Rochester’s Erie Canal Heritage

Erie Canal, Rochester. American Laundry House Company is building at left; Osburn House is hotel at right. Circa 1900. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.
by Ray Levato

2022 marks the 200th anniversary of the opening of the Erie Canal in Rochester – with two important milestones reached in 1822!

The first milestone was on July 2, 1822, when boats first began using the newly opened canal section from the Genesee River to Pittsford. From there, because of the construction of the Great Embankment across the Irondequoit Creek valley, travelers had to ramble overland in a carriage for several miles to Fairport. 

The embankment was completed in October, and fully 180 miles of the Erie Canal were open from Rochester east to Little Falls.

I’ve got a mule, her name is Sal,

15 miles on the Erie Canal.

No achievement had more impact on the early history of New York than the Erie Canal. Some derisively called it “Clinton’s Big Ditch” or “Clinton’s Folly.”

The dream of an easy water route to the Great Lakes was talked about as early as the 1700s. The idea took hold in 1808, when New York took the important step of funding a survey of the route. We can forgive Thomas Jefferson who, in 1809, called the idea “…a little short of madness.”

Construction began on Independence Day in 1817, with the first shovel full of earth being turned in a farm field near Rome. Crews began digging in both directions – one toward Albany, the other toward a small frontier military outpost from the War of 1812 known as Buffalo.

She’s a good ol’ worker and a

good ol’ pal,

15 miles on the Erie Canal.

A canal stretching 363 miles from the Hudson River to Lake Erie and overcoming a height difference of 565 feet seemed an impossible dream. The original Erie Canal was 40 feet wide and 4 feet deep with towpaths on either side. There were 83 stone locks and 18 aqueducts over rivers, creeks and ravines. 

As many as 50,000 men worked on the construction – a mix of local farm laborers and Irish, British and German immigrants. They used shovels, pickaxes and the raw power of horses, mules and oxen to pull bulldozer-like iron blades called “slip scrapers” to remove many thousand cubic yards of earth.

Through wilderness, dense forest and swamps, they dug mere yards a day for wages of 50 cents to about a dollar or more a day, depending on how much earth they removed.

The Annual Report of the Canal Commissioners from 1818 gave this account of a crew of three men who dug out 15 yards of the canal bed in 5½ days, which “produced to each workman the very liberal wages of one dollar and eighty-eight cents per day.” 

It took a year and 3,000 men to dig the first stretch of the canal, the roughly 15 miles between Rome and Utica. It opened on Oct. 22, 1819.

Low bridge, everybody down

Low bridge, for we’re coming

to a town

In Low Bridge; Everybody Down!, Chuck Friday writes: “The canal commissioners and a group of friends boarded the Chief Engineer on October 23, 1819, and set off along the 94-mile section of the canal between Utica and the Seneca River. An eyewitness to the historic trek wrote of it in the Rochester Telegraph: To see the first boat launched, to be among the first that were borne on the waters of a canal which is to connect the great chain of western lakes with the Hudson, and which will be one of the most stupendous works the world has ever known … produced emotions which only those who felt them can conceive.’”

But the canal builders would soon face three more monumental challenges. 

The black muck of the Montezuma marsh would have to be drained. That was no easy task and there were other challenges, not to mention the plague of mosquitos and malaria.

The Great Embankment was a massive earthen berm over Irondequoit Creek, spanning the creek valley at 1,320 feet long and 76 feet high. This eliminated the need for locks on either side and allowed the canal to be a level channel – with Irondequoit creek flowing deep underneath the canal through an amazing 245-foot-long culvert.

To carry the canal over the Genesee River, laborers constructed 11 stone arches anchored in bedrock to support an 802-foot-long aqueduct constructed of Medina sandstone. The aqueduct was completed in September 1823 – but it leaked, and a second aqueduct made of more sturdy Onondaga limestone was completed in 1842. It still exists today, supporting the Broad Street bridge. 

And you’ll always know your neighbor,

and you’ll always know your pal,

If you’ve ever navigated,

on the Erie Canal.

Perhaps the greatest challenge the canal builders faced was the 70-foot-high Niagara Escarpment, the final obstacle to access Lake Erie. They solved that problem using blasting powder to carve a channel through bedrock, allowing for a staircase of five sets of locks that still exist today, next to the two modern locks that replaced them. 

The official opening of the Erie Canal took place on October 26, 1825, with a grand, statewide celebration. It culminated in a 90-minute-long cannon firing along the entire length of the canal. The loud cannonade continued down the Hudson River all the way to New York City. Governor Dewitt Clinton, aboard the Seneca Chief, led a flotilla of boats from Buffalo to New York City. At the end of the 10-day trip, Clinton ceremonially poured water from Lake Erie into New York harbor in an event known as the “Wedding of the Waters.”

The canal transformed a journey of weeks with pack horses and wagons into one of about six days, and cut the cost of freight by as much as 90% – from $90 a ton to $10 a ton. An explosion of trade followed.

Flour from Genesee River mills in Rochester found its way to eastern cities and gave birth to “The Flour City.” The small village of Rochesterville became America’s first boom town. (Rochester was incorporated as a city in 1834 and later became “The Flower City.”)

Tom Grasso, longtime president of the Canal Society of New York State says, “The story of early Cleveland and Detroit was the same as Buffalo and Rochester, as the Erie canal opened up western settlement, and small settlements became boom towns.”

Not only people but ideas were transported along its route. Popular social reforms – including women’s rights and abolition – took root in canal towns, as did religious revivals.

The cost of the canal was $7,143,789 dollars. To pay for it, seven weigh locks collected tolls, and there was also a tax on salt. Grasso, who is currently writing a book on the Erie Canal, says, “It was a humble start, but it was a canal for a nation.”

 Ray Levato is a retired news reporter/anchor with WHEC-TV Channel 10 in Rochester, New York.

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