From a Canal Meeting in 1824:
“Resolved: That at this age of scientific improvement, when the genius and enterprize of American citizens stand unrivaled in the world, that it is not inconsistent with the spirit, nor above the means of the patriotic state of New York, to connect the waters of the Grand Canal with those of the Mississippi river and that from the best information this meeting can collect, there is no route which offers with so much facility as that from Rochester up the Genesee River, and from thence across, into the waters that fall from the Allegany, at Olean Point… This route, once perfected will open to the city of New York, the great commercial emporium of North America, the riches of an immense region of country, which otherwise must seek a market for its surplus produce in some other direction (“Canal Meeting”).”
In the mid-1820’s talk of building a branch of canal from Rochester down south to the Allegany River began. At this time, the United States was experiencing its First Industrial Revolution, spurred on by Robert Fulton’s invention of the steamboat in 1807. Waterway travel and trade became immensely popular, especially in Upstate New York with the Erie Canal being completed in 1825. People in the area immediately supported the idea of a new branch of canal to be built, praising and encouraging this idea to come to fruition in order to bring prosperity to their isolated areas, or to serve as a route in which to transport their natural resources. On a deeper level, this canal represented their core American values of enterprise, adventure, and patriotism. Building the canal not only meant economic gains, but also a sense of pride at overcoming difficulties and the opportunity to build a sense of community and connectivity among American people.
In April 1825, the Livingston Register published the following:
“Public feeling has become much excited on the subject of a canal to connect the waters of Allegany with the Grand Canal. There is no subject, in proportion to its extent, that presents a stronger claim to public consideration than this….The route through the valley of the Genesee, perhaps offers more, and greater inducements, than any one yet suggested for the communicating canal. Passing through a section of country, which for richness and fertility of soil, is not surpassed, if equaled, by any country of the same extent, in this state, or perhaps in the world; besides many local advantages which do not exist upon any of the other routes, which have been mentioned. There has been lately discovered in the vicinity of the Oil Springs, in the county of Allegany, and near the line of the contemplated canal, an extensive body of the genuine stone coal; which may be obtained with a very trifling expense, and which is proved to be equal-in quality to any that has yet been discovered in any part of the state Pennsylvania. The Iron Ore, is also found in great abundance upon this route, which may be obtained with equal ease and facility, and in exhaustless quantities. This canal will likewise furnish a ready vent for the immense quantities of lumber, growing upon its borders, and which has no other marketing places at this time, than that which it finds through the meanderings of the Allegany and Ohio rivers.”
Extravagant endorsements of this area present Upstate New York to be a hub of natural resources, claiming sometimes hyperbolic statements of praise for the most fertile soil in the world and “exhaustless quantities” of iron ore. These types of excessive endorsements not only encouraged the building of the canal to outsiders, but also displayed the pride that their land held to them. The natural resources of the Earth provided a key source of identity to the people that occupied these small towns, and when looking at these sources, one sees a great sense of pride in the Earth and its provisions.
Travelling on the Genesee Valley Greenway today, one sees the bed of the canal and other remnants from the canal’s heyday subtly existing alongside the trail like a faint, yet visible ghost from the past. Today, without knowing the past lives of this place, the old canal bed could easily be mistaken as just a swampy old ditch, but knowing the past history gives the trail a vibrancy that inspires immense imagination and whimsical reminiscences of the past.
I started out travelling on the Greenway from the Yard of Ale in Piffard, NY. The Yard of Ale was once called “The Hotel Genesee” and was set up in 1840 to cater to travelers along the canal (“Our History”). At one point, the canal ran through the parking lot of the contemporary restaurant (which, I can attest, serves very delicious dinners). It was one of those spring days in Upstate New York where the sun peeks in and out, and the snow thaw turns into a muddy mess, so as I first set out on my bike, I was not thrilled with my bike tires getting caught in mud and my nose being overwhelmed with the smell of manure from the surrounding farmland.
As I traveled further, I became deeply immersed in farm land, which seemed abandoned, or at least, at this time in the season, very much empty. It was interesting to look at this land, which was once deemed, by at least one person, the place with perhaps the richest and most fertile soil in the world, now as a place so filled with silence and none of its past boastfulness. As I stopped my bike to look around, it impressed me how this place had so many markings of humanity and an agrarian economy, yet, as I stood there, it seemed apocalyptic. An abandoned barn filled with old farm tools sat alongside the path, giving me a feeling that the heyday of this agrarian society was now long over. It was hard for me to see this place as one of abundant resources and immense pride, and I struggled to find the same appreciation for the natural resources that once gave life to these surrounding towns.
At this particular spot of the Greenway, the old canal bed can be seen very clearly and so it was easier to meditate on the past and imagine how this place once was when the canal ran through it. Looking through the archives, I imagined this scene of the highway-like canal giving noise and bustle to isolated areas like these:
“‘Here comes the boat!’ may well be taken as the slogan of my childhood. There were two locks of the Genesee Valley Canal on the farm, the house being so placed as to give an unobstructed view of both. We could see the boat coming before it gained the lower lock and by taking to our heels could reach the spot before the gates swung open and the foamy water gushed in. Standing eagerly upon the edge, we would watch the boat rise higher and higher until it reached our level, the signal for us to jump on for our ride to the lock above. We seldom went empty-handed, we had provided ourselves, in anticipation of the moment with cookies, fruit, or some other treat for those on board” (Rittenhouse).
The canal passing through these farm lands provided outlets for the resources that their land provided, but also provided a sense of community and unity among far-reaching people. From examining sources from the past, the canal seemed to give life and vitality to an otherwise silent and isolated area — providing people with opportunity to jump on board others boats, interact and share stories. Even though, in comparison, the Greenway trail does not seem to offer this same connection between people and outlet for their resources that the canal once did, on this day I saw a huge Great Blue Heron cross over the trail in front of me, almost frightening me off my bike, as it flew from its home in the wetland-like area of the canal bed. I realized that, though these natural resources might not provide the same life to the area as in the days of the canal, the mark in the Earth of the canal’s remains certainly does provide for life of another sort of creature, for better or for worse.
“Canal Meeting.” Livingston Register, 2 November 1824, p. 3.
Livingston Register, 6 April 1825, p. 2.
“Our History.” Yard of Ale. http://www.theyardofale.com/. Accessed 9 April 2018.
Rittenhouse, Jessie B. My House of Life. New York: Houghton Mifflin,1934.
Fig 1. “Notice.” Livingston Register, 8 June 1825, p. 3.
Fig 2. “Farm Fields Along the Trail.” Courtesy of Genesee Abbey Retreats. http://abbeyretreats.org/photo-gallery/genesee-valley-greenway/.
All other images were taken by us personally.