Genesee Valley Canal
Anyway but the Waterway
Canalboat "commuting" during the heyday of the Genesee Valley Canal could be both a romantic, yet frustrating mode of transportation that had its advantages and disadvantages. Generally, however, most people who knew the waterway had fond memories of the colorful packets passing from Rochester to the uplands of the Genesee Country. Files of the Rochester Historical Society contain a paper prepared and read before that organization in 1892 by Dr. Porter Farley, a Rochester Physician, who recalled:
The packet boat was a specatcle that never lost its charm to youthful eyes. As it swept through the town it was a sight which compelled attention. Its hull was white with green window blinds; its helmsman was furnished with a bugle which he was wont to blow upon in strains pleasant to hear and in sweet contrast to the hoarse shriek of the locomotive which now resounds throughout the land.
Recalling it was railroad competition and heavy maintenance that forced abandonment of the $6 million canal in 1878, let us peer behind those "green window blinds" with the late Mrs. Lynn Hite of Rochester. She was born on the banks of the canal at Mount Morris. As a child she traveled to Rochester by packet many times, the last being the final trip of the packet just before the canal closed.
At the age of 70, in 1940, she retained many vivid memories of canalboat days. She remarked that the packet provided much-needed transportation, slow and not always reliable, but an improvement over stagecoach travel.
The packet was only a long, flat-bottomed scow with a cabin built on it. In fine weather the passengers rode on the upper deck, on top of the cabin. That was pleasant enough. But in wet weather, they had to go down into a low-ceilinged, evil-smelling room in the hold of the boat. Benches there were hard and uncomfortable. A smoked-up kerosene lamp provided little illumination. The carpet bags of passengers were piled in corners. Tobacco stains covered the floor and walls, for nearly every able-bodied man chewed tobacco in those days and few used cuspidors.
A large keg held water for drinking purposes and a barrel held canal water for toilet purposes. A large tin dipper was used to place water into huge wash basins. Slops were dumped into another barrel, which never was emptied until it was full and slopping water over the cabin floor. Homemade soft soap removed the grime of travel. If you [have] never used homemade soft soap, you have missed something decidedly unpleasant. A cracked mirror hung on the wall. There was a large towel rack, but seldom any towels.
Everyone drank out of the same cup. Not very sanitary, to be sure, but that was not a sanitary age. Toilet facilities were abominable. Men, women and children had to use the same place. James Whitcomb Riley should have seen that one. He would have written a more colorful poem than the one he penned about a certain celebrated farm outbuilding.
Mrs. Hite asssociated the canal with her earliest memories. It ran through her father's property, which originally was part of the large tract purchased from the Seneca Indians by John R. Murray. Her father was Asher M. Grover, who long made shoes for Genesee County folk and snake whips for the canalboat drivers. She recalled happy hours spent along the canal banks. There she found scores of Indian relics which she retained and finally gave to Peter Gruber, who exhibited them in his quaint museum on Mill Street in Rochester.
Mr. Grover came to Rochester once a month by packet to buy leather and stock for his business. Mrs. Hite frequently was taken along on these trips. She recalled the packet was drawn by three horses; that it required 10 hours to get from Mount Morris to Rochester; that there were many locks to delay progress; that the tow path was on the west canal bank and all of the stopping places on the east side.
The crew consisted of a ticket-seller who sold his wares to patrons before they boarded the boat, another official who collected the tickets and probably did the bugle-blowing, and the driver on the tow path. One could leave Mount Morris at 9 a. m. and get to Rochester at 7 p. m. That meant staying in Rochester at least one day to transact business and going back to Mount Morris on the third day. Now one can drive that distance in an hour or less.
The Rochester terminus was located near the west end of Troup Street. Mrs. Hite said there was no waiting room for passengers-merely a shelter roof hanging from the side of a building. She was the widow of Lynn Hite, a well-known Rochester hotel proprietor. She was long associated with her husband in a string of hostelries in Rochester and throughout western New York. Her home was at 30 Mazda Terrace which she named herself.
© 1999, Richard Palmer