City, imported goods from all over the world appeared in stores for the first time. A Montour Falls grocery store advertised oranges and lemons for sale in 1839. Millport, today a sleepy village of 300, had 17 mills and six boatyards, and seemed likely to eclipse Elmira in the 1840s. India rubber overshoes, Brazil nuts and ocean fish became available.

Life changed for those along the canal, often in unexpected ways. Canal workers were notorious for fighting, drinking, staging cockfights and various other forms of mayhem. Frequently, they were kept segregated.

There was an area called “Ratville,” between Millport and Pine Valley, where workers’ shacks were concentrated. The canal water itself tended to be filthy. The hundreds of boats that passed through every season used the canal as both bathroom and dump. The waterway brought disease as well as business.

Ultimately, the success of the Chemung Canal was short-lived. A vast improvement over the primitive road system of the early 1800s, it couldn’t compete against the coming of the railroad network. The canal was seasonal (April to December), suffered from dry periods and was expensive to maintain. Because of the many locks, travel was slow. A person could certainly walk faster than a boat could move on the canal. The decision to use less-durable wooden locks, as opposed to stone locks, proved to be a costly misjudgment. After a spike of activity during the Civil War, the Chemung Canal experienced a steep decline in business and was finally abandoned in 1878.

In the 21st century, there are still significant remnants of the Chemung Canal to be seen. The canal bed, still holding water in places, is immediately adjacent to the east side of Route 14 from Horseheads to Pine Valley. North of Montour Falls to Watkins Glen, the canal was widened and is still in use as part of the Barge Canal System. The best vantage point is the Catharine Valley Trail, which runs from Watkins Glen to Millport, and follows the route of the canal. Portions of the trail are the actual towpath, with the canal bed easily discernable through the vegetation alongside.

In the end, the Chemung Canal, which never generated enough in tolls to finance its own construction and maintenance, brought an enormous influx of commerce and people to the region. Time and technology passed it by, but the echoes of its activity can still be heard on its towpath and in the old houses and buildings of the canal boomtowns on its route.

by Charley Githler


  • John P Mustico says:

    I believe in early 1900s there was legislation in the State Legislature to investigate rebuilding the canal.

  • Francis Whitford says:

    My great, great grandfather, an Irishman from County Clare, operated one of those locks and traded horses with my great grandfather, who married his daughter and settled in Horseheads.

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