The Erie Canal in Perinton
By Mrs. Hamilton C. (Helen) King
The Erie Canal
The dream of a water route connecting the Great Lakes with the Hudson River was an old one. George Washington had surveyed parts of Ohio before the Revolution and had considerable land knowledge of the area. In 1783, as President, he had the first canal survey made. Christopher Colles did the job for which he was paid $124.
In 1806, during Jefferson's second term as President, Washington and a group of men seeking to build the canal, sought financial aid from the Federal government. Washington told Jefferson: "In order to move settlers westward and develop the territory, an easy route for them to travel must be found. What could be better than a canal joining the Hudson River and the Great Lakes?"
Jefferson's reply killed the project as far as government aid was concerned. "You are right about the need for an emigration route but it is physically impossible to construct such a canal now. Perhaps it could be built a hundred years from now".
Gouverneur Morris of New York State had believed in the canal as early as 1777. He and other New Yorkers continued to advocate it and in 1808 a surveyor, James Geddes, was hired to explore the possibility of an interior route for the canal. Late in December he made a hasty trip, on foot and horseback, from Albany to the Genesee River. It was an extremely difficult trip. The snow was so deep that many times he had to guess at his figures and estimates. His chief concern was to determine the height of the watershed which separated the Genesee River from the Montezuma Marshes. He found that the Irondequoit Valley in the Town of Perinton was the only real obstacle.
James Geddes made a second and precise survey in 1816, which covered the entire route. The canal would cross the Genesee River in the vicinity of the milling hamlet of Rochesterville, which had sprung up since his last visit.
During the years that followed the canal became a political issue in New York State. DeWitt Clinton was elected governor in 1817 on a build-the-canal platform. In July of that year he began the middle section near Rome.
Before continuing we should note that during the entire history of the canal it has remained a project of New York State alone. The only exceptions are: (1) the construction, in our own time, of a Government Lock at each end of the waterway (at Black Rock in the west and at Troy in the east), and (2) W.P.A. assistance for maintenance and repair for a brief period during the depression of the 1930’s.
Building the Canal
The middle section, four feet deep and 40 feet wide, was built first because of the comparative ease of construction. It had been planned to have seven feet of headroom under the bridges but as banks settled this diminished. This meant that people had to duck when the boat went under a bridge. One of the songs of the time went as follows:
"Lo-ow bridge, everybody down, Lo-ow bridge for we-re going through a town; And you'll always know your neighbor, You'll always know your pal, If you've ever navigated on the Erie Canal"
The War of 1812 delayed the building of the canal, but in 1819 the Canal Commissioners were empowered to negotiate contracts for the western section of the canal. The contracts were let and construction was begun at Palmyra. Two tremendous engineering feats had to be accomplished in order to carry the canal over Irondequoit Creek and the Genesee River.
At the river an aqueduct was built at the cost of $83,000. It was 802 feet long with nine-foot arches and a smaller arch at each end. The aqueduct carried the 17 foot wide trough of the canal and a towpath across the river. When it was built the aqueduct was considered by many people to be the eighth wonder of the world. It was last used for canal purposes in 1919. The Barge Canal, as we know it today, crosses the river at its own level.
Because of the many difficulties encountered in our Irondequoit Valley, construction of the canal was delayed. Until the embankment was completed, flour was shipped by boat from Rochester to Pittsford, brought by wagons to Fairport, and there reloaded on a boat for the trip eastward.
James Geddes had proposed a dirt embankment raised to a height of sixty-five feet above the surface of Irondequoit Creek. A stone culvert at its base would permit passage of the creek through the huge barrier.
