Packet boat Frances leaving the dock at Oracle Feeder for Portage about 1849. Sketch by Captain Hiram P. Marsh.
A Personal Look at the Genesee Valley Canal
By Richard F. Palmer
Over the years many articles and guidebooks have been written about the Genesee Valley Canal, a 124-mile waterway that existed between Rochester and Olean between 1840 and 1878. But the story of personal life on the canal has been largely neglected. This article recounts the stories of a civil engineer who helped lay out the canal and a boat captain who sailed it.
Much of the old towpath became the route of the Rochester branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad which was abandoned in 1963. Long abandoned and forgotten, interest in this waterway was revived in the 1990s that has since evolved into the Genesee Valley Greenway State Park. Before proceeding with some personal recollections, a timeline is presented.
An act of the state legislature passed on March 19, 1818, declared the Genesee River a "public highway." Some shallow-draft boats were able to navigate the river from Rochester as far south as Geneseo and Mount Morris.
As early as 1823, residents in the Genesee Valley petitioned the New York State Legislature for action to build a north-south canal. This continued as land was cleared and wheat became a natural and very marketable crop. James Geddes of Syracuse, who had engineered much of the Erie Canal, made a survey in 1826, but nothing was done. Lumber was being floated down to Rochester by rafts long before the Genesee Valley Canal was built. Some early steamboats were able to navigate the river at times as far south as Mount Morris in the 1820s. Sanford Hunt, who settled at Hunt's Hollow near Nunda, in 1819, was the first to commercially use the Genesee River to transport lumber. He built a canal boat, the Hazard, in 1824 near the Lower Falls at Rochester, at what was called "The Old Rafting Place." The shallow river was mostly navigable during the spring freshets. Hunt transported lumber, potash and pearl ash to Albany, by way of Rochester and the Erie Canal.
On May 6, 1836, the New York State Legislature passed enabling legislation authorizing construction of the canal, from Rochester to Olean, with a side cut to Dansville. Settlers were encouraged by this action, surveys made, contracts were let, and and local men with teams of horses soon went to work, thus alleviating for some what up to that time had been "hard times." Only 11 locks were required as far as Dansville, so construction progressed fairly rapidly and the canal was opened to Dansville in 1841.
One enthusiastic merchant in Nunda advertised his "Genesee Valley Canal Cash Store" by stating: "I have weighed my anchor. Again I have launched my bark upon the stormy billows and confidently hope to reach the shore."
A formidable obstacle was the high ground near Oakland about a mile out of Nunda. An army of men with picks and shovels removed enough earth at the wide-flaring, mile-long Deep Cut to form a valley in the long stretch of the canal that came to be called the "Nine Mile Level."
Another difficult problem was to construct a canal way at the Middle Falls of the Genesee River in what is now Letchworth State Park. The engineer on this job, Elisha Johnson of Rochester, conceived the idea in 1838 of boring a tunnel 27 feet wide, 20 feet high and 1082 feet long through the mountain. It was found to be impossible to tunnel through the rock because of its unstable shale-like consistency. Dangerous and fatal rock collapses occurred. Much time and money was spent on this portion of the project. Eventually it was decided to go around, and not through, the mountain.
But work on the canal was suspended in 1842 with a change in state government leadership. It would be another six years before work would resume. In that time the elements heavily damaged what had already been done.
In spite of frustrations, numerous accidents and engineering problems, work prevailed and the canal, including a feeder, was completed to Oramel in 1851, Belfast in 1853, Rockville in 1854 and Olean in 1856. The New York State Legislature authorized by an act in 1857, extension of the canal from Olean eastward across Olean Creek and the bottom lands along the north bank of the Allegheny River, to Mill Grove Pond, a distance of about six and a half miles.
From Allegany County the canal entered Cattaraugus County at the northeast corner of Hinsdale and extended through the town along the east bank of Oil and Olean Creeks. The first boat entered the county on Saturday, October 4, 1856. The newspaper, American Banner of Cuba, N.Y. the following week noted:
"By the perseverance and energy of Superintendent Chambers, a boat left Oramel Friday morning for Hinsdale. It arrived in Cuba Friday evening about five o'clock, and was received with great rejoicing, the firing of cannon, etc., by the people of the village. Quite a large number of persons were on board, accompanied by a band of music.
"An American flag floated on the breeze, and cheer upon cheer went up as the boat passed along. At six o'clock the people of Cuba formed a procession preceded by a band of music, and marched to the boat. S. M. Russel, Esq. called the meeting to order with a few brief and appropriate remarks, after which he introduced Gen. C. T. Chamberlain, who addressed the meeting about half an hour in a neat and feeling speech.
"Speeches were also made by M. B. Champlin, Wilkes Angel and others. Saturday morning the boat passed as far as Hinsdale. The low stage of water below Hinsdale prevented the boat going as far as Olean until later. A large amount of lumber is already on the banks of the canal for shipment, and we may expect a large lumber business will be transacted along the line."
The terminal was on the approximate site where the Donovan Hotel was built in later years. The canal basin in Olean became the site of Bradner Stadium. The canal carried freight and passengers. The fare from Olean to Rochester was $4.27. There were also established tariffs for freight goods.
