The Great Water Bridges
The Story of the Magnificent
Genesee River Aqueducts
Even before they did the survey for the Grand Erie Canal the early builders
knew that one of their biggest challenges would be how to carry the canal
over the turbulent Genesee River. There wasn't a single person in the
new nation that had any experience in this kind of construction.
Six hundred dollars had been appropriated for the canal survey in 1808.
Governor DeWitt Clinton himself, appointed Judge James Geddes, from Onondaga
County, to carry out the work. The town of Geddes, just outside of Syracuse
bears his name today. The fact that James Geddes had only used a surveyor's
level once before in his life didn't seem to matter. In our young state
it's doubtful if there were more than a half dozen civil engineers. Which
is not strange considering that no civil engineering school yet existed
in the relatively new nation.
Thus it was that James Geddes traced the canal's future route from the
Seneca River along an ancient valley created by melt waters from the last
ice sheet. This course led westward to present day Fairport. There the
route turned south seeking a shallower path across the Lrondequoit Creek
Valley (the ancient bed of the Genesee River). This course would bring
the canal through the hamlets of Bushnell's Basin and Pittsford. It then
followed behind the old Spring House Tavern and in front of William Billinghurst's
Black Horse Tavern (now the Cherry House Furniture Store) along present
Monroe Avenue. From there he traced the route around Gideon Cobb's Hill
until it reached the Genesee River, It then paralleled the river north
for an eighth mile. At this point it was designed to cross the Genesee
River, avoiding three small falls or rapids some forty feet north near
today's Broad Street.
The entire northern route was hotly contested by both Batavia and Buffalo.
They weren't happy with the thought of rival Rochesterville or Black Rock
benefiting from the canal's commerce. The matter was settled when it was
realized that the southern route placed the canal 75 feet above Lake Erie's
level. It would be all but impossible to insure a constant supply of water
for the canal at a route more southerly with a higher elevation. As it
turned out, Geddes' northern route allowed the builders to fill the canal
with water from Tonawanda Creek, Scajaquada Creek and Buffalo Creek as
well as the Genesee and Lake Erie.
The land along the Genesee River's west bank in Rochesterville was donated
to the canal builders by Elisha Johnson, the Yankee entrepreneur who also
gave Washington Square to the city. His stipulation in donating the property
was that his mill canal (the Johnson & Seymour Mill Raceway), which also
paralleled the river, not be hampered by the canal's construction.
Plans dated 1817 called for the canal to cross the Genesee just south
of the mill dam jointly built by Elisha Johnson and Orson Seymour on the
east bank, and Colonel Nathaniel Rochester, Colonel Fitzhugh, and Major
Carroll on the west bank. Planners wanted to place a towing path bridge
just beyond the ten foot high mill dam. Boats were to cross the river
using the deep water just south of the dam. This plan however, was scrapped
when the builders became aware of the ravages of the annual spring flooding.
Also to be reckoned with was the resulting build-up of logs that often
created huge jams behind the mill dam. An aqueduct would have to be constructed.
Revised plans were formulated in 1819. These called for an aqueduct to
be built just north of the rapids created by three small falls, two of
three feet and one of seven feet, in the river bed. With the route finally
established and the decision to build an aqueduct accepted, the next step
was to locate a contractor. The planners required someone who could work
with stone, someone who could manage and direct the laborers and, of greatest
importance, someone who had the engineering skills and experience needed
to construct the longest, and certainly, the largest aqueduct project
in the history of the young country.
After some deliberation the canal engineers hired William Britton. His
credentials included the fine job he had accomplished in erecting the
formidable twenty-foot high walls for the state prison at Auburn. Not
only did Mr. Britton accept the position but he was also instrumental
in obtaining 30 convicts from the prison to assist him. By August, 1821,
he had all the prisoners lodged on an island between the river and the
Rochester and Fitzhugh mill race. (The War Memorial occupies that location
today.) Britton paid no wages and kept the convicts tethered with ball
and chain. As we might expect, the "free labor" spent as much time trying
to escape as they did cutting the gray limestone blocks from a ledge along
the river's west bank and also a quantity of red sandstone obtained from
the Lower Falls area. (Below present Driving Park.) Seven of the discontented
"laborers," probably good swimmers, escaped to freedom while working on
Britton then used these blocks as foundation stones for his piers which
he cemented and bolted to the stony bottom of the river bed. His workers
also blasted away the succession of cascades which made the river bed
uneven. Winter soon closed down the work. Mr. Britton did not live to
discover that the Genesee River could be both a friend and a foe. He passed
away in December of 1821, some rumored, by suicide.
As a friend its waters had been channeled through a feeder canal from
a location near the present University of Rochester to enter the Erie
Canal just north of the Old Stone Warehouse at Mount Hope Avenue. Thus
the Genesee River supplied water to the Erie Canal all the way eastward
to the Seneca River. On the other hand the spring freshet of 1822 completely
washed away Britton's foundations leaving only its iron bolts bent in
a downstream direction.
More plans were made. It was obvious that a stronger stone was needed.
The aqueduct's bottom trough, normally made of wooden timbers, would also
have to be made of stone to resist the spring floods. In Greece, a short
lateral canal connecting with the Erie Canal was dug. This channel led
to a large bed of red Medina sandstone. It lay just six feet below the
surface. From the quarry huge blocks of the sandstone were cut and transported
by canal to the western side of the aqueduct. There a large, rugged wooden
chute allowed the stones to be slid to the worksite.
The newest designs for the aqueduct were now in the hands of a second
contractor, Alfred Hovey. The "water bridge" would have nine hewn-stone
arches, each with fifty-foot spans plus two smaller arches to carry the
Erie across the mill race canals on either side of the Genesee. The overall
length of the great eleven arch aqueduct was 802 or 804 feet depending
on who was doing the measuring. The width of its trough however was a
meager 17 feet. (Many canal boats were 15 feet wide.)
The real work by Hovey's team of mostly Irish and Welsh workmen, no convicts
this tune, did not start until August 17, 1822. One of their supervisors
was Amasa Drake, a farmer and self-taught engineer. (Tradition suggests
that he was descended from Sir Francis Drake.) His handsome homestead
still stands at 474 Winton Road South in Brighton. Drake's first big task
was to supervise the cutting of twelve large, square slots deep into the
limestone riverbed. Into these slots would go the great supporting blocks
of stone. To insure that the rock to be utilized was adequate, an expert
was called upon.
He was Nathan S. Roberts, the engineer overseeing all the canal projects
in this region known as the fourth division. Roberts went to the Greece
quarry and carefully examined the reddish-brown Medina sandstone to be
used in the aqueduct. He found it to be a mixture of quartz, calcium carbonate,
magnesium and red iron oxide held together with silica as the binding
agent. It was his conclusion that this stone was strong enough to withstand
the annual spring rampages of the Genesee, and the weight of the water
that was to fill the aqueduct.
Much of the stone was cut out of the quarry using black gunpowder placed
in especially drilled rows of holes to blast loose long blocks two-feet
wide and a foot and a half deep. Nature, too, lent a helping hand. The
Irish stone workers drilled rows of eight-inch-deep holes one foot between
holes and two feet between rows. These were filled with water and as temperatures
dipped below freezing, sharp cracking sounds, almost like gun shots, were
heard by the pleased stone cutters. The fissures thus created could be
expanded with wedges. In this manner large stone blocks were easily freed.
Due to the late start, the work proceeded right into the winter months.
Most of the workmen were housed in the township of Greece in a winter
camp near the quarry. From there the Medina sandstone blocks were floated
by flatboat to the river. There they were slid into place aided by sleds
over the ice. Salt was carefully added to the wet cement to enable it
to cure in the cold weather.
With a steady supply of blocks, work on the aqueduct now progressed rapidly.
Finally, nine months behind schedule, the great project was completed
in September, 1823. Over $83,000 had been spent on its construction. Its
completion initiated Rochester's first genuine canal celebration. Thus
on Monday, October 6, 1823, a procession of decorated boats, barges, and
rafts floated proudly across the aqueduct. A huge crowd of citizens turned
out for the historic ceremony which included the local cornet band playing
the Masonic ode, "The Temple's Completed." This was followed by several
speeches and many toasts. The festivities ended with a memorable dinner
at John G. Christopher's Mansion House on Carroll (State) Street.
Vessels could now travel from Little Falls to Lockport. It was indeed
another banner day for both Rochester and the builders of the Grand Erie
Canal. The first commercial boat across the newly opened aqueduct was
loaded with a cargo of flour. It was shipped from Daniel P. Parker's warehouse
on the western side of the river to Little Falls, eventually to reach
New York City. In 1826 Anne Royall, while traveling through Rochester,
was moved to write:
We are lost in wonder to see boats and horses, with men on them, passing
at such a vast height above the surface of a bold river. The aqueduct
is built on arches of hewn stone, and for beauty, symmetry and proportion
Now that was true. It was one of the finest construction jobs on the
entire Erie Canal. However, almost from the start, it leaked like a sieve.
During each passing winter water would work its way further into the joints
between the huge sandstone blocks and cause more havoc.
