Caneadea Here and There
by Jim Pomeroy, (updated by Laura Habecker, August 2020)
"Ye say they all have passed away...
But their name is on your waters,
Ye may not wash it out."
Many years ago poet Lydia Sigourney reminded people that the landscape is peppered with names of Indian origin. Caneadea morphed from the Seneca phrase "Ga-o-ya-de-o" which translates to "where the heavens rest upon the earth." The fact is that most spellings of Indian names are morphs to a varying degree from their original Native American pronunciation.
The history of the Town of Caneadea goes back much further than its birth year of 1808-histories that such sciences as geology and archaeology can better glean. We, however, will begin with the Senecas, the "keepers of the Western Door" of the Iroquois Confederacy. They sided with the British during the American Revolution and were punished in 1779 by the Clinton-Sullivan Campaign that General Washington sent to stop Indian raids on the colonial frontier. By 1797, the Senecas ceded all of Western New York in the Treaty of Big Tree at Geneseo except for some lands of their choosing.
One area the Senecas chose to keep was located in the upper Genesee River Valley. The Caneadea Reservation, as it became known, appeared on maps as a strip of land eight miles long and two miles wide with the Genesee River winding through it. It extended from the mouth of Wiscoy Creek on the north in the present day Town of Hume to the "great angle" in the river at the south end. The "great angle" in the Genesee is near the intersection of Sand Hill Road and NYS Route 19 in the Town of Caneadea. From the river's source near Gold, Pennsylvania, it flows in an overall northwesterly direction. At the "great angle," the river changes to a northeasterly direction for the remainder of its journey to Lake Ontario.
The upper or old Indian village within the Caneadea Reservation was located on a bluff above the east side of the river opposite present day Houghton. Visitors to the village saw a square log Council House. It is commonly accepted that it was built with the help of British troops from Fort Niagara sometime in the latter half of the 1700's. We can imagine how this building must have echoed at times with the oratory of such Seneca notables as Red Jacket and Cornplanter. Outside its walls in 1782, Moses Van Campen, who fought the British and their Indian allies during the Revolutionary War, successfully ran the gauntlet. Van Campen later became a venerated citizen of Allegany County.
In 1826 the Caneadea Reservation ceased existence when the Senecas were enticed to sell it to land speculators. The Council House then underwent an interesting history. First, after reconstructing it and increasing the height of the walls, a family of white settlers used it as their home. Later it was used as a barn and eventually it fell into disrepair. Around 1871 William Pryor Letchworth purchased the remaining structure and had it moved by canal boat to his Glen Iris estate. The estate would one day become the nucleus of Letchworth State Park. The Council House was reconstructed as close as possible to how it appeared when used by the Senecas. It was placed near the grave of Mary Jemison, the young white captive who later chose to live the rest of her life as a Seneca. In 1908 a chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution marked the general location of the former Seneca village and it’s Council House in the Town of Caneadea with a boulder monument. The monument is located on the west side of Council House Road on the Estabrook farm.
One of the Senecas who remained in Houghton and refused to move onto another reservation was Copperhead. Near the time of his death he claimed he was 126 years old. His remains are buried on the Houghton College campus. Another Seneca named Shongo, was a chief of the Caneadea Reservation, and was apparently a very reluctant participant in its elimination. After he moved to the Buffalo Creek Reservation, the story is that he walked the more than 50 miles back to Caneadea on more than one occasion. A road and a stream valley on the east side of the township bear his name. Indian names are not the only things on the land. Artifacts in the form of arrowheads and stone tools of Seneca and pre-Seneca cultures have literally turned up on occasion when farm fields are plowed.
New York State created Allegany County in 1806. Caneadea, established in 1808, was split from Angelica and, like Angelica, was much larger in area then than it is today. The townships of Rushford, Belfast, New Hudson, Friendship, Cuba, Wirt, Clarksville, Bolivar, and Genesee all occupy portions of that first Caneadea. The Town of Caneadea ended up as a six mile-square parcel of land.