The Genesee Valley Canal had some interesting statistics. The summit level near Cuba was 978 feet above the Erie Canal at Rochester, and 86 feet above the Allegheny River. Among the canal structures were 102 lift locks and two guard locks, each 90 by 15 feet, built of hammer-dressed stone laid in hydraulic cement. In a distance of 124 miles there were no less than 106 locks. At Portageville an aqueduct costing $70,000 spanned the river. The canal was designed to be 4 feet deep, 42 feet wide at water surface and 26 feet wide on the bottom, with banks seven feet high.
The boatmen were a rough and ready lot. The boats which plied the Genesee Valley Canal were said to have been well built, clean and attractively painted. They were round at the bow and square at the stern, about 80 feet long and 14 feet wide, with a cabin at the rear for living quarters and one at the other end for the crew and horses. The boats could carry up to 90 tons and often transported 50 to 80 thousand board feet of lumber, or as much as 50 cords of wood.
Since there were frequent problems with the shallowness of water, experience dictated that boats not be overloaded or they would drag on the bottom of the canal, making it difficult, if not impossible, for the horses to pull them. Horses were changed at designated points. Every boat bore a name, either descriptive or fanciful, such as The Wave, Fashion, The Betsey King, Homer, and Crescent.
James F. Johnson wrote a letter dated, Olean, Oct. 4, 1857:
I have attended three services today, the third being preached by the Rev. Cowles on one of the 50 canal boats that now throng this port with their profligate, dissipated, boastful complement of harlots and loafers. A large crowd of citizens attracted by the novelty of the same, or other cause came to hear the sermon, or see the sights among the latter class. I might perhaps as well confess myself. But, after all, it was a sight, which new as it was to me, I shall ever remember.
There stood that old silver-headed man of God (as I really believe), with his head bared to the sunlight, his hands pointing upward and his voice plaintive and mellow by his own emotion, but still self-possessed and earnest. Pleading for those bloated beings around him, who listened, without moving a muscle, or without seeming to hear, which made me involuntarily think of casting pearls before swine.
The Olean Advertiser of April 19, 1858, recorded:
Yesterday was the day appointed for the opening of the Canal. There is plenty of water, to all appearances, in the Genesee Valley Canal. The first boat of the season from Olean, the Forrest City, cleared today for Albany with 85,000 feet of lumber belonging to Weston Brothers." The same issue also took note of the launch of the canal boat Abram Merritt from the boat yard of S. Creamer at the canal basin. This was Mr. Creamer's second boat, and a third one was "on the way."
The canal had a fairly short existence and was closed by law in September, 1878. Two years later the right of way was sold to the Genesee Valley Canal Railroad Company which had almost as rocky an existence as had the canal itself. It was reorganized several times, portions of it at one time were narrow gauge. Eventually it became the Rochester Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad which somehow remained in existence for more than 80 years before being abandoned.
Canalboat "commuting" during the heyday of the Genesee Valley Canal could be both a romantic, yet frustrating mode of transportation that had its advantages and disadvantages. Generally, however, most people who knew the waterway had fond memories of the colorful packets passing from Rochester to the uplands of the Genesee Country. Files of the Rochester Historical Society contain a paper prepared and read before that organization in 1892 by Dr. Porter Farley, a Rochester Physician, who recalled:
The packet boat was a spectacle that never lost its charm to youthful eyes. As it swept through the town it was a sight which compelled attention. Its hull was white with green window blinds; its helmsman was furnished with a bugle which he was wont to blow upon in strains pleasant to hear and in sweet contrast to the hoarse shriek of the locomotive which now resounds throughout the land.
Recalling it was railroad competition and heavy maintenance that forced abandonment of the $6 million canal in 1878, let us peer behind those "green window blinds" with the late Mrs. Lynn Hite of Rochester. She was born on the banks of the canal at Mount Morris. As a child she traveled to Rochester by packet many times, the last being the final trip of the packet just before the canal closed.
At the age of 70, in 1940, she retained many vivid memories of canalboat days. She remarked that the packet provided much-needed transportation, slow and not always reliable, but an improvement over stagecoach travel.
The packet was only a long, flat-bottomed scow with a cabin built on it. In fine weather the passengers rode on the upper deck, on top of the cabin. That was pleasant enough. But in wet weather, they had to go down into a low-ceilinged, evil-smelling room in the hold of the boat. Benches there were hard and uncomfortable. A smoked-up kerosene lamp provided little illumination. The carpet bags of passengers were piled in corners. Tobacco stains covered the floor and walls, for nearly every able-bodied man chewed tobacco in those days and few used cuspidors.
A large keg held water for drinking purposes and a barrel held canal water for toilet purposes. A large tin dipper was used to place water into huge wash basins. Slops were dumped into another barrel, which never was emptied until it was full and slopping water over the cabin floor. Homemade soft soap removed the grime of travel. If you [have] never used homemade soft soap, you have missed something decidedly unpleasant. A cracked mirror hung on the wall. There was a large towel rack, but seldom any towels.
Everyone drank out of the same cup. Not very sanitary, to be sure, but that was not a sanitary age. Toilet facilities were abominable. Men, women and children had to use the same place. James Whitcomb Riley should have seen that one. He would have written a more colorful poem than the one he penned about a certain celebrated farm outbuilding.
Mrs. Hite associated the canal with her earliest memories. It ran through her father's property, which originally was part of the large tract purchased from the Seneca Indians by John R. Murray. Her father was Asher M. Grover, who long made shoes for Genesee County folk and snake whips for the canalboat drivers. She recalled happy hours spent along the canal banks. There she found scores of Indian relics which she retained and finally gave to Peter Gruber, who exhibited them in his quaint museum on Mill Street in Rochester.