A canal builder from Ireland, J.J. McShane, bid the contract, figuring 25 cents per cubic yard for earth. He had never seen the Irondequoit Valley. Later fearing that his bid was ruinously low, he was overjoyed when the state rejected the bid as being too high. McShane decided to make a trip to look over the land where the embankment was to be raised. Geddes' survey had shown him that the gravel hills, or drumlins, deposited in the valley during the glacial period, could serve as natural piers between which the 1,320 foot embankment could be built. He determined that it would be necessary to reinforce the dirt embankment with about 900 log piles. But McShane found something that he had not known before. The soil was porous and the banks of the Irondequoit Creek were lined with quicksand. The tough Irishman first tackled the quicksand problem. The stone culvert to pass the creek must be 25 feet high, 30 feet wide, and 100 feet long. Each end would rest on quicksand. This was conquered by pile-driving one thousand 20-foot logs into the quicksand and overlaying them with mats of timber and grouting.
Meanwhile his Irish crew and local farmers, with their wagons, were working from dawn to dusk on the dirt fill. Often they worked far into the night by bonfire and torchlight. Many a farmer earned his tax money working on the embankment. Today it is difficult to recognize what a fantastic accomplishment this embankment was until we realize that there were no power shovels or bulldozers. Every bit of dirt, taken from nearby hills and fields had to be moved by wheelbarrow or horse and wagon. Wheelbarrow men were led by a 'pacer' and each man had to keep up with him. Pay was 75 cents a day.
After the embankment had been completed the canal trough had to be cut along the top. How to make it hold water bothered McShane until one day a Pittsford farmer showed him a deposit of blue clay. It solved his problem. First he drove piles into the soft earth and then built the trough of heavy square timbers on them. Then he puddled or lined the trough with a three-inch layer of blue clay. Such a trough would be navigable and, even though the deep winter frost might crack through it, repairs could be made. Later on the embankment trough was lined with stone and when the Barge Canal was built it was made of solid concrete at tremendous expense.
After puddling, McShane allowed seven days for the clay to harden, then introduced a foot of water from the channel Nathan Roberts had extended from Pittsford to meet the embankment. After two days of watching, McShane raised the water level another foot. The blue clay retained without leaking. Not daring to increase the pressure until the following spring, he declared the embankment open for navigation to boats with a draft of not more than twenty inches.
It is interesting to ride on the canal as it goes over the embankment and look down on the treetops and houses in the valley below.
Effect of the Canal
The coming of the canal was the real cause of the settlement of the village of Perrin. It was named after the first settler, Glover Perrin. In 1853, the name was changed to Fairport.
Near Fullam's Basin Bridge on West Church Street there was a boat loading platform. There was also a grocery store which was supplied by boat and which in turn supplied the canal boats with groceries, kerosene, and other necessities. The traveler going east from Fullam's Basin soon sighted the village. There were seven log cabins, a frame house, and a blockhouse belonging to the men who had cleared the land and laid out six farms. Near Main Street Bridge there was a store, a blacksmith shop, and a warehouse.
Before boats were equipped with stables to carry extra horses and mules, a horse barn stood between Main Street Bridge and where Parker Street Bridge now stands. Boats in those days had to tie up every night and the mules, the minute they were unhitched, would lie down and roll over and over. Some would fall into the canal and drown. The vertical banks of the canal would make it impossible to save them. Boat barns were located about every 12 miles along the canal. Boatmen would blow a horn as they approached a barn to let the hostler know how many fresh animals were needed. There were twelve boat stops between Pittsford and Macedon.
In 1827, the Pritchard Hotel was built on the site of the Millstone Building on Main Street and a three-day celebration held. In 1829, the Post Office was moved from Fullam's Basin to Perrin. In 1840, the population of the hamlet was about three hundred; by 1860 it was a little over 600; and in 1867, when the village was incorporated, it had 1000 inhabitants. About 1855 the DeLand Chemical Works located on the canal northeast of the Main Street Bridge and became one of the largest shippers along the canal. Close by there was a wagon shop, a blacksmith shop, a tannery, flour mills and boat yard, a sawmill, a store, and the Post Office.
There have been three bad breaks in the canal in Perinton. The first occurred near Fullam's Basin a year after it was built. It was repaired at a cost of $2,100.
