Julie B. Hewitt Attorney at Law


Genesee Valley Canal: Feeder to the Erie Canal

In 1840 a wave of excitement rippled through Mt. Morris, New York.  The Genesee Valley Canal was opening from Rochester to this small city forty miles to the south.  With the opening of the canal, fast packet boats pulled by glistening teams of horses bore their passengers to the big city in just a few hours.   Heavily laden freight boats pulled by plodding mules, brought valuable timber and wheat from the Genesee Valley to markets in Rochester, and then by the Erie Canal to Buffalo, Syracuse Utica, Albany and New York City.

 Further down the valley in small hamlets and larger villages people anxiously awaited the construction of the canal.  From Mt. Morris the canal was extended to Olean, via Brushville (now Tuscarora), Nunda, Messenger's Hollow (now Oakland), Portageville, Mixville Landing (now Rossburg), Fillmore, Jockey Street (now Houghton),  Caneadea, Burrville (no longer in existence), Oramel,  Belfast, Rockville Reservoir, Black Creek, Cadytown (now North Cuba), Oil Creek Reservoir (now Cuba Lake), Cuba, Scotts Corners (now Maplehurst),  Hinsdale, and Olean.  From Olean, the canal reached it’s final terminus at Millgrove Pond, connecting to the Allegany River, and eventually the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.  A side cut from Mt. Morris also connected to the active Village of Dansville.

 The canal towns, now mostly sleepy hamlets or small villages, were bustling centers of activity in canal days.  Some of those activities were good ones like loading boats with timber and farm goods, and trading in the local grocery.  Others were bad like drinking, fighting, horse racing and gambling.  Boats entered the towns to the tune of a blast on a brass horn, and left to shouts of "Go on Johnnie."

 The Genesee Valley Canal, one of seven lateral canals built in New York State to connect to the mighty Erie Canal, was a crucial part of the development of the Southern Tier.  It took so long to complete however, that railroads were gaining popularity when the canal  finally reached its terminus in 1861.  Unlike the canal that closed for navigation in the winter, railroads were able to haul freight and passengers  year round, and until they drove the Genesee Valley Canal out of business, were sure to keep their rates low.  In 1878 the canal was closed for good, and in a final twist of irony, the towpath was sold to a railroad company. 

All in all the GVC consisted of 112 lift  locks, 5 guard locks, 23 aqueducts, 8 dams, 62 culverts, 230 bridges, 16 feeders and many waste weirs.  Today, the remnants of canal locks, culverts, aqueduct foundations, warehouses and taverns line the old towpath for those willing to look for them.  

  In 1883, the Belfast Free Press published this sentimental reminiscence of the canal days:

"Where once used to be heard the voice of the festive boy driver, with stone bruises on his heels, as he gently cheered his mule along with adjectives and a stick, now resounds the shrill shriek of locomotive whistles…. The captain who stood upon the quarter-deck with his mouth full of tobacco and profanity, and his torn hat on one side of his head, is no longer a hero in the eyes of the small boy.  All his pomp and circumstance are gone and he has been forced to drop the dignified and awe-inspiring prefix of "captain" and become a private citizen, unhonored and unsung.  

No more the sun-burned cook will sit with her head and shoulders out of the cabin, enjoying the scenery and drinking in great gulps of the fresh, profanity laden morning air.  No more will she bend her proud neck as she hears the warning cry of low bridge She too has had to leave a life on the ocean wave and go to cooking flapjacks in an ordinary kitchen. 

Around the old basin where once the turmoil and busy hum of industry was continual, now can be heard nothing but he sad notes of the bull frog as he chants his tuneful lay on some half-submerged log.  The water too, in which the small boy used to go swimming had emerge with his nude body colored a sort of foggy green has gone.  Now there is not enough to float a respectable shaving.  At the bottom where finny monsters used to sport and play, nothing but dead cats and broken domestic utensils look upward to the pale moon.  All is changed.  Even the storehouse, once the very beehive of industry is silent and still.  Here where so many a canawler laid in a supply of provisions and tangle-foot is nothing but cobwebs and old boots. Here where Angelica and other hamlets used to come to trade, is nothing but a few old oyster cans and a dim, uncertain sign which reads Groceries and Provisions.  This is all. 

And there these boats lie, silent monuments of the dead and buried past, bringing back memories of days when to be a canawler was greater than a king.  Slowly and surely the sides are going to pieces soon they will disappear altogether.  Then there will be nothing to remind us of those other days but the occasional skull of a defunct and much-cussed mule, which had laid down and died when the Genesee Canal was closed and he bade farewell, a long farewell to all his greatness.  Such is life. "

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GVC Photos and Drawings

Map of the Genesee Valley Canal