To find the wild frontier of the newborn nation one had to go no further west than Allegany County in the early 1800's. We can only imagine how difficult it was to hack out a homestead from a wilderness of thick, virgin forests. Wildlife back then commonly included wolves and flocks of the now extinct passenger pigeon. Magnificent tall, straight white pines stood above all other trees. Hardwoods included the American chestnut. Settlers found the wood of both white pine and chestnut a joy to work. In addition, chestnut wood naturally resisted rot and the trees produced an unfailing crop of highly edible nuts each year. The blight that decimated the species during the first part of the twentieth century was lamented by anyone with an appreciation for trees and woodworking.
The Genesee was a somewhat different river in the early 1800's when the first white settlers came to the area. It very likely did not fluctuate as greatly between drought and flood. This was due to a generous layer of humus and topsoil that had accumulated during many centuries of relatively undisturbed tree growth over the entire Genesee watershed. This soil acted like a sponge. Under a more stable flow regime, the channel of the river was narrower. High flows and flood waters certainly overtopped the banks of this channel but the water then spread out widely onto the flood plain and was slowed down in a jungle of vegetation and a maze of winding overflow channels. The river ran less muddy overall. It also ran colder in summer months. Early settlers in the Genesee Valley reported catching brook trout from most tributaries and even from the river itself on occasion. The river and most all its tributaries today are not cold enough in the summer to support brook trout.
Caneadea, like all of Western New York, saw most of its forested land converted to farms. When Caneadea celebrated its first centennial in 1908, there were fewer acres of wooded land in the township than there is today. Family farms were the mainstay of Caneadea's economy and the heart of the greater community. The bottomlands along the river were among the most naturally fertile in Allegany County. However, some of those lands did not fare well in the light of major floods and continuous riverbank erosion.
In the hamlet that would eventually be named Caneadea, businesses such as sawmills and gristmills were drawn to the waterpower provided by Caneadea Creek. It is no coincidence that the road that more or less parallels Caneadea Creek is called Mill Street. Floods and winter ice were always hazards to the operation of businesses dependent upon milldams and water wheels.
An area along the west side of the river about a mile north of the hamlet of Caneadea, and not far from the "great angle," was settled in 1810 by Alanson Burr. The area became known as Burrville. The settlement was more prosperous than the "other" hamlet for awhile and there was a bridge across the river at Burrville as well. However, after the bridge one day washed out, the crossing was moved upstream and therefore closer to the hamlet of Caneadea. The new bridge was known as the Freeborn Bridge. When it was last reconstructed, it was dedicated to Harland Hale. Burrville also lost to the hamlet of Caneadea in the competition for the post office. With the loss of both the bridge and the post office, Burrville's fortunes declined.
Another settlement, first known as Houghton Creek, took form toward the northern limits of the township. Today, Houghton has the largest concentration of people in the township as Houghton College, is based there. East of the river, we are reminded by the old East Caneadea German Church on the Shongo Valley Road that people settled and lived out their lives in this area too. Many members of the German families who owned farms in this area are buried in the cemetery behind the church.
Oramel owes its creation to the Genesee Valley Canal. The canal improved the economy for much of the Genesee Valley by connecting the Erie Canal at Rochester with another waterway of commerce, the Allegheny River at Olean. Begun in 1836, the canal did not reach what became Oramel until 1851. Further extension of the canal halted here for a year or two and a boomtown arose, the size of which competed with Syracuse at that time. In 1856 the community officially took the name Oramel from one of its most active businessmen, Oramel Griffin. For a time Oramel even published its own newspaper.
The canal, dug mostly by hand and with horse-drawn slip scrapers, had the same dimensions as the original Erie Canal---26 feet wide at its bottom tapering out to 42 feet wide at the water's surface and holding water to a depth of four feet. Banks rose another three feet above the waterline. No other canal undertaken by the State of New York encountered as many problems in its construction and maintenance as the Genesee Valley Canal. The highest point on the canal was 1,488 feet above sea level and near Cuba. This made it the highest canal in the world. The nearly 1,000 feet of rise in elevation between Rochester and the summit point alone required 97 locks. In Caneadea, a canal-sized, water-filled trough constructed of wooden planks, caulked at the seams to reduce leakage, bridged Caneadea Creek. Such a structure was called an aqueduct.
