History of the Genesee Valley Canal

Genesee Valley Canal 1840-1878

The Genesee Valley Canal was built to provide transportation through the Genesee River Valley between the Erie Canal and the Allegheny River at Millgrove Pond, near Olean.  It was intended that boats would be able to travel down the Allegheny to Pittsburgh and then from there to the Ohio River, the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico, but improvements were never made to the Allegheny River in Pennsylvania to allow this to happen.

Nevertheless, the canal provided transportation for the region’s residents and access to distant and lucrative markets for their agricultural products, lumber, coal, and gypsum.  Its connection to the Erie Canal also made it easier and cheaper to acquire manufactured goods and other supplies from the industrial centers to the east.  One of several lateral canals that branched off the successful Erie Canal, the Genesee Valley Canal never made enough money to pay for its $6.7 million construction costs or its maintenance, but it encouraged the development of communities along its course.

Interest in constructing a canal through the Genesee Valley was stimulated by the success of the Erie Canal, which reached Rochester in 1823, and the need for a more satisfactory transportation route than the Genesee River.  In 1825, Governor DeWitt Clinton asked for an investigation of a navigable communication route between the Allegheny River and the Erie Canal.  The Omnibus Canal Act, passed in April of that same year, requested canal commissioners to examine eligible canal routes, one of which was Rochester through the valley of the Genesee River to Olean.  This generated considerable excitement among citizens along the route, causing them to meet and develop an organized campaign to petition for a canal in their region.  A year later, the engineers reported that a canal could be built up the Genesee River valley to Mt. Morris, parallel the river south to Black Creek, and then go over the summit between the Genesee and Allegheny river valleys and down Oil and Ischua Creeks to the Allegheny River.  Due to the possible problems associated with the steep, rocky banks along the Genesee in what is now Letchworth State Park, an alternative route was suggested from Mt. Morris through the Canaseraga and Keshequa valleys. Despite growing public interest, the State did nothing about the canal proposal until 1830 when the Legislature passed an act which authorized the Genesee Valley route. However, the Legislature did not appropriate sufficient funds for the route to be surveyed.

Even at this time, railroads cast a shadow over the proceedings.  In 1829, a Livingston Registereditorial spoke in favor of a railroad over a canal in the difficult stretches of the route and a committee asked the Legislature to set forth the reasons for a railroad.  Some of the former canal proponents petitioned the Legislature to outline the reasons in support of a railroad. However, a railroad needed private financing; the canal would be built with State funds.

After 1830, area residents continued to actively petition the Legislature for a canal through the Genesee Valley.  In 1834, there were also petitions from New York City interests as they saw this canal as a means of tapping the bituminous coal from western Pennsylvania and a lucrative route for shipping to and from the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys. Later that year, the Legislature authorized Frederick C. Mills to survey a route, including a side cut to Dansville. Mills proposed two routes between Rochester and Mt. Morris:  1) along the west side of the Genesee River valley and 2) along the east side of the Genesee River valley.  Both required the same number of locks and were estimated to cost about $2 million. While he considered various alternatives, Mills recommended paralleling the Genesee River between Portage and Mt. Morris.

On May 6, 1836, the State Legislature authorized the construction of the Genesee Valley Canal but left the exact route unspecified, stating only that a canal was to be constructed from the Erie Canal in Rochester up the Genesee Valley to a site in the environs of Mt. Morris and then by the “most eligible route to the Allegany River at or near Olean.”  Contracts for 30 miles between Rochester and Mt. Morris were let in 1837. In 1838, the “most eligible route” was determined to be the Canaseraga-Keshequa route because of the large number of locks that would have been needed near Mt. Morris if the canal were to proceed directly south along the river.

The canal was opened between Rochester and Mt. Morris on September 1, 1840.  A great celebration was held at noon at Canawaugus in the Town of Caledonia, near the present day intersection of Route 5.

An interest in a railroad did not die, even after the canal’s opening.  In 1841, petitions were submitted to the State Assembly requesting that a railroad be substituted for a portion of the canal. The committee refused the request, deciding that the canal would be profitable and an improvement to the State.