Both kids and athletic parents enjoyed ice skating on the shallow sheet
of frozen water retained in the aqueduct's trough. Its 800 foot length
made it an ideal public skating rink. In Tales of a Grandfather, Frederick
A. Whittlesey reminisces: "I remember the immense icicles which formed
under the arches in the late fall before water was drawn off, and there
were some fine stalactite formations visible at times."
No sooner was the Erie Canal opened and its wonderful commercial possibilities
begun to be realized, than people started calling for its improvement,
principally directed toward its enlargement. Three problems plagued its
patrons. Most significant was its narrow channel. While the canal's width
was 40 feet, the 17 foot width of the aqueduct's trough would only permit
one boat across at a time. Whittlesey writes
"The result (of the narrow passage) was almost daily fights between crews
who each asserted right of way in opposite directions. Long detentions
on this account were not infrequent, and as there was no railing on the
berm bank a contest became serious."
The second concern was the tight, right-angle turn needed to enter or
exit the aqueduct on its eastern approach as it crossed the Genesee. This
was the tightest bend on the entire Erie Canal. Much maneuvering was needed
to manage the bend. Later when two barges were lashed together, it was
necessary to untie them in order to negotiate the turn. This did not make
for happy "canawlers."
The last problem, has already been noted. It was the leaky condition
of the sandstone. It was more of a nuisance than a genuine hazard. With
time however, the stone would deteriorate to a point where replacement
would become necessary. Blake McKelvey, in his book Rochester on the Genesee,
tells us that:
The owners of the principal boat lines, led by Jonathan Child (Our city's
first mayor and owner of the Pilot Line of packets.), dispatched Henry
O'Reilly, editor of the Advertiser, to Albany with petitions for a new
Thus in 1836 Governor Marcy was petitioned for funds to rebuild the aqueduct.
As with many financial grants that emanated from Albany, funding was delayed,
in this case for two years. (Political differences were holding up state
finances even at that time.) The financial panic of 1837 also stalled
progress, but approval came that year and work was begun on a second aqueduct
Josiah W. Bissell was in charge of the new aqueduct portion of what geography
books once termed the "Grand Internal Improvement."
The second aqueduct was located slightly south of the original. In order
to "give free passage for the floods of the river under the new arches,
more than 30,000 cubic yards of rock were blasted away. Under the direction
of Captain Buell it took nearly 100 men the entire summer of 1838 to clear
away the rock.
A Mr. Kasson and a Mr. Brown had been contracted to supply the building
stone. For this it was determined to use Onondaga Limestone, a dense and
compact grayish rock. More than 200 men were employed at the Split Rock
Quarry located in the Wilton Tract near Syracuse. From there the stone
was hauled six miles by oxen to the canal. Boats then shipped a continuous
flow of the rock to Rochester where masons expertly hammer-dressed the
stones. Then, in a manner reminiscent of the building of the Egyptian
pyramids, the ponderous stone blocks were carefully set in place.
When the project was finished, costing $445,347, the aqueduct's water
table or trough stood 18 1/2 feet above the river. Happily this has proven
to be sufficient for floods of the last century and a half. The expanded
aqueduct's dimensions included a 444-foot long central trunk spanning
the river with wings at each end making the total length 848 feet. Its
width was 45 feet. The depth of the channel measured 7 1/2 feet, providing
enough draft for the larger freight boats being built at the time. Seven
arches, 52 feet wide at their bases, supported the central section of
the aqueduct, and three additional 25-foot arches carried the approaches.
One arch spanned the mill canal on the west bank while the other two supported
a rounded eastern entry to the aqueduct. The curved route replaced the
pesky right-angle turn of the former aqueduct.
With the completion of the second aqueduct in 1842, Rochester again celebrated.
Among the celebrants was Josiah Bissell, one of the principal engineers
on the project. The Yankee contractor saw use in the sandstone blocks
of the old aqueduct and incorporated them in a house for himself designed
by Rochester's leading architect, Andrew Jackson Warner. The Gothic-style
mansion still stands at 666 East Avenue as a part of Wesley Manor, a Methodist
The first aqueduct served for twenty years from 1822 to 1842. The second
aqueduct is, remarkably, still in daily service. Canal boats floated across
it for 77 years from 1842 till 1919. After the canal's relocation, the
Rochester Railway Company's subway cars then rolled across the former
aqueduct's water table for another 29 years, from September 2, 1927, until
June 30, 1956. A flood of automobiles now traverses an arched parapet
built over the aqueduct. The roadway we call Broad Street was opened to
traffic in 1925. Today it serves as an important parallel artery to relieve
the burden of Rochester's Main Street traffic.
Finally this water bridge, the second Genesee Aqueduct which still stands
as an impressive monument to its master masons, was built so well it never
leaked a drop.
(c) 1994, Donovan A. Shilling