Genesee Valley Canal
The most obvious places to look for information about canal history are among the writings of those most familiar with the topic. One of these people was Capt. H. P. Marsh, who, in 1914, published an interesting little book of reminiscences called Rochester and Its Early Canal Days.
He said he could recall steamboats navigating the Genesee River from Rochester to Mount Morris long before the canal was built. "A steamboat left Rochester for Geneseo every other morning, thirty-five miles away direct route, but probably twice that distance by river. People living near the river now would hardly believe it possible, it is so low in dry times, brought about by the forests being cut away which retained the moisture. I remember Capt. Phillips, who ran a steam craft on the Genesee."
When the canal was completed to Oramel, some businessmen tried to operate a passenger packet boat between there to Portage, but it didn't pay and was soon abandoned. Capt. Marsh said it was put out of business by a stagecoach line which was much faster. Also, it didn't help much when the stagecoach proprietor offered to carry passengers free of charge. But ultimately the stagecoach line went out of business when the Pennsylvania Railroad was built on the right of way after the canal was abandoned. Marsh wrote:
I can well remember the packet, the name of which was 'The Frances', and how beautiful it looked to my boyish eyes, prettily painted and majectically swinging around the bend from the feeder into the main canal at Oramel.
Many of the places have changed names since old canal days. Spencerport, now called Fowlerville; Shakers, now Sonyea; Brushville, now Tuscarora; Messengers's Hollow, now Oakland; Mixville Landing, now Rossburgh. Three or four miles below Caneadea is a beautiful temperance town called Houghton, with a noted theological seminary; there is a fine grove with an auditorium where each year in August is held a week's camp meeting. attended by thousands of people and many noted speakers; it was once called Jockey Street and contained a low, vile tavern.
I can recall to memory many a good man on the Genesee Valley Canal. They did not pose as fighters, they were too gentlemanly for that, and would avoid getting into trouble, but I would not advise anyone to impose upon them too much. Geo. Eggleston of Brockport, Johnnie Rover of Dansville, the Burke Boys of Mt. Morris, and plenty of others. good fellows and good boatmen, ready to give a helping hand to any needy one.
From Jockey Street to Belfast, only seven or eight miles, there were ten or more miserable apologies for hotels. It was a new country, steam and water sawmills dotted the valleys. Teams drawing lumber, shingles, stave bolts, railroad ties and cordwood were on every road, all families used wood for fuel, in fact, they knew of nothing else to use.
Deer were numerous in Allegany County in the early stages of canal navigation, making it an ideal place for hunters, and among all the inhabitants of that section at that time I knew only one strictly temperance man; I presume there were others, he came from Orleans County to superintend the construction of the locks at Oramel, and the aqueduct at Caneadea. He married Hannah Emery, of Marsh Settlement, and built a sawmill in the town of Caneadea on Shongo Creek. He advocated temperance at all times, when to do so brought slurs and curses from those around him, strongly addicted to the liquor habit so prevalent at the time.
Oramel at that time was a business place. It was calculatated by its founder, Oramel Griffin to become a city. There was a hotel, a number of saloons, a drug store, and several other stores, a paper was also printed there by Purdy, and many dwelling houses that all signs of are now obliterated. The canal feeder at Oramel was lined with lumber, shingles, stave bolts, etc., to be loaded on boats for Rochester, New York, and intermediate ports. Oramel lost a good share of its business when the canal was finished to Olean.
There was a great celebration when it was finished to Belfast. The first boat carried a load of passengers to that place; they had a cannon on board and fired it frequently, while the banks were lined with the cheering inhabitants of the surrounding country. Belfast was quite a village at that early date, and when the canal was finished the sleepy old town awakened, and has been wide awake ever since. Business men came from other places to work in different capacities.
There was a warehouse and drydock built by a man from Dansville, S. Titsworth, who did quite an extensive business as commission merchant and repairer of boats. Geo. Chamberlain from Rochester bought lumber for the Hollister Lumber Co. in that city. There are a number of old Genesee Valley boatmen still living in Belfast and near towns, the Burke Brothers, James Fox of Oramel, C. Reeves, and Aaron Stone, near Oramel, and others, all good business men.
The boats built on the Genesee Valley were very pretty, generally round bow and square stern, nicely painted, some fourteen feet wide, and eighty feet long. There was a cabin at the stern for living purposes, and a hands' cabin or for horses at the bow. They served as a nice little home for the waterman and his family, they would carry ninety tons, if loaded with lumber, fifty to eighty thousand feet, according to its degree of seasoning, and forty or fifty cords of wood. They could load three and one-half feet, that was the law; if loaded more than that it was hard for the poor horses, as the boat would drag the bottom of the canal.
One of the Munsey girls, Hank Munsey's sister, was a natural boatwoman. She steered her father's boat across the river below Mt. Morris when the water was so high it was dangerous, and no man dared to steer or even go in the boat with her. She made the lock on the other side of the river all right; if she had not, the boat would have went over the State dam which would undoubtedly have drowned her and sunk the boat. She afterwards built and run a boat herself.
Below Oramel was a widewater called the Basin, used for storing ship timbers, to be made into rafts. Oramel was a busy place then; no more boatmen crowd its streets or their loud voices be heard singing out 'Hurrah - lock,' or 'Go on, Johnnie,' when the boat locked through. The old tumble-down locks can still be seen all along the Pennsylvania Railroad from Olean to Rochester, and some of them are still in a good state of preservation. Now the railroad follows on the towing path of the old canal. It takes about three hours to get to Rochester from Belfast; when the writer was a boy, it took twenty-four hours. You took a stage in the morning at Belfast or Caneadea, arrived for dinner at Portage, then stage through Brooksgrove, arriving in the afternoon at Mt. Morris, then took the packet boat ride all night, and if no detention occurred to the boat you arrived in the city next morning.
You could sleep on the boat and get your meals if you wished. It was splendid board, equal to any first-class hotel, and many times, superior. You had your berth assigned to you the same as on a railroad sleeper. The berths were made of canvas, called sacking frames, hung on irons fastened on the inside of the boat, put up by the steward at bedtime, and taken down in the morning to make room for breakfast service and parlor conveniences. The deck made a fine, picturesque promenade, especially on moonlight nights. The horses would trot, giving the boat the speed of a light carriage and horses, It was a nice, sociable way to travel with your friends, and that included all of the passengers on the boat, giving you the pleasure of an outing or picnic combined with business travel.
I can remember the names of the packet boats running from Mt. Morris to Rochester when I was a boy. Two left each place every night, Sundays excepted, one carrying freight and passengers, the other passengers, baggage and express. Their names were, 'The Diamond,' 'May Fly,' 'May Flower,' and 'Dansville.' The boats docked, discharged cargo and passengers, in a slip, just back of where lunch and eating rooms are located at the present time on Exchange street, at the west end of the aqueduct. The building was a warehouse directly opposite the Clinton hotel, a noted hostelry in those days. It is where Dan Bromley moored his packet, the 'Red Bird' of the Empire line.
© 2000, Richard Palmer