In 1842, the 16-mile side cut from Mt. Morris to Dansville was completed, but due to the State’s financial troubles, all other construction work was stopped on the canal until 1847.  In 1851, the canal was completed from Shakers (Sonyea) to Oramel.  In 1853, the canal was extended to Belfast; in 1854 it was completed to Rockville; and in 1856 it extended to Olean Basin.  By 1861, the canal was completed to Millgrove Pond on the Allegheny River, east of Olean.

The canal builders experienced the greatest difficulty and expense in building and maintaining the canal between Sonyea and Portageville.  Challenges included: construction of forty-nine locks within eleven miles; the removal of 600,000 cubic yards of earth to maintain a constant elevation of the canal which resulted in creation of the Deep Cut at Short Tract Road in the town of Portage; the failed attempt to build a 1000 foot tunnel through a hill across from the Middle Falls; the need to blast out the canal prism from the side of the Genesee gorge; construction of a wooden trough for the canal through the slide area; and the construction of a 400-foot aqueduct across the Genesee River.  Maintaining the wooden trough in the slide area and repairing breaks in the canal due to the flashy nature of Keshequa Creek continually presented the canal operators with problems and expense.

Because water supply for the canal was often a problem, reservoirs were constructed. Black Creek in Allegany County was dammed at Rockville to create Rockville Lake.  Oil Creek, also in Allegany County, was dammed to create the Oil Creek Reservoir, today known as Cuba Lake.  (When Cuba Lake was built in the 1850s, it was one of the largest man made lakes in the world.)  A third reservoir was created when Ischua Creek in Cattaraugus County was dammed. Allen’s Creek in Scottsville, the Genesee River in Leicester, Wiscoy Creek near Rossburg, the Genesee River at Oramel, Champlain and Chamberlain’s Creeks in Cuba, and Olean Creek were also used to feed the canal.

The canal was 107 miles long, with an additional 11-mile side cut to Dansville. Its dimensions were equal to that of the original Erie Canal: 43 feet wide at the top, 26 feet wide at the bottom and four feet deep.  Banks were 7 feet high, i.e. 3 feet above the water line.

Locks were 90 feet long and 15 feet wide.  Locks were originally to be all of hammer dressed stone set in hydraulic cement (cement that would harden under water).  However, cost overruns and the State’s financial troubles resulted in only 28 cut stone locks, 73 composite locks (of rough cut stone lined with timbers), and 11 all-wood locks.  One hundred six lift locks and five guard locks were required for the main line of the canal; eight locks were used on the Dansville side cut.  At 1488 feet, the summit level of the canal north of Cuba was the highest canal elevation in the world.

Passenger boats were drawn by three-horse teams or mules at a speed of about four miles per hour.  The largest boats on the canal carried freight.  They were 78 feet long and 14 feet wide and drew 3.5 feet of water when loaded.  They could carry about 75 tons of cargo and traveled at about two miles per hour. The greatest amount of tonnage was transported on the canal in 1854: 158,940 tons.  It was the only year that the canal made a profit.

In 1874, an amendment to the state constitution was passed permitting sale or abandonment of most all canals owned by the state.  In 1876, a Legislature-appointed commission recommended abandonment and sale of the Genesee Valley Canal as they determined that the railroads were able to carry the freight of the country.  The canal ceased operation in September, 1878.  On November 5, 1880, the canal lands between Rochester and Mill Grove were sold for $11,400 to the Genesee Valley Canal Railroad (backed by the Buffalo, New York, and Philadelphia Railroad) with the requirement that the railroad must be completed within two years.  In 1882, the Dansville side cut and the Wiscoy and Ischua reservoirs were sold to the adjacent landowners.

See also:

Holton, Gladys Reid, The Genesee Valley Canal, Stylus Graphics, Brockport, NY. 1971, 20 pp.

Kipp, David L., Locking the Heights:  The Rise and Demise of the Genesee Valley Canal, 1999, 38 pp.