Chemung & Feeder Canals

Today when we can go most any place in the world in a matter of hours, it is difficult to think back to the late 1700′s and early 1800′s when the only means of travel was on foot, by horse, mule, ox team, or water.

After the Revolutionary War when western New York State and the land west of the Appalachians was opened for settlement, people on the eastern seaboard wanted a part of the western trade. At that time the only way of improving transportation was by building canals. There were four attempts to build canals from the east to the west: one up the James River; one up the Potomac River to connect with the Cumberland Pass; and one up the Susquehanna trying to connect with the Alleghany River. These canals brought coal and lumber down from the mountains but did not reach the western side of the mountains.

The Erie Canal was the only one that could bring trade from the west, and there was some rivalry in the east to see who should get the western trade. The New York State legislators proposed a clause to prevent any canals being built connecting with the Susquehanna River but it never passed. The big advantage of a canal was that a horse could haul 40 times as much on water as on land.

The idea to build a canal connecting Seneca Lake and the Chemung River was first suggested by General Sullivan when he was chasing Indians down Catherine Creek in 1779. He sent a letter to President George Washington, who was a strong advocate of canals, suggesting that this canal be built to connect the northern and southern waters. Washington presented this to the Congress but no action was taken.

In 1812, only twenty five years after the first white settlers came to the valley, the Canal Commissioners sent James Geddes to go over the route. He reported back that a canal would be practical. In 1825, this same man was sent again to make another survey and again he reported that a canal could be built. It was four years later, however in 1829 before the legislature passed an act authorizing the Canal Commissioners to build a canal for $300,000, and there was much campaigning done during those four years to get the act passed.

A few years later, the village of Millvale in the town of Veteran changed its name to Millport, hoping that it would become a port on the canal. The entire area was covered with pine forests and at one time there were 30 sawmills in that town. The lumber produced was known as Chemung Lumber and was in great demand in Albany and Schenectady where much construction was going on. $4.50 per thousand feet was received for it. Then it was shipped by boat to Albany.

Captain Vincent Conklin of Horseheads took a team and wagon to Blossburg, Pa. before there were bridges across the Tioga and Canisteo Rivers and brought back a load of coal which he drew to Albany. He did this to convince the Canal Commissioners of some of the benefits to be derived from building a canal. Construction of the Chemung Canal started in 1830 and was finished in 1832. However, it was not opened until October of 1833. Col. Hendy threw the first shovelful of dirt.

The Chemung Canal from Elmira to Watkins was 23 miles long. The Feeder Canal from Horseheads to Gibson was 16 miles long with a 645 ft. dam across the Chemung River. This raised the water 7 feet. There had to be a long incline in the dam, lined with logs, so that rafts of lumber and arks of grain could go over the dam. As late as 1852, an article in the newspaper, the Elmira Republican, estimated that 12.5 million feet of lumber went through Elmira the first week of April 1852.

The canal was 42 feet wide at the top, 26 feet wide at the bottom, and 4.5 feet deep, with 4 locks between Horseheads and Elmira: 1 lock at the river with a 48 feet fall; 3 locks between Gibson and Horseheads at the river and there was one with a 28 feet fall. There was a total of 53 locks. These locks were 90 feet long, 16 feet wide and about 16 feet high. They raised or lowered the water 10 feet. There were wooden gates at both ends of the lock and when a boat was going down through the lock, the lower gate was closed and the upper gate was opened. This allowed the lock to fill with water. The boat was then pulled into the lock and the upper gate closed, the lower gate was opened and the boat lowered into the canal below. This procedure was reversed when a boat went up through the lock.

Aqueducts were built to carry the canal over the many streams. Bridges had to be built over all the roads crossed by the canal and they had to be high enough for the boat and horses to pass under. There were 10 bridges between Elmira and Horseheads; 3 were drawbridges.

In comparison, the Erie Canal was 363 miles long, had 81 locks and a 700 foot elevation. Before the Erie Canal was built, the cost of carrying a ton of goods from Buffalo to Albany by team was $100; wheat brought 80 cents a bushel in Geneva. After the canal was built, the cost dropped to $10 per ton. The Southern Tier was more fortunate. During the high water it could ship lumber on rafts and products in arks to Baltimore in a week or 10 days. Wheat brought $1.00 a bushel at Bath.