Mr. Grover came to Rochester once a month by packet to buy leather and stock for his business. Mrs. Hite frequently was taken along on these trips. She recalled the packet was drawn by three horses; that it required 10 hours to get from Mount Morris to Rochester; that there were many locks to delay progress; that the tow path was on the west canal bank and all of the stopping places on the east side.
The crew consisted of a ticket-seller who sold his wares to patrons before they boarded the boat, another official who collected the tickets and probably did the bugle-blowing, and the driver on the tow path. One could leave Mount Morris at 9 a. m. and get to Rochester at 7 p. m. That meant staying in Rochester at least one day to transact business and going back to Mount Morris on the third day. Now one can drive that distance in an hour or less.
The Rochester terminus was located near the west end of Troup Street. Mrs. Hite said there was no waiting room for passengers-merely a shelter roof hanging from the side of a building. She was the widow of Lynn Hite, a well-known Rochester hotel proprietor. She was long associated with her husband in a string of hostelries in Rochester and throughout western New York. Her home was at 30 Mazda Terrace which she named herself.
The canal ran along the east cliff of the Genesee River gorge at what is now Letchworth State Park. [Library of Congress]
The Genesee Valley Canal was opened from Shaker Settlement, near Groveland, to Oramel, 36 miles, on Saturday, June 14th, 1851. The Oswego Daily Times of June 30, 1851, stated: "The people of Nunda, Portage, and the Northern towns of Allegany County are to be largely benefitted by this new thoroughfare. Large amounts of lumber, shingles and staves, which had been deposited upon the banks of the Canal in the town of Caneadea and Belfast, in anticipating of the opening of this section, are now being crowded to market.
"We hope the day is not far distant when the Packet's bugle will be heard reverberating through the valleys of the Cattaraugus. Already we see in the Allegany papers, an advertisement of the 'New York and Olean Line' of canal boats."
In 1836 a young surveyor from McLean, a farming community between Cortland and Ithaca, was hired to assist in surveying the right of way for the Genesee Valley Canal between Mount Morris and Portage. His name was William N. Cobb and he was born in McLean, Tompkins County, on July 15, 1818, the son of William and Achsah Bradley Cobb.
Cobb's journal covers the months of September and October, 1836, and gives excellent insight into his particular field of work. At 6 a.m. on Sept. 20, he boarded a canal boat in Ithaca, bound for Buffalo. The boat was one of six being towed by a steamboat. They arrived at the foot of the lake at Cayuga. There, horses were attached to his boat for the trip through the Erie Canal.
It was dark when they reached Montezuma, a distance of seven miles. For most of the voyage, Cobb remained on the deck of the packet boat which was "somewhat crowded" with between 50 and 60 passengers.
The captain had told me he could not promise me a berth. Accordingly on entering the cabin I found the berths all occupied and some half-a-dozen passengers lying at full length on the floor. Finding a couple of chairs, I placed them together and very quietly disposed myself across them with a blanket[,] which I chanced to find in the cabin[,] under my head.
After lying in this manner a long while and listening to the chit-chat and laughter about me I at length began to sleep. After sleeping for awhile, I knew not how long, I awoke, flattering myself that I had enjoyed a good long nap, but was much disappointed on looking at the watch to find that I had slept only about 10 minutes. By this time I was so tired with sleeping as to be glad to get up and rest.
After resting awhile I put one of my chairs away and lying down on the floor put the other under my head. But before I could get to sleep, I found that the water had leaked into the boat so fast since pumping that it began to come through the cracks of the floor about me so that I was obliged to get up and then sat up until 12 o'clock, about which time we arrived at Clyde.
Sept. 21. — After a short tarry at Clyde we again went on, the boatmen pumping out the water as we went. After they had pumped out the water, I found it rather lonesome sitting up, so I began to think of taking another nap. Accordingly on looking around at the other end of the floor I saw a sheepskin and I also found a valise, so spreading the former on the floor and placing the latter under my head I again laid down to sleep, and slept about an hour, when waking I saw the man sitting near[,] to whom the sheepskin belonged. I therefore arose and offered him my chance which he very readily accepted. I then sat up til day. Thus passed one night with only about one hour's sleep. Passing through several villages we arrived at Palmyra about noon where we made a short tarry. Pulling thence we arrived at Pittsford at about 10 o'clock in the evening where I left the boat and took lodgings at the Inn.
Started the next morning for West Avon. When within 2 or 3 miles of that place I fell in company of an Italian only 11 months from Italy. He had a quantity of wax fruit done off with an exquisite finish which he was peddling. I arrived at Avon between 1 and 2 o'clock p.m. where entering a public house I enquired for the Engineers on the Genesee Valley Canal. I there learned they were 14 miles up the river at a place called Mount Morris.
Accordingly I set off for that place where I arrived at about 8 of the clock in the evening. I met a boy just on the outskirts of the village of whom I enquired whether the engineers were in the place. He said they were and that I would find them at Beach's Tavern. So I enquired out the house, it being dark, and went on to the stoop where there were some 4 or 6 young men whom I took to be members of the engineering party. I enquired for Mr. Allen and one of the gentlemen immediately arose and leading me upstairs showed me into Mr. Allen's room where I found him studying.