The second break was at the Oxbow in 1871. A five-hundred-ten foot section of the canal bank gave way because of a burrowing muskrat. The waters spilled out across the fields carrying bridges with it. The barge 'Bonnie Bird' was deposited against a tree three quarters of a mile west of the canal where it remained for years. The washout drained the canal between the Pittsford and Macedon locks and boats were tied up for miles on the waterway.
Workmen were rushed in to repair the break. They were a rough hard-drinking lot. Soon they demanded their pay in advance. When the bosses would not give it to them, they struck, pushed horses into the canal, and made serious trouble. The 54th Regiment was finally called out to put down what amounted to an insurrection. The presence of the soldiers had a quieting effect so that the men soon went back to work. The soldiers stayed, however, until the repairs were completed. The cost was $53,000.
The third break was located at the embankment while the Barge Canal was being built. It caused heavy damage for thousands of tons of water poured out over the farmlands. When the break was repaired a tunnel was constructed about fifty feet below the trough. A manhole at each end provided access so the tunnel could be patrolled to check the embankment walls from leaks.
Editors Note: Since Helen King wrote this article the canal suffered another break at the Great Embankment in Bushnell's Basin. It occurred in the 1970’s when an engineering error resulted in the collapse of the canal into a storm sewer tunnel being constructed under the canal embankment.
The original Erie Canal, or Clinton's Ditch, as it was sometimes called, was narrow and shallow. In 1841 it was improved by making it wider and deeper. The Barge Canal, built in 1905, utilized part of the Erie as well as lakes and rivers.
There were many cedar swamps in the Town of Perinton, the cause of an unhealthful climate. The canal helped drain these swamps making the area a healthier place to live.There were chiefly three types of boats plying the canal: freight barges, freight boats which carried a few passengers, and packet boats which carried passengers only. The latter were the fastest and some could cover thirty miles a day. A canal boat could be towed by one horse or mule. It has been said that a wagon carrying the same load required four horses.
In 1840, passengers could ride from Fairport to Lockport for 25 cents and that included meals. The canal served as a news medium for news traveled faster by water than land in the early days.
In 1825, when the Erie was completed, DeWitt Clinton rode the whole length of it. He took a keg of water from Lake Erie with him which he poured into the Atlantic Ocean at the end of the trip signifying the joining of the two bodies of water. Cannon had been placed within earshot of each other so that, when fired in sequence the announcement of the start was carried to New York City in an amazingly short time.
The original Erie Canal was 363 miles long, 28 feet wide at the bottom, and four feet deep. Its 84 locks provided a total lift of 689 feet. Shortly after completion light packet boats drawn by frequent relays of horses driven at a trot were making the trip from Albany to Buffalo in three and a half days. The Canal cost $7,144,000, paid by the people of New York State. Until 1881 it was a toll route and over $42,000,000 was collected in tolls. The state was repaid original cost about six times.
Enis, David, M.D. Introduction to the Erie Canal. Written by Dr. Ennis while President of New York State Canal Association for use in a course in Canal History at the Seminars in American Culture at Cooperstown, N.Y. in 1957. Filed in the office of the Town of Perinton Historian.
Martin, Helen Myer, The Great Embankment. Published in the Fairport Herald-Mail on January 19, 1939
Ryon, Gertrude C., The Grand Clinton Canal and Its Influence on Our Community, Read before the Fairport Historical Club on January 15, 1953. Filed in the office of the Town of Perinton Historian.
Chalmers, Harvey II, How the Irish Built the Erie (Bookman Associates, Inc.: New York, N.Y., 1964).
Edwards, Walter D., Erie Waters. (Little, Brown & Co.: Boston, Mass., 1933)
McIntosh, W. H., History of Monroe County. (Everts, Ensign, & Everts: Philadelphia, Penna., 1877)
This is Part three of a four-part collection of essays prepared by members of the Perinton Historical Society and published as Perinton Papers in 1971. Dr. A. Porter S. Sweet, Editor. Edited February 2001 by Perinton Historical Society Trustee; John Jongen