From Horseheads to Pine Valley was the summit of the canal between Elmira and Watkins. To make the canal operate, water was brought through the feeder canal to the summit to run both ways. Chemung County has an unusual land formation. If a man stood in front of the old fire station in Big Flats, another stood in Hanover Square in Horseheads, and another stood by the Arnot-Ogden Hospital in Elmira, they would all be on the same level. You can go all the way around Harris Hill on the same level. A canal cannot have over 1 foot fall per mile.

The Feeder Canal started at the dam in Gibson, followed the contour of the land to just west of East Corning, swung north toward the hill, and crossed Sing Sing Rd. about one mile north of the village of Big Flats. It then went to Lowe’s Pond near the Kahler Rd. From there a 20 feet cut for about a quarter of a mile was made where it crossed to Sing Sing Creek. For about a mile it ran almost parallel to Sing Sing Creek, except the creek ran west and the canal ran east, just north of where the Erie Railroad was. Some distance east of Welles’ Bridge it went north again near the A&P Plant; then just south of Maple Grove Cemetery. Here there were 3 locks to lower the water 28 feet to enter the main canal near the present Horseheads Fire Station. From here part of the water went south to Elmira and back into the Chemung River and the rest went north into Seneca Lake. Geologists tell us this is the way the water ran before the ice age; so it was just doing what came naturally.

It took a lot of water to operate the canal. There were 47 locks between Corning and Watkins and every time a canal boat went through a lock, the lock had to be filled and then emptied. In a dry year it took about all the water from the Chemung River. In 1856, Lakes Lamoka and Waneta were surveyed with the idea of converting them into reservoirs for the canal but nothing was ever done.

When the canal was ready to be opened, a big celebration was planned in Horseheads. A boat was built and placed in the canal and there was a band. When the lock was opened at Gibson to let water into the canal, a man on horseback was sent to Horseheads to tell them the water was coming. They waited but no water came. The rider started back up the canal. Above East Corning he discovered that when the water reached the gravel there, it had disappeared. Clay was drawn in to line the canal and stop the leaking. Today there is a pile of clay near the Goff Rd. which was stockpiled there to be used for patching any further leaks.

At one time there were 4,000 miles of canals in the United States. Building canal boats became a big industry in the Southern Tier, particularly around Millport. Some times there were 200 boats under construction. These were called Chemung Scows and were built for others as well as for the Chemung Canal.

During this time Millport was larger than Elmira and had a larger payroll. There was a boat yard just west of the Southport end of the Lake St. bridge. Joseph Rhodes owned a hotel south of the present Drive-In Theatre on Route 352 and he built scows on the river bank. Soft soap was used to slide them into the river. They were then taken down to the canal at State St. The area where the boats were built was called the ‘Pickaway’ because it was so stoney.

The Chemung County Historical Society has a book dated 1863 which lists all the canal boats in use in New York State: the name, type, sometimes the owner, and how much they were worth. There were two boats listed for Big Flats: the N. E. Bennett, a quarter scow valued at $400 and the Pickaway, open scow, 1859. The latter was probably built at the “Pickaway”. The types of boats used on the canal were: lake, quarter deck scow, open scow, bullhead, quarter deck plug, plug and quarter deck lake.

In Big Flats, July 5, 1850, according to a chattel mortgage, Henry Minier loaned Jacob Hulbert $400 to buy a canal boat named the Colonel William Ransom of Elmira. Jacob put up as collateral the boat, together with all furniture, fixtures, poles, lines, etc. He was to pay $40 per month with interest during the boating season until the loan was paid.

The Feeder was the busiest part of the canal. In 1850 one-eighth of all the tonnage passing through the city of Albany went over the Feeder Canal. During this time Corning was one of the three largest in-port cities in New York State. An old resident of Big Flats, whose grandfather was very familiar with the canal, remembers hearing about boats being lined up from Pine St. in Corning to Gibson waiting to get into the canal; and as many as 200 boats frozen in the river curing the winter months. The tonnage was mostly lumber, coal, grain, pork, and beef. The pork and beef were shipped in barrels. In 1852, about 40 thousand tons of Blossburg coal was trans-shipped and 50 million feet of lumber exported.

A 100 foot railroad built during the days of the Chemung Feeder Canal provided its owner with passes from most of the major railroads in the nation. Charles Denison, a wealthy Corning Businessman, saw the possibility of speeding up the transfer of coal from the Fall Brook Railroad to the canal barges which tied up at his warehouse dock. He built his own railroad, just 100 feet from where the Fall Brook line ended, to the canal. The coal was shoveled into his hopper cars; the cars were pushed 100 feet to a point where the hopper could be opened and the coal dumped directly into the canal barge below. Mr. Denison was president of the “line” and his wife Secretary and Treasurer.