As I entered the room he arose and appeared much surprised to see me, giving me a most hearty shake by the hand at the same time. My friend Mr. Eddy very soon made his appearance and appeared much surprised as well as pleased to see me. After a long talk in relation to the affairs about home, I at length retired with Mr. Allen to rest.
Sept. 23. — I arose this morning not very much refreshed by my night's lodgings, having been troubled last night with a pain in my legs arising from weariness which prevented me from enjoying my rest. The weather is quite dull and rainy. The rain ceasing towards noon, I went out with Mr. Allen & Eddy, together with the rest of the party to which they belong, to their work, which was about four miles out of town up the valley towards Dansville, where Mr. [Henry S.] Dexter, resident engineer of the Genesee Valley Canal, the head of the party, stayed last night at the house of a friend. On Mr. Eddy's asking him if his party was full, he said it was. So I went with the party that afternoon and stayed with them at a private house overnight.
Saturday, Sept. 24. — Leaving my friends Allen and Eddy, I returned this morning to Mount Morris where after dinner I went over to the store and purchased 2 sheets of paper on one of which I wrote a letter to my parents. When Mr. Mills came in with his party to dinner he told me he thought he could give me a station in his party next week as a rodman. So I stayed at the tavern during the afternoon and had considerable conversation with a Mr. Dickinson, who has been in the party with the Engineers during the summer, but has quit with the intention of going home and attending school the ensuing winter. Just at night Mr. Dexter's party came in to stay over Sunday.
Sunday, Sept. 25. — This morning I, in company with Mr. Allen, attended service at the Methodist Church. The sermon was delivered by an elderly man whose name I did not learn. He gave a very interesting and instructing discourse from 'Remember the Sabbath day to Keep it Holy,' at the close of which a collection was taken for the benefit of the widows and orphans of such as have died in the ministry.
Monday, Sept. 26 — Just as Mr. [Frederick C.] Mills, the chief engineer, was leaving town to go to his work this morning he came to me and said that I would better stay a few days in the place as one of his party would quit in the course of the week and then he would give me a station. But finally he said I might go right out in the field with them and he would set me at work. So I went out and took the rod and commenced keeping book at the onset.
Our party took dinner at the house of an old Dutchman who sat a very good table for which we paid him 12½ cents each. At night a part of our party stayed at a private house and the remainder went on to a tavern about 1 mile, among the former was myself.
Tuesday, Sept. 27. — After taking breakfast we started for our work where the rest of the party from the tavern soon made their appearance. We all went to the fore-mentioned tavern for dinner. When night came we were some distance beyond the tavern but we returned and took lodging with our landlord. We passed through one man's farm in the course of the day, who thinking that the canal would be located across his farm, and thus in his opinion injure it, went immediately to the tavern and offered to sell it for 35 dollars per acre, which before he would not have sold for $40 per acre. In the evening I wrote to my father for my trunk &c.
Wednesday, Sept, 28, 1836. — I was much surprised this morning on waking and looking out at the window to see the snow between one and two inches deep all over the ground and somewhat deeper on the roofs of the buildings. But the sun soon melted away some of the snow so that we started for our work soon after breakfast. The sun however soon clouded under and it was finally a cold, wet, disagreeable day, but we did not however quit our work till night. Just before we quit work four of our party among whom was Mr. Mills received a very polite invitation to lodge at one Col. Williams* and as they could not accommodate any more with lodgings the rest of us sought lodgings elsewhere.
Thursday, Sept. 29. — After taking breakfast with our host whose name was Thomson we went to our work where we were met by the rest of our party from Col. Williams. We run at a pretty smart rate until noon when we all went, by invitation to Col Williams for dinner. After dinner we were treated to a pail of most excellent fruit.
As the weather evinced strong symptoms of a storm we started after dinner for Portage where we engaged our board so long as we should work near there. In the afternoon we went out to see the falls and the high steep banks of the Genesee River. The latter were in some places from 280 to 300 feet above the bed of the river, composed of solid rock and nearly perpendicular.
Friday, Sept. 30. — Started after breakfast for our work which was about 2 miles from the village of Portage. On our way to work we spoke for our dinner at a log house on the way whither went at noon and took it, paying 25 cents apiece. After dinner we again went to Portage where we stayed over night. Perhaps I shall not find a better opportunity for a short description of Portage. It is situated on the Genesee River and is about 50 miles from Rochester via Geneseo, and about 20 miles from the latter place. There are 2 taverns, 2 stores and a tanner's shop in the place besides a blacksmith shop and some such other fixtures, &c. &c.
Saturday, Oct. 1. — Started out and run from Portage up to the top of the hill to find how much higher the ground is at the top of the hill than at Portage, and found it to be 260 feet. After dinner we started for Mount Morris in a wagon which we had engaged for the purpose. When we arrived a little before sunset, paying the driver 25 cents apiece for our ride: distance 14 miles. Here we found the other party under Mr. Dexter who had come in before us.
Sunday, Oct. 2. — Spent the day principally in reading in Young's 'Night Thoughts' and Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'
* Col. George Williams came to the Genesee Valley as a land sales agent in 1810. He first lived in a log house, but later built a brick mansion. He was one of the staunchest promoters of the Genesee Valley Canal, and resided near Portageville.
Monday, October 3rd, 1836 - Went down to the new dam which is being built across the Genesee River, and starting from the ridge of the dam we ran a line up to Mount Morris in the course of the day. This dam is being built upon the site of the old one which was swept away last fall by the freshet. There was this evening a school meeting at our boarding house, during a part of which I was present. The first thing they did was to fill the vacancies in the office of trustee, the three of which had been appointed to that office positively refusing to serve; so also did 6 or 8 others nominated this evening.
