Canal History

Short History of the Genesee Valley Canal

The Erie Canal reached Rochester, NY in 1823. In 1825, Governor DeWitt Clinton requested the study of a navigable route connecting this new waterway to the Allegheny River, which then could connect to Pittsburgh and from there to the Ohio River, the Mississippi, and the Gulf of Mexico.

Finding a Route

One route considered was along the Genesee River valley to Olean. Citizens along the proposed route organized and petitioned for its construction.  New York City businesses also petitioned for a canal, envisioning a means to obtain coal from western Pennsylvania and a lucrative shipping route to the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys.  

Not until 1834 did the Legislature authorize a survey, which resulted in two alternatives – one along the west side of the Genesee River valley and one along the east. Both required the same number of locks and were estimated to cost about $2.0 million (almost $50 million in today’s dollars). In 1836, the State authorized construction, but left the exact route unspecified. 

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Genesee Valley Canal at Mount Morris with Boat in Canal

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Passenger Boat on Genesee Valley Canal

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Canal Aqueduct at Portageville - late 1850s

First canal section opened but canal faces multiple delays to completion  

The Genesee Valley Canal opened between Rochester and Scottsville in 1837 and to Mt. Morris in 1840. All along its course, canal development stimulated commerce and community growth. Packet boat service ran between Rochester and Mt. Morris until 1861.

From early in the canal’s history, railroads complicated matters. In 1841, the State refused a request to substitute a railroad for part of the canal, believing the canal would bring both improvement and profit to the State.

Engineering challenges abounded, however, including the construction of 49 locks within 11 miles between Mt. Morris and Portageville; removal of 600,000 cubic yards of earth to maintain constant canal elevation near Oakland; a failed attempt to tunnel through rock in Portage; and the need to construct a 400-foot wooden aqueduct across the Genesee at Portageville. Because of a lack of state funding, all construction work ceased between 1842 and 1848 allowing railroads to gain a greater foothold and exposing construction materials to deterioration and pilfering.

Reservoirs were constructed to supply the canal with water. Black Creek was dammed, creating Rockville Lake. Oil Creek was dammed to create the Oil Creek Reservoir (known today as Cuba Lake). When built in the 1850s, the Oil Creek Reservoir was one of the largest man-made lakes in the world. The summit level of the canal north of Cuba, at 1488 feet, was the highest canal elevation in the world.

Corollary benefits far outweigh profits from passenger and goods transportation

When finally completed and opened to Mill Grove Pond near Olean in 1862, the total cost of construction had reached $6.7 million ($167 million in today’s dollars). The 107-mile canal was profitable only one year – 1854 – when 158,940 tons of cargo was transported on the waterway. Nevertheless, the canal opened up this portion of western New York and gave landowners a way to get their agricultural, forestry, and mining products to larger markets. In turn, they were able to access a greater variety of goods and enjoy a higher standard of living than possible beforehand. 

In 1874, a constitutional amendment permitted sale or abandonment of most State-owned canals. The Genesee Valley Canal was thus abandoned in 1878. Two years later the canal lands between Rochester and Olean were sold for $11,400 to a newly-formed railroad company, which was backed financially by the Buffalo, New York, and Philadelphia Railroad.