This 100 foot railroad was called the Corning, Painted Post, Coopers Plains, Monterey and Pacific Railroad and was standard gauge. The railroad made money because coal shipments from the new Pennsylvania coal fields were large and the system reduced labor costs by about one-half and speeded up shipments.

After a time, Mr. Denison realized other railroad men were getting passes to travel on all railroads in the country. So, he wrote to the presidents of the major lines, enclosing special passes for his railroad. The response was quick and passes rolled in by every mail. The Denisons found it possible to travel on all railroads in the country without paying fare. They were honored guests, because he was a railroad president. Then it was discovered that Denison had no real rolling stock: the passes he had issued could be used only on a dump car, and that was covered with coal dust. The man did have a sense of humor. He wrote back to the railroad presidents who had demanded an explanation from him, “Well my railroad may not be as long as yours, but it is just as wide.”

Today Corning’s major recreation area is called Denison Park.

The Breeds came to Big Flats in 1840. They owned most of the land up the Breed Hollow and had several saw mills. There is a copy of a Bill of Sale where they shipped 18,500 feet of oak on the boat George Albert with T. D. Soper as master, to Havana (Montour) on the Chemung Feeder. It was loaded at Bennett’s Grocery dock on July 8, 1862. It was signed by Cephus Breed and T. D. Soper.

The canal boats were towed back and forth to Geneva on Seneca Lake by two steamboats. There were about 50 canal boats a day and some were picked up along the lake and at Dresden where there was an 8 mile canal to Keuka Lake.

At Lock No. 6 out of Montour there was a 24 hour period when 99 boats passed through. To pull the boats, the horses or mules were harnessed to a rope 100 feet long and 2 inches in diameter. It took one day to travel from Watkins to Horseheads. When passing another boat, the boat on the right would have the right of way; the other boat would stop the team, the boat would steer over to the other side of the canal, the tow rope would sink to the bottom and the other boat would pass over it.

The towpath was a path running along one side of the canal where the teams traveled, towing the boats. This path was not always on the same side of the canal so if there was a bridge the team had to go over, the driver would drive his team under the bridge, pick up the tow rope and whiffletrees and drive the team up and over the bridge and down the other side. If there was no bridge, a ramp was put down, the team loaded on the boat, the boat poled to the other side and the team unloaded.

When the boats were traveling the canal the mud was stirred up so the seams of the boat filled with mud and the boat would not leak. When they reached Seneca Lake where the water was clear and the boats traveled faster, the mud washed out of the seams; then sometimes the boats leaked.

Drivers worked 6 hours, loaded the team on the boat and rested 6 hours. When they reached Seneca Lake and the steamboat took over, they expected to have a rest, but if the boat leaked, they would have to pump water instead. Sometimes they would fill a burlap bag with sawdust and horse manure, tie a rope on each end, and a man on each end would pull this back and forth under the boat, hoping the sediment from the bag would stop the leaks. If a boat leaked badly, it was tied at the end of the line of boats so it would be cut loose to try to make it to shore.

Many canal boats did sink in Seneca Lake. Mr. Ron Hines said there are records of about 100 canal boats having sunk; 20 of these boats have been located. Most were open scows. A canal boat was about 60 feet long and would hold up to 80 tons.

In 1853, the Junction Canal was started. This canal connected the Chemung Canal at Washington Ave., with the Pennsylvania Canal at Athens so that the anthracite coal from Pennsylvania could be shipped east, west and north through the Chemung Canal. The office of Toll Collector was located at Horseheads and while the canal was operated, over a half million dollars was collected.

The first year the canal was operated 20 thousand tons were shipped over it. The peak year was 1855 with 170,798 tons, but during the Civil War from 1861 to 1865, the tonnage decreased to 307,151 tons, an average of 76,788 a year. In 1875, tonnage was 129,425; in 1876 14,448 tons; by 1877 it was 12,028 tons and the last year the canal was operated, the tonnage was down to 8,787. The canal lasted 45 years. Use of the canal declined when the railroads were built and took over shipping.

The canal system played an important part in the development of our country and right here in our region of the southern tier, our own little Chemung Canal had an important part in this great expansion.