Genesee Valley Canal aqueduct over Genesee River at Portageville. It was 400 feet long and cost $70,000 to construct in 1850. The stonework was hammered and well built, but the wooden trough leaked like sieve most of the time. Later this bridge was “inherited” by the Pennsylvania Railroad. [Library of Congress]
Tuesday, Oct. 4th, 1836 - It has rained almost incessantly during the whole of this day so that we did not go into the field, but spent the day in the office. The surveyors were engaged in taking maps of their courses from their field books and some others in drafting and lettering.
For my own part I spent the day in reading, writing and looking at the work of the rest. There was this afternoon a sale of real estate in this village at auction. Village lots went at from 25 to 34 dollars a foot. It is generally thought that the sales were very low considering the prospect of the canal's coming through or near the village. Bought a pair of boots price $3¼.
Wednesday, Oct. 5th, 1836 - It has snowed almost incessantly during the whole of this day so that we stayed in the office. I went this evening to hear a lecture delivered, on the growth and prosperity of our nation and her moral and physical superiority, compared with other nations.
The speaker dwelt with much enthusiasm on the fitness of our country taking into consideration her situation, soil and extent, to become at some future day the most moral, intelligent, powerful and prosperous nation on the globe, as well as the adaptation of our government to such a course of things.
Thursday, Oct. 6th, 1836 - It has been wet and squally for the most part of the day so that we have not got out. Spent the time at the office helping Mr. Mills look over the minutes, &c. It is said that the snow is from 8 to 10 inches up in the adjacent country.
Friday, Oct. 7th, 1836 - Went out after breakfast and continued our line from the dam, which we commenced on Monday last, and run about 2 miles in the course of the day, returning to Mt. Morris at night. On calling at the stage house late in the evening I found my trunk had just come in from Rochester.
Saturday, Oct. 8th, 1836 - Started out after breakfast and went about a mile and a half from Mt. Morris village to our work - run about one and a half miles in the course of the day - took a bowl o f bread & milk for dinner - paying 12½ cents for it. Returned to Mt. Morris at night and spent the evening inking the figures in our books which had been kept with pencil.
Sunday, Oct. 9th, 1836 - Attended service this afternoon and also this evening at the Presbyterian Church. Had no minister but had a very good sermon read each time. Received a letter from my father with my key enclosed & answered it this forenoon.
Monday, Oct. 10th, 1836 - Started out after breakfast & went about three miles to our work - run about 1½ miles and returned to Mt. Morris in the afternoon. Received of Mr. H. P. Hills this evening five dollars & settled with Mr. Beab all accounts up to this evening after supper.
Tuesday, Oct. 11th, 1836 - Started out after breakfast with a view to adjust the level and go to work; but found it a very difficult task to adjust the level and finally did not get it fixed before night so we adjourned until tomorrow. There was a person charged with the crime of forgery examined before the justice in the evening & committed to jail to await his trial.
Wednesday, Oct. 12th, 1836 - Finished adjusting the level this morning & went after dinner to work to run about ¾ of a mile and returned to Mt. Morris at night.
Thursday, Oct. 13th, 1836 - Went out this morning after breakfast about 1 mile to work and run about 1½ miles in the course of the day and returned to Mt. Morris at night. Went to hear a lecture on education this evening. I have heard (to speak familiarly) smarter men - but taken all in all it was a very good lecture & contained much good sense - the speaker concluded with soliciting subscribers for the Common School Assistant - and immediately obtained subscribers for 21 copies of the same.
Friday, Oct. 14th, 1836 - It has been rainy today for the greater part of the time so that we have worked in the office all day. Mr. Dexter & his party came down from Dansville last night & are going to Scottsville which is down the river within 12 miles of Rochester to commence work on Monday morning next.
Saturday, Oct. 15th, 1836 - Went out after breakfast this morning with a view to test the expedience of taking the canal out of the village by a different route from any yet surveyed. After running a short distance the route was deemed impracticable. Accordingly we left it and returned to the office and did not go into the field again during the day but assisted Mr. Marsh to adjust his level in the afternoon.
Stone is loaded on to the canal boat Harvey Tucker at the Abmblico “Bluestone” Quarry along the Genesee Valley Canal near Portageville in 1870. Much of the stonework for the canal structures came from here. Note the interesting gin pole system of loading stone. [www.letchworthparkhistory.com]
Sunday, Oct. 16th, 1836 - Attended meeting at the Methodist house this afternoon - had an exhortation from a member of the church but no preaching. Mr. F. C. Mills arrived in town this afternoon.
Portage, Allegany County, Monday, Oct. 17th, 1836 - Started for Portage this morning after breakfast and paid a man 25 cents to carry me within two or three miles of Portage. Arrived at Portage in the afternoon and took supper and dinner in the same meal. Soon after our arrival it started to snow and snowed very fast for two or three hours leaving the snow 1 or 2 inches deep on account of which we did not go out this afternoon.
Portage, Tuesday, Oct. 18th, 1836 - Started out after breakfast and ran our line through the woods and snow in the course of the day. Stayed at a private house over night.
Mount Morris, Wednesday, Oct. 19th, 1836 - Got breakfast and started very early - ran our line about 1½ or 2 miles by noon. Then started for Mount Morris on foot. We arrived at Mt. Morris at about half past four - having travelled 12 or 14 miles the greater part of the way in the rain.
