The ep5 Educational Broadcasting Foundation

educational content for public radio and television

“Death of a Canal”

(Working Title)

Why did the Genesee Valley Canal have to die?

The Genesee Valley Canal - technological obsolescence at a mule’s pace

The Erie Canal, far from being “Clinton's Folly”, opened its full 363 miles for business in 1825 after just eight years of digging and construction. An engineering marvel at its inception, the 40-foot-wide “ditch” halved travel time compared to wagons pulled by oxen, fostered migration westward, and created towns and cities where none existed.

Such was the success of this project that the state spent nearly thirty years to widen it by 30 feet and make it deeper to accomodate the increased traffic.

During this widening process, other canals successfully fed into the Erie Canal system, among them the Cayuga-Seneca, the Oswego, and the Champlain Canals, making Lake Ontario, Lake Champlain, and the two largest Finger Lakes accessible by barge.

Thus, when the New York State Legislature accepted the idea to add the Allegheny River and bring Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, into the Empire State’s orbit by way of a canal in the Genesee River Valley, success certainly seemed to be the only - and obvious - outcome.

History can hammer such hubris, and in the case of the Genesee Valley Canal, ambition blinded the project’s planners, funders, and builders to the impact that railroads would have on the role to be played by canals.

Our Genesee Valley Canal audio documentary will not simply look into what happened, but attempt to determine why it happened.

The easy answer is now conventional wisdom: railroads. But, given that the Erie, Seneca-Cayuga, Oswego, and Champlain Canals operated as a successful commercial highway into the 1950s, why could this canal - which ultimately connected the Erie Canal not only to Pittsburgh but to the entire Mississippi River system, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico - not also be successful?

The project’s starting hypothesis is that this was a good idea at the wrong time. Like the Apple Lisa, the Ford Edsel, and the Laser Disc, the GVC was a good and relevant product with great potential . . . that failed.

The project will talk to professional and amateur historians as well as canal experts and others to uncover what led to that failure and what lessons can be derived from the experience. By knowing the mistakes of the past, we may no longer be doomed to repeat them, but to instead make better decisions leading to success or, possibly, a raft of new mistakes supplying additional lessons to learn or ignore.

While everyone, other than perhaps a die-hard historian of the old school, realizes that a dry recital of historical fact, in strict chronological order and with no regard for the passions, motivations, and imperfections of the people involved, will appeal to pretty much no one, it’s nonetheless challenging to devise a format and presentation which will convey to the listener a sense of the drama of the story.

One of the styles we’re considering for this documentary is to present the story of the Genesee Valley Canal in the form of a fictional public hearing conducted by a Senate sub-committee investigating the project, focusing on the promises and claims made by the canal’s organizers, the moral probity of the individuals and companies doing the work, and the politicians who should have overseen the canal’s construction and long-term operation.

This hearing would be presented with a degree of poetic license, mixing contemporary investigative hearing practices and procedures with historical facts and issues.

Production of “Death of a Canal” in this format would require, in addition to the narrator, a number of voice actors to play the sub-committee members, the attorneys, and those testifying. The part of the outraged public audience would be played by genuine members of the public.

Another potential manner of telling the story of the Genesee Valley Canal might be a narrative told by a young worker on the canal, home for the weekend and describing his experiences to his parents and friends. For dramatic effect, he’d be portrayed as knowing much about what was happening both on the job-site and behind the scenes. Cut-away scenes would depict the various characters, including landowners maneuvering for commercial advantage in the routing of the canal, labor recruiters misleading workers about the conditions they’d encounter on the job (including Letchworth's infamous rattlesnakes), and the failure of the state legislature to exercise due diligence in assessing the extravagant claims made for the canal, including its profitability, the ease of extending the canal through the mountains, the costs of construction, and the demand for its services.

The core of the story of what led to the demise of the canal will remain true to history. However, the entertainment effect will derive from features familiar to today's audiences.

Salacious details and all.

For a PowerPoint slideshow by Julie Hewitt depicting the canal, then and now...
author at tunnel
Project lead writer, Julie Hewitt, at the sealed entrance of a former canal tunnel

The little that’s left of a grand experiment

Genesee Valley Greenway

In eloquent testimony to long-forgotten achievements, the path of the Genesee Valley Canal crosses the remains of the Lehigh Valley Railroad.

Both have become recreational trails for occasional use, although few people take advantage of these greenways.

Genesee Valley Canal aquaduct from 1850s

This postcard view by the American Stereoscopic Company, Langenheim, Lloyd & Co of Philadelphia, shows the aqueduct in Portageville carrying the Genesee Valley Canal some fifty feet above the Genesee River.

This was at the southern end of the present-day Letchworth State Park. A wooden trough 400 feet long atop seven stone piers enabled canal traffic to pass over the river.

Genesee Valley Canal in Letchworth Gorge

Even by today's standards, building a canal through Letchworth Gorge is hardly a trivial exercise. A century and a half ago, this construction project ranked as a major accomplishment, yet it was destined to serve the area only very briefly. In contrast, the earlier Erie Canal, begun 199 years ago and evolved over the centuries, continues to transport goods and people, to this day.

The wood aquaduct visible beyond the bend in the canal carried the canal through an area made treacherous by rockslides.

The Erie Railroad Company built a wooden trestle bridge over the Genesee River south of the Upper Falls. Construction began July 1, 1851, and the bridge saw first use a year later. It was the longest and tallest wooden bridge in the world. In 1875, it was destroyed in a tremendous fire. The structure was a total loss, leaving only the concrete bridge abutments.

canal boat and mule

In this view of the canal beneath the great iron bridge that replaced the wood structure destroyed in the 1875 fire, one can just barely make out the figure of a mule pulling a canal boat northward toward Rochester.

What was going through the patient animal's mind as it contemplated the many miles yet to go . . . we can only speculate.

That bridge, more than 140 years old, still carries rail traffic across the gorge, and has only very recently been scheduled for replacement. The railroad had offered to give the old bridge to the state as a historical monument, but the state turned it down. Thus, like much of this nation's history, it will be destroyed.

canal and bridge seen looking north

This is the same spot on the river but seen from the south. The Genesee Valley Canal runs along the east side of the Genesee River in this photograph taken very shortly after the new iron railroad trestle was completed. Formally known as Section 58, the Rock Section, this area presented difficulties to the constructors, including new challenges in allegedly defrauding the state on the execution of the building contracts.

Earlier in the project, in 1847, a committee of the state legislature had said of this portion of the canal:

“The line of that section extended from the north end of the aqueduct in Portageville, north to the south end of section 57, known as the 'tunnel section', and was located along near the bank of the river and at a considerable height above the river surface. The mountain near the base of which the line of the canal on most of that section run, rose to a very considerable height and nearly perpendicular and was composed principally of rock - partly solid and partly loose and shelly. This form of the surface of the earth there, made it necessary to cut down the side of the mountain so as to procure a bench or table, on which to construct the prism of the canal &c., and on a slope which would leave the canal reasonably safe from the falling rocks. It will therefore, be seen that the work on that section was immense, and that a majority of it was rock excavation from the mountain side, whence the rocks excavated could be cast directly off into the river channel....”

Of course, one obstacle that the builders did not face was having to get approval for a voluminous environmental impact statement . . .

Genesee Valley Canal crossing Oatka Creek

Some of the northernmost remnants of the Genesee Valley Canal exist where the canal crossed Oatka Creek shortly before the creek reached the Genesee River east of the village of Scottsville.

A complex assembly of dam, aquaduct, and locks enabled the canal's operators to maintain the water level by drawing from the creek as necessary.

Genesee Valley Canal crossing Oatka Creek

The stone structure from the previous photograph, here seen from the north side looking west.

The canal itself ran north from Oatka Creek to Black Creek and then to the Erie Canal from the abutment seen on the right side of this photograph.

Genesee Valley Greenway crossing Black Creek

- photograph by Richard H Jordan III

The only remaining canal structure farther north and thus closer to the original terminus at the Erie Canal in Rochester is a viaduct that carried the canal over Black Creek.

This former aquaduct now simple bridge stands at the northern end of the Greenway, beyond which are the CSX rail line and the county airport, both of which actively discourage hiking across their respective properties.

Genesee Valley Canal crossing Oatka Creek

Local industry appeared and disappeared as the canal and tiny local railroad constructed to supply it moved freight in and out of the area.

Virtually nothing remains of the sawmill, planing mill, shops, and warehouses built and operated to handle the goods shipped by farmers, laborers, artisans, and plaster manufacturers in the Scottsville, Garbutt, Caledonia, and LeRoy region.

Genesee Valley Canal as it is today

The Genesee Valley Greenway, to the south. On the right, the overgrown canal bed, still recognizable as an erstwhile waterway. To the left, the flat farmland between the village and the river.

Genesee Valley Canal as it is today

This may be the northernmost part of the Genesee Valley Canal still recognizable as a canal bed. Beyond the local highway climbing the hill into the village, the canal has been filled in for farmland and development.

Only in quiet or remote backwater areas has the canal bed survived. Its stone and concrete structures have fared slightly better, although they, too, have become rare and hidden over the centuries.

rubbish tires thrown into the Genesee Valley Canal

The usual fate of historical places: regarded by many as nothing more than a convenient dumping ground for unwanted rubbish.

Genesee Valley Greenway, looking south

The Genesee Valley Greenway runs south along the canal on what was once a railroad. The first line to run trains along the remains of the canal was the very aptly named Genesee Valley Canal Railroad. The last was the legendary Pennsylvania Railroad. All are now history.

The canal was sold on 6 November 1880 to the Genesee Valley Canal Railroad. Between 1880 and 1963, the railroad changed names and ownership a number of times before sharing the eventual fate of many small rail lines in the US: those small branch lines which weren't absorbed into or swallowed by larger railroads were simply abandoned.

Web-site by Dreadnaught Steam Traction & Electric Broadcasting Works, Ltd