The canal era was a colorful one and it brought a period of real prosperity to the hamlets of Burrville, Caneadea, and Oramel. Hotels and a variety of other businesses, now long gone, populated all these communities. It could be a rousing if not rowdy time for canal towns. Some claimed there was no rougher port on the canal than Houghton. It was also known as Jockey Street then because it had the straightest run of road along the entire canal system, great for the horse races that took place there. Events relating to slavery and the Civil War also played out during the Genesee Valley's canal period. A route of the "underground railroad" passed through the township and the region contributed more than its fair share of men to the war effort.
As far as the State of New York was concerned, canal boats on the Genesee Valley Canal floated on a sea of red ink since the canal never paid for either its construction or its operating costs. Inadequate water to keep it completely filled during droughty periods was just one factor that plagued its operation. In the meantime the up-and-coming railroads were exhibiting greater reliability and speed. Winter ice put business on hold for the canal too, but not for a railroad. The Genesee Valley Canal was decommissioned by the State in 1878. A railroad that would eventually become part of the Pennsylvania Railroad system placed its tracks in1882 largely upon the canal towpath between Rochester and Olean. And so the "Iron Horse" rather than the mule and real horse now drew commerce over the same path. For many years the Pennsylvania Railroad was the route of commerce into and out of the Town of Caneadea-in short, its principal connection to the larger world. However, this country's growing love affair with cars and trucks would help bring one more era of transportation to an end in the township. The last "Pennsy" passenger train passed through Caneadea in 1941 and the last freight train in 1969. The rails were torn up in 1977. Today, a State sponsored rails-to-trails project is transforming the old canal towpath and railroad bed into a hiking trail known as the Genesee Valley Greenway.
Another railroad, the Buffalo and Susquehanna or B&S skirted the southwest portion of the township for an all too brief period (1906 through 1916) running between Wellsville, and points south, and Buffalo. A steel bridge, 175 feet high and 754 feet long, spanning the Caneadea Creek gorge, was a tourist attraction increased by the beauty of the gorge itself. The gorge is the result of the same Ice Age scenario that resulted in the creation of the gorge at Letchworth State Park. In both instances, a portion of the old stream valley became filled with sediments that forced the stream to cut a new channel around the blockage. Each of the gorges has been carved by water within the last 10,000 years or so but the rock layers that comprise their walls are far, far older. Some of the piers upon which the B&S bridge rested can still be seen at the bottom of the Caneadea gorge, if you look upstream from the point where Mill Street comes closest to the edge of the canyon. The old Rushford depot, actually closer to the hamlet of Caneadea than the hamlet of Rushford, sits near the boundary between the two townships north of NYS Route 243 on Lake Road. The depot has been moved a short distance from its original location and turned 180 degrees.
An even more impressive railroad bridge in the Town of Caneadea once extended 0.6 mile from one side of the Genesee Valley to the other just north of the town line with Belfast. It could be seen from miles away on some roads in the hillsides above the valley. The bridge, 141 feet high, went into service in 1909 and was a key part of the "Erie Railroad Cutoff." The Cutoff connected to the mainline at Cuba and Hornell and then took a route to the north of the mainline between those two points. Although it was at least 10 miles longer in distance than the mainline between Cuba and Hornell, it enabled freight trains to bypass bottlenecks created by steep grades on the busy mainline. The steepest grade on the entire Erie Railroad between New York City and Chicago was located between Andover and Alfred in southern Allegany County. The last train passed over the Cutoff in 1980 and in 1981 the bridge that had become such a renowned and familiar fixture in the valley was torn down.
In 1925 a subsidiary of Rochester Gas and Electric Corporation created a stir by buying up hundreds of acres in the Caneadea Creek Valley and making plans to construct a dam in the gorge. Homes, farms, and businesses would disappear, roads would be relocated, and jobs and possibly new business opportunities were in the offing. Full bore construction of the dam began in summer of 1927. An arch-shaped concrete dam, faced with special brick, began to rise 125 feet above the streambed. A special electric line to the site allowed a large camp of workers to labor night and day. Work did not stop in the winter either. It seems almost unbelievable today that construction could have proceeded fast enough for the reservoir behind the dam to be completely full by the spring of 1928. However, it did. A lake with over 550 acres of surface area had formed seemingly overnight. At that time the dam was only the second one of its kind built in the eastern United States. Caneadea enjoyed a bit of a tourist boom as a result. Of course the dam has been dwarfed in size many times by dams built since then, but the project was still an impressive feat.