Thursday, Oct. 20th, 1836 - Worked in the office all day making profiles of the canal.
Friday, Oct. 21st, 1836 - Worked in the office making profiles and preparing profiles, maps &c. for the inspection of the commissioners who are daily expected to arrive.
Saturday, Oct. 22nd, 1836 - Spent the day principally at the office in making estimates of the excavation at some o f the deep cuts on the west side of the river in the vicinity of Portage. the commissioners arrived in town this afternoon accompanied by Mr. F. C. Mills, Chief Engineer. They came to the office and examined the maps and profiles of the different routes which we have surveyed preparatory to decision in relation to the location of the canal which will probably be made after return and hold a session at Rochester.
Sunday, Oct. 23, 1836 - I attended service this forenoon at the Episcopal Church. The manner in which the service was performed was quite novel to me having never before attended public worship in an Episcopal Church. Went this afternoon to the Methodist meeting. Had a sermon from the new preacher just from Conference, whose name I have not yet learned.
Monday, Oct. 24th, 1836 - Adjusted the level this forenoon and after dinner went down to the river and ran a line up as far as Mount Morris in the course of the afternoon.
Tuesday, Oct. 25th, 1836 - The weather was quite cold this morning & did not finally moderate much in the course of the day. We started out after breakfast and continued our line until noon.
Our compassman broke his staff this forenoon on account of which we did not go out this afternoon. I embraced the opportunity to trade a little with some of our merchants and purchased the following articles to wit:
1 piece of lead 0 00
2 blank books 17
1 money purse 37½
1 tooth brush 25
Wednesday, Oct. 26th, 1836 - It has been considering the season of the year a very cold day. We have been out in the field all day. Received a letter from home.
Thursday, Oct. 27th, 1836 - Worked in the field all day 2 or 3 miles out of town, returning to Mount Morris at night.
Friday, Oct. 28th, 1836 - Worked in the office all day in a profile of the route surveyed yesterday. Purchased this day a pair of suspenders - price 62½ cents. I attended a singing school in our village this evening which was conducted by a gentleman from Boston.
Saturday, Oct 29th, 1836 - Finished the profile which I commenced yesterday this forenoon and wrote a letter home this afternoon.
Sunday, Oct. 30th, 1836 - Attended service this forenoon at the Methodist Church and this afternoon and evening at the Presbyterian Church had a very good sermon at each of the churches.
Monday, Oct. 31st, 1836 - Spent the forenoon in the office. Went out in the forenoon to adjust the instrument, but did not succeed.
Tuesday, Nov. 1st, 1836 - Worked in the field most all day. Returning toward night we called in at the stoneware manufactory and I was much pleased with the operation. It was truly amusing to with what ease the potter would make a jug grow up as it were, in his hands from a solid mass of clay.
Prior to construction of the canal, as mentioned earlier, the Genesee River was navigated by steamboats and other craft between Rochester and Mount Morris. A vivid description and background information is given by Franz Anton Ritter von Gerstner in his "Die In Communicationen" (1842 - 1843):
"The Genesee Valley Canal, the longest and most expensive of the branch canals, was likewise begun in 1837, pursuant to an act passed on May 6, 1836. This canal begins in Rochester and runs through the valley of the Genesee River, from which it derives its name. It then crosses the watershed between the Genesee and Allegheny Rivers and ends on the latter at Olean. An arm of this canal, 11 miles in length, goes to Dansville. Including this, the length of the entire canal is 120½ miles, of which 30 miles were contracted in 1837; 50 miles in 1838; and the remaining 20 miles in October 1839, so that at present the canal is under construction its entire length. For construction purposes it is divided into 5 sections, namely: 1. Rochester to Mount Morris: length, 35¾ mi.; fall, 70½ feet; locks, 8. 2 .Mount Morris to Dansville: length, 16¼ mi.; fall, 106 ft.; locks, 10. 3. Shaker Settlement to Wiscoy: length, 25 mi.; fall, 550ft.; locks, 52. 4. Wiscoy to Genesee feeder arm: length, 135/8 mi.; fall, 91¾ ft.; locks, 10. 5. Latter point to Olean: length 30 mi.; fall, 330 ft.; locks, 34. The totals are: length, 1205/8 mi.; fall, 1,148¼ ft.; locks, 114.
"Of the 1,148 feet, 83 feet are on the side canal to Dansville, the remaining 1,065 feet on the main canal. The rise between Rochester and the watershed amounts to 979 feet, and the fall from there to the Allegheny River is 86 feet. The most difficult projects are found in the second section, where a 5-mile stretch near Portageville includes a cutting 73 feet deep, a tunnel 1,082 feet long, and an aqueduct 50 feet high and 440 feet long. Construction expenses for this section are estimated at $644,690 but may rise much higher. In April, 1839, the cost of the entire canal was calculated at $4,900,000, $3 million of which was estimated to be for locks and other man-made structures and the remainder for the canal itself. Since then, however, changes in the construction of locks, aqueducts, bridges, and the like have been decided upon, which will reduce construction costs by more than $600,000, and the most recent estimate gives the total as $4,289,250. Expenditures already stood at $1,474,274 as of the end of 1839.
"Nearby rivers will be used to feed this canal, except for some 3½ miles. This particular stretch will be supplied with the necessary water from reservoirs built for the purpose. The estimate water demand is 106 cubic feet of water per minute for each mile: 66 cubic feet for evaporation and filtration and 40 cubic feet for lockage and losses from aqueducts and overflows. Since the navigation season lasts 244 days, the inflow of water needed each year = 1,625 million cubic feet. Of this, 414 million will come from four small lakes in the vicinity of the canal. The remainder will be supplied by three reservoirs; a small one on Black Creek, holding 18 million cubic feet; a second on the Ischua, created by a dam 1,600 feet long, 70 feet high, and 360 feet wide at the base, which will cover an area of 575 acres and contain 588 million cubic feet of water; and finally a third, on Oil Creek, created by a dam 1,000 feet long, 55 feet high, and 285 feet wide at the base, covering an area of 490 acres and containing 390 million cubic feet. The cost of constructing these three reservoirs will amount to an estimated $356,240. The entire canal is expected to be completed by the end of 1842.
“For the most part, the branch canals and their locks have about the same dimensions as the main canal, although the feeder canals generally have somewhat smaller dimensions. Upstream from Rochester, the Genesee is navigable by smaller boats as far as Mount Morris, some 35 miles, and even light steamers are able to use it for 10 miles, as far as Avon."Von Gerstner based his account on personal observations and what he could gather from official sources.
At the time, no one could have imagined it would be another 14 years before the Genesee Valley Canal was completed and opened through to Olean, on Friday, Nov. 21, 1856. On the opening, the Rochester Daily Union of Nov. 24, 1856 stated the event was "celebrated at that village with considerable spirit." Among the many prominent Allegany County men aboard the first boat was Judge Martin, an early friend of the enterprise: "The Judge began a reply to the congratulations of his townsmen and friend by saying: 'I thank Heaven, that after thirty three years of anxiety and labor, I stand upon the deck of a canal boat in the village of Olean!'
“Casting his eye to the bow of the boat, solitary and alone, his form bent with the weight of years, and his hair silvered with the frosts of many winters, stood David Bockes, Esq., apparently absorbed in meditation. He could speak no further. His utterance was choked, the tears came unbidden to his eyes. His friend Bockes was the only living representative then in view who began the agitation of a canal from this village to Rochester, with him, all the rest, or most of them, having gone to their last account. One can imagine the feelings of these two representatives of other days, upon the occasion referred to, but none can interpret or transcribe them.
"The enterprise now consummated was projected more than thirty years ago, and the bill for the construction of a canal from Rochester to Olean was passed in 1835, and approved by Governor Marcy. Had the policy of that eminent statesman and his Democratic associates been pursued, twenty years would not have been consumed in the construction of this canal.
"The enterprise found much favor and many warm friends in this city. It was never expected that the canal would afford a revenue to the State directly, as it never has, but, as a tributary of the Erie Canal, it has done much to swell the public revenue."
Insight into the daily operation of boats on the canal is contained in a booklet written in 1914 by Captain Horace P. Marsh entitled Rochester and Its Early Canal Days.
He said he could recall steamboats navigating the Genesee River from Rochester to Mount Morris long before the canal was built. "A steamboat left Rochester for Geneseo every other morning, thirty-five miles away direct route, but probably twice that distance by river. People living near the river now would hardly believe it possible, it is so low in dry times, brought about by the forests being cut away which retained the moisture. I remember Capt. Phillips, who ran a steam craft on the Genesee."
When the canal was completed to Oramel, some businessmen tried to operate a passenger packet boat between there to Portage, but it didn't pay and was soon abandoned. Capt. Marsh said it was put out of business by a stagecoach line which was much faster. Also, it didn't help much when the stagecoach proprietor offered to carry passengers free of charge. But ultimately the stagecoach line gave up when the Pennsylvania Railroad was built on the right of way after the canal was abandoned. Marsh wrote:
“I can well remember the packet, the name of which was The Frances, and how beautiful it looked to my boyish eyes, prettily painted and majestically swinging around the bend from the feeder into the main canal at Oramel.
“Many of the places have changed names since old canal days. Spencerport, now called Fowlerville; Shakers, now Sonyea; Brushville, now Tuscarora; Messengers's Hollow, now Oakland; Mixville Landing, now Rossburgh. Three or four miles below Caneadea is a beautiful temperance town called Houghton, with a noted theological seminary; there is a fine grove with an auditorium where each year in August is held a week's camp meeting. attended by thousands of people and many noted speakers; it was once called Jockey Street and contained a low, vile tavern.
“I can recall to memory many a good man on the Genesee Valley Canal. They did not pose as fighters, they were too gentlemanly for that, and would avoid getting into trouble, but I would not advise anyone to impose upon them too much. George Eggleston of Brockport, Johnnie Rover of Dansville, the Burke Boys of Mt. Morris, and plenty of others… good fellows and good boatmen, ready to give a helping hand to any needy one.
“From Jockey Street to Belfast, only seven or eight miles, there were ten or more miserable apologies for hotels. It was a new country, steam and water sawmills dotted the valleys. Teams drawing lumber, shingles, stave bolts, railroad ties and cordwood were on every road, all families used wood for fuel, in fact, they knew of nothing else to use.
“Deer were numerous in Allegany County in the early stages of canal navigation, making it an ideal place for hunters, and among all the inhabitants of that section at that time I knew only one strictly temperance man; I presume there were others, he came from Orleans County to superintend the construction of the locks at Oramel, and the aqueduct at Caneadea. He married Hannah Emery, of Marsh Settlement, and built a sawmill in the town of Caneadea on Shongo Creek. He advocated temperance at all times, when to do so brought slurs and curses from those around him, strongly addicted to the liquor habit so prevalent at the time.
“Oramel at that time was a business place. It was calculated by its founder, Oramel Griffin to become a city. There was a hotel, a number of saloons, a drug store, and several other stores, a paper was also printed there by Purdy, and many dwelling houses that all signs of are now obliterated. The canal feeder at Oramel was lined with lumber, shingles, stave bolts, etc., to be loaded on boats for Rochester, New York, and intermediate ports. Oramel lost a good share of its business when the canal was finished to Olean.
“There was a great celebration when it was finished to Belfast. The first boat carried a load of passengers to that place; they had a cannon on board and fired it frequently, while the banks were lined with the cheering inhabitants of the surrounding country. Belfast was quite a village at that early date, and when the canal was finished the sleepy old town awakened, and has been wide awake ever since. Business men came from other places to work in different capacities.
“There was a warehouse and drydock built by a man from Dansville, S. Titsworth, who did quite an extensive business as commission merchant and repairer of boats. Geo. Chamberlain from Rochester bought lumber for the Hollister Lumber Co. in that city. There are a number of old Genesee Valley boatmen still living in Belfast and near towns, the Burke Brothers, James Fox of Oramel, C. Reeves, and Aaron Stone, near Oramel, and others, all good business men.
“The boats built on the Genesee Valley were very pretty, generally round bow and square stern, nicely painted, some fourteen feet wide, and eighty feet long. There was a cabin at the stern for living purposes, and a hands' cabin or for horses at the bow. They served as a nice little home for the waterman and his family, they would carry ninety tons, if loaded with lumber, fifty to eighty thousand feet, according to its degree of seasoning, and forty or fifty cords of wood. They could load three and one-half feet, that was the law; if loaded more than that it was hard for the poor horses, as the boat would drag the bottom of the canal.
“One of the Munsey girls, Hank Munsey's sister, was a natural boatwoman. She steered her father's boat across the river below Mt. Morris when the water was so high it was dangerous, and no man dared to steer or even go in the boat with her. She made the lock on the other side of the river all right; if she had not, the boat would have went over the State dam which would undoubtedly have drowned her and sunk the boat. She afterwards built and run a boat herself.
“Below Oramel was a widewater called the Basin, used for storing ship timbers, to be made into rafts. Oramel was a busy place then; no more boatmen crowd its streets or their loud voices be heard singing out 'Hurrah - lock,' or 'Go on, Johnnie,' when the boat locked through. The old tumble-down locks can still be seen all along the Pennsylvania Railroad from Olean to Rochester, and some of them are still in a good state of preservation. Now the railroad follows on the towing path of the old canal. It takes about three hours to get to Rochester from Belfast; when the writer was a boy, it took twenty-four hours. You took a stage in the morning at Belfast or Caneadea, arrived for dinner at Portage, then stage through Brooksgrove, arriving in the afternoon at Mt. Morris, then took the packet boat ride all night, and if no detention occurred to the boat you arrived in the city next morning.
“You could sleep on the boat and get your meals if you wished. It was splendid board, equal to any first-class hotel, and many times, superior. You had your berth assigned to you the same as on a railroad sleeper. The berths were made of canvas, called sacking frames, hung on irons fastened on the inside of the boat, put up by the steward at bedtime, and taken down in the morning to make room for breakfast service and parlor conveniences. The deck made a fine, picturesque promenade, especially on moonlight nights. The horses would trot, giving the boat the speed of a light carriage and horses, It was a nice, sociable way to travel with your friends, and that included all of the passengers on the boat, giving you the pleasure of an outing or picnic combined with business travel.
“I can remember the names of the packet boats running from Mt. Morris to Rochester when I was a boy. Two left each place every night, Sundays excepted, one carrying freight and passengers, the other passengers, baggage and express. Their names were, Diamond, May Fly, May Flower, and Dansville. The boats docked, discharged cargo and passengers, in a slip, just back of where lunch and eating rooms are located at the present time on Exchange street, at the west end of the aqueduct. The building was a warehouse directly opposite the Clinton hotel, a noted hostelry in those days. It is where Dan Bromley moored his packet, the Red Bird of the Empire line.”
Canal Society of New York State Guidebooks:
Genesee Valley Canal South: Oil Creek Reservoir to Olean and Milgrove, October, 1970
Genesee Valley Canal: Mount Morris to Portageville, October, 1977
Genesee Valley Canal and the Dansville Sidecut, April, 1988
Genesee Valley Canal: Nunda to Allegheny River, May, 2002
Genesee Valley Canal: Rochester to Portageville, October, 2005
Letter of James F. Johnson in article Canalization of Allegheny Recalls Argument and Struggle For Genesee Valley Canal Olean Times Herald, June 19, 1946.
Journal of William N. Cobb (typewritten copy provided by the late Robert E. Hager of Syracuse)
Steamboat Arrival, Livingston Register, Geneseo, N.Y., Jul.y 28, 1824
Marsh, Captain Horace P. Rochester and its Early Canal Days (self-published) 1914
Early American Railroads - Translation of Die Innern Communicationen Translated by David J. Diephouse and John C. Decker Stanford University Press 1997.
Whitford, Noble E., History of the Canal System of the State of New York, Vols. I & II, 1905