With the Erie Canal’s opening in 1825 and its success in moving goods and people across New York State, canal enthusiasm ran high. Western New York residents, with the support of the press lobbied for another canal to complement the Erie Canal. It would start in Rochester and extend to Olean, New York near the Pennsylvania border. The dreamers envisioned a canal system that would eventually link to the Mississippi River, enabling a steady flow of products throughout the young United States. The rich produce of Western New York, along with timber from New York and Ohio, and coal from Pennsylvania needed transportation to urban markets. A canal along the Genesee River seemed to provide the needed solution.
The Genesee River was designated as a public waterway in 1818, but it was a fickle one, becoming too shallow for boats especially in the summer—and there was the problem of the falls in the Portage area. Rafts and shallow-draft boats could navigate between Rochester to Geneseo or Mt. Morris, but the springtime was the only reliable time for transportation. Citizens further south were unhappy that they had no way to find markets for the abundant produce that was grown in the Genesee Valley, along with furs, potash, and timber. They began lobbying for a canal as early as 1823.
Businessmen in several western counties organized, urging the legislature to at least explore the idea. By 1830, the state approved a survey of the proposed 124-mile canal, but neglected to fund the project sufficiently. The survey project was finally fully funded in 1834, when a group called the Canal Congress initiated a barrage of petitions that buried the state senate in paper. Engineer Frederick Mills was contracted to perform the survey work and gave his estimate of $2 million dollars for the project. Political wrangling commenced in the state legislature, until at last in 1840, the massive project was underway. Elisha Johnson, from Rochester, New York was hired on as the canal’s chief engineer.
The biggest challenges facing Mr. Johnson were working around the Middle Falls and dealing with a section of high ground in Oakland. Men and shovels dug through the issues of the Oakland area, but Mr. Johnson failed in his first attempt with the Middle Falls. He hoped a tunnel could be bored through the shale mountain to carve out the canal. This ended badly. The shale proved unstable and there were deadly cave-ins during that experiment. In the end, crews went around the mountain and not through it. Despite the challenges and difficulties of terrain, the canal opened in 1841 through to Dansville, and by 1856 it successfully reached Olean. Instead of the estimated $2 million price tag, the cost had risen to $6 million.
Businesses sprang up in the canal towns all along the way to the Southern Tier. There was great anticipation that the Genesee Valley Canal would grow the economy of these rough places, and prosperity would reach everyone. The canal carried both passengers and freight. People were eager to travel, with plenty of entertainment at every stop. Preachers took advantage of the crowds to preach the Gospel and warn against liquor, while owners of public houses selling liquor urged passengers to come in for drink or two of whisky or ale. A bugler on the boat announced its arrival at a stop and purveyors of food were quick to meet hungry passengers at the dock. A ticket from Rochester to Olean would cost you $4.27, and there were tariffs on transporting goods.
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. (A Personal Look at the Genesee Valley Canal)
Travel on a passenger packet boat wasn’t exactly elegant or comfortable, but many preferred it to their only other option which was the stagecoach. Bathroom facilities were primitive and unhygienic, sleeping arrangements were makeshift berths, and the speed of the boat was quite leisurely. All drank water from a community cup and men spat their chewing tobacco on the floor, avoiding the cuspidor for some reason. Horses and mules pulled the boats up and down the two-way canal, providing employment for young boys.
Edward Quested from Portageville was one of those boys. He is my husband’s great-grandfather. Edward, who was around 11-years-old in 1860, secured a job as a mule driver of a stone barge for the bluestone quarry. This is where his future grandson, Robert Wallace (my husband’s father) would work in the next century. According to Bob’s recollections in an article for the Historical Wyoming, Edward received about twenty-five cents a day driving mules on the towpath of the Genesee Valley Canal as they towed barges from the quarry. The locks of the canal were constructed of bluestone and the waterway ran in proximity to the stone-finishing mills on the Genesee River.
During the 1870s, Edward was still working on the canal. He was regularly employed by McConnell Pitkin & Co. of Rochester. Robert Y. McConnell, who was a well-known contractor, also owned an interest in the Portageville bluestone quarry. Bluestone was transported via the Genesee Valley Canal and McConnell Pitkin was mostly likely responsible to dredge the quarry’s section of the waterway. The Portageville area was especially challenging because of a slide area and flooding.
From an account in Edward’s journal, it appears he began working on the canal in May of 1870 on the dredge. The dredge most likely was a crane with a bucket operated by a steam engine. Canals had to be dredged regularly to keep sediment, rocks, and other debris from clogging up the waterways and damaging boats. From documents in Edward’s files, it seems he became a competent engineer on the equipment. Apparently, he left McConnell’s employ in December 1876, and received a glowing letter of recommendation from the company. He was an “engineer having charge of a 60 horse-power engine and boiler in which capacity we have found him faithful, sober, trustworthy, and competent.” The “sober” part was actually very high praise as drunkenness on the job was a huge problem for the canal, railroad and other seasonal occupations in this time period. (You’ll find photos of these documents in the slideshow below.)
Edward was working for McConnell again in May 1877 and received a letter from Robert Y. McConnell which had instructions for him to move a derrick to a new location near one of the docks. He also had authority to charge materials to McConnell at Beardsley’s General Store in Portageville. He seemed to be the company’s “man of business” there since the company was headquartered in Rochester.
The rise of the Erie railroad in the 1870s brought about the abandonment of the canal in September 1878. The expense of maintaining the canal was prohibitive, besides trains were much faster and more comfortable for passengers. The railroads were open year around, which wasn’t possible for the canal. The canal also brought health issues. Malaria was a problem—stagnant water and mosquitos are a bad combination. Although residents along the canal fought vigorously to keep the canal open, the state was done. Within a few years, the towpath became the bed for the Genesee Valley Canal Railroad. Later it was purchased by the Pennsylvania Railroad, then Rochester Gas & Electric became the owner. Today it is the Genesee Valley Greenway, a recreational trail following the old towpath. The canal was by no means a failure, but served its purpose in its time. Thanks to the diligent work of the Friends of the Genesee Valley Greenway, today it provides an excellent outdoor experience for residents and visitors alike.
I hope your appetite has been whetted to learn more about the canal. This blog has merely touched on a bit of its history. There are many online and print resources for you to explore its colorful story.
Resources and Further Reading
Rochester History – The Genesee Valley Canal by Jim Warlick
A Personal Look at the Genesee Valley Canal by Ronald Taylor (Allegany County Historical Society)
Remembering the Genesee Valley Canal by Richard F. Palmer (Allegany County Historical Society)
Friends of The Genesee Valley Greenway
Genesee Echoes by Mildred Lee Hill Anderson
Citizens Argue to Keep Canal Open, Allegany County Democrat, January 19, 1877
Edward Quested’s Journal and Personal Papers (Wallace Archive)