The initial purpose of the project was to augment the flow of the Genesee River during low flows and increase the ability of RG&E to generate electricity at its hydroelectric facilities at Mt. Morris and Rochester. A plan to install generators at the dam was never implemented. Further analysis indicated that the amount of electricity that could be generated at the dam did not justify construction and maintenance costs. As cottages encircled the reservoir and usage became largely a recreational one, drawing the lake down for power generation during the summer months would have been very unpopular too. Meanwhile, demand for electricity increased greatly and RG&E built coal-fired steam electric plants, and eventually a nuclear plant too, to meet the great bulk of its electric generating needs.
The naming of the dam and reservoir created a rivalry between the Towns of Caneadea and Rushford. The majority of the lake's surface area lies within the Town of Rushford, but the deepest part of the lake and, of course, the dam itself are in the Town of Caneadea. Caneadea residents put up signs saying Caneadea Dam and Caneadea Lake. Rushford residents countered with signs saying Rushford Dam and Rushford Lake. Vandals from one township would tear down the signs of the other. The State officially settled the matter in 1929 with the designations of Caneadea Dam and Rushford Lake. The lake was named Rushford probably in deference to the community of East Rushford, which gave up its existence for the reservoir.
By the late 1970's, RG&E determined to divest itself of any further responsibility for the dam and reservoir. Rumors even circulated that the dam might be removed and the lake drained permanently if no entity, public or private, stepped forth and took ownership. Somewhat understandably neither the State, County, nor either of the two affected townships would accept all the responsibilities that ownership entailed. Negotiations between RG&E and a lake landowners' group ensued. The agreement that resulted required an act of the NYS Legislature to bring about the transfer of ownership. A law passed in 1981 created the Rushford Lake Recreation District (RLRD), the first such lake district in the State. The District includes portions of both the Towns of Caneadea and Rushford and is governed by five commissioners, one of which is appointed by the Town of Caneadea. Just like a fire district, the RLRD assesses a special tax upon all property owners within its boundaries to pay for its expenses.
Since taking over operation of the dam, the RLRD has spent over two million dollars on repairs to the dam. That's the total amount RG&E spent to construct the entire dam in the first place, but a dollar went a lot further in the 1920's. Some of the highest priced real estate in Allegany County now lies in the District and the District is a significant source of tax revenue for Allegany County, two townships, and one school district.
Caneadea has another lake, this one fully within its borders. Moss Lake or Bullhead Pond as it was known for decades, lies near Sand Hill Road. It's a gift of the last Ice Age. Water does not overflow the bowl or kettle in which the lake sits. An acidic bog with a unique community of acid tolerant plants has developed and is slowly filling the lake with peat. In 1957 the newly formed Western New York Chapter of The Nature Conservancy purchased Moss Lake to preserve it in a natural state and to make it available to all for the study and enjoyment of nature. Over 80 acres make up the total preserve, but there are only about 35 acres of open water in the lake itself. One can only hope the hemlock trees that create a beautiful, year-round, dark green backdrop along the east side of the lake will not become another footnote to history like the American chestnut and the American elm. Hemlocks further to the south in the United States are dying due to attack by an insect of Asian origin.
In the more recent past Caneadea might be known best for its successful "Save-the-Bridge" initiative. Spanning the Genesee River on East Hill Road (Country Road 46) is a rare, still-functioning Camelback Parker Truss Iron Bridge that was constructed in 1903. The bridge received widespread media attention in the State in 1990 when "grandparents of the future" chained themselves to it in protest of a proposed nuclear waste site under consideration for the east side of the township or possibly in one of the neighboring townships.
