Genesee Valley Canal
Over the years many articles, monographs and voluminous guidebooks trace the history of the Genesee Valley Canal, which, after a long period of struggle, was finally completed to the Allegheny River in 1862—only to last until 1878.
At this time, it seems especially appropriate to publish some first-person accounts since there is renewed interest in the old waterway and efforts are being made, in Livingston and Allegany counties, to clear out brush and create a walking trail over the old towpath much of which later became the railway of the Rochester Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad, abandoned in 1963.
Before proceeding with the reminiscences, a timeline seems appropriate to set the stage. As early as 1823, Genesee Valley settlers were petitioning 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. An act of the state legislature passed on March 19, 1818, declared the Genesee River a "public highway." Some shallow-draught boats were able to navigate the river from Rochester as far south as Geneseo.
It is said 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. The history books tell us that Sanford Hunt, who settled at Hunt's Hollow in 1819, was the first to 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 river was most navigable during the spring freshets. Hunt transported lumber, potash and pearl ash to Albany, by way of Rochester and the Erie Canal.
Finally, on May 6, 1836, the state legislature passed an act authorizing construction of the canal, from Rochester to Olean, with a side cut to Dansville. Settlers were encouraged at this action and local men with teams of horses 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 comstruction 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."
One formidable obstacle on the canal route 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 contruct 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.
Despite frustrations, numerous accidents and engineering problems, workmen prevailed and the canal, including a feeder, was completed to Oramel in 1851, Belfast in 1853, Rockville in 1854 and Olean in 1856. The 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 American Banner of Cuba 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.
According to records and folklore, 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," or "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 guage. Eventually it became the Rochester Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad which somehow remained in existence for more than 80 years before being abandoned.
© 1999, Richard Palmer