Three years after the citizens' dramatic confrontation with the commission, Allegany County closed the historic bridge saying it was unsafe and that the County had no money to replace it. In 1998 the Caneadea Save-the-Bridge Committee succeeded in getting it listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places, designations that made it extremely difficult for the County to simply tear down the bridge. An annual Indian Summer Festival was held in Caneadea to help raise money for the effort to re-open the bridge while Allegany County assembled grant monies to repair it. Finally, the County undertook extensive renovations to the bridge. In May of 2007 it was reopened and rededicated. All this would not have happened without a determined group of Caneadeans led by Marian Morton and Maxine Schembri. They proved that passion was not dead in little Caneadea nor was it something reserved just for youth.
No history of an area should fail to mention, at least briefly, its schools. Centralization of schools in Allegany County began in the 1930's, often with heartache because the identities of people in a particular area are so often intertwined with the school closest to them. Thus, centralization was not achieved without some resistance and angry words. Nevertheless, a multiple of individual district schools, usually of the one room variety, became a thing of the past. At the same time, buses ended the long walks that many pupils had to make each school day between home and the old school down the road. Most of the district schools in Caneadea voted to become part of Belfast Central School. Schools serving the northern part of the township elected to join Fillmore Central School. A small part of the township in the vicinity of the Caneadea Dam became part of the Rushford Central School District (now Cuba-Rushford Central School).
Finally, let's return to Houghton. John S. Minard, a noted nineteenth century resident and historian of Allegany County, wrote the following in 1896: "Houghton, ...(though it) never in canal days aspired to be a village, has since the advent of the railroad and the seminary made a healthy growth, and is a very pleasant, clean and tidy village." Willard J. Houghton, whose parents were among the first settlers in the Houghton area, was a prosperous farmer whom after a local revival in 1851, grew to become a leading member of the Houghton Wesleyan Methodist Church. In 1883, with the encouragement of the district church officials, he founded Houghton Wesleyan Methodist Seminary to provide a Christian education to the youth of this area. His vision was that all students be able to study together regardless of gender, economic circumstances, or race---a remarkable idea for the 1880's.
The original Seminary was on the corner of Tucker Hill Road and Rt. 19, but it quickly became apparent that the land around it was too wet and unstable for expansion. In 1903 plans were begun to move the campus to the old Houghton family farm. In 1906 Jennings Hall (now Fancher Hall) was completed and the campus moved to its present location on the plateau above the hamlet. Simultaniously, as advanced courses became increasingly part of the curriculum, the Seminary evolved into a four-year, Christian liberal arts college that became fully accredited in 1923. The academy for younger students (sometimes junior high and senior high school, sometimes even including younger students) continued at the same time and was given a separate campus in 1959, south of the college campus. Willard Houghton died in 1896, so he did not get to see what was to become of the institution he initiated, including the complex of buildings, most of them beautifully faced with stone of local origin, that now sit on the original Houghton family farm.
Today Houghton College is a nationally ranked Christian liberal arts college and has nearly 1,000 diverse and deeply curious students – from 39 states, 31 countries, and 30 Christian denominations. Houghton points with pride to the contributions that its graduates, faculty, and administration have made not only to the college, but also to the world at large.
Communities all over this country have come to appreciate a college in their midst. Many residents of this area enjoy attending religious, cultural, and athletic events at Houghton College. The Kerr-Pegula Athletic Complex (K-PAC), have been made available to the public at a reasonable fee. Some residents take advantage of these facilities to exercise away the blahs of winter. While public schools of Western New York often gather for high school track meets, Lego Robotics competitions and other fun educational events in the region.
And so we come to the end of this overview. If a magic wand could now be waved, it would be to motivate people to take more pride and interest in their local heritage. This heritage is of two kinds. One kind comes from our relationship to the land---from a respect for the beauty, integrity, and natural function of various components of the landscape and a realization of the fact that we humans are just one part of the web of life on this planet. Anyone who would like to better understand how this region is part of a greater whole would find Scott Weidensaul's Mountains of the Heart helpful.
Our other heritage comes from the human story of this area, a story that need not take a back seat in interest, importance, or marvel to the history of any other area of the country. To initially whet your appetite for Genesee country history, maybe pick up books by Arch Merrill such as A River Ramble, Land of the Senecas, and The White Woman and Her Valley and then branch out from there. And don't forget how much Town Historian Gertrude Hall may be able to help you in a voyage of local historical discovery. If you do dig deeper into human history or natural history, let the following wisdom guide you.
"The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes."