Genesee Valley Canal
Surveying on the Genesee Valley Canal
In 1836 a young surveyor from McLean, a farming community between Cortland and Ithaca, was hired to assist in surveying the right of way for the Genesee Valley Canal between Mount Morris and Portage. His name was William N. Cobb and he was born in McLean, Tompkins County, on July 15, 1818, the son of William and Achsah Bradley Cobb.
Cobb's journal covers the months of September and October, 1836, and gives excellent insight into his particular field of work. At 6 a.m. on Sept. 20, he boarded a canal boat in Ithaca, bound for Buffalo. The boat was one of six being towed by a steamboat. They arrived at the foot of the lake at Cayuga. There, horses were attached to his boat for the trip through the Erie Canal.
It was dark when they reached Montezuma, a distance of seven miles. For most of the voyage, Cobb remained on the deck of the packet boat which was "somewhat crowded" with between 50 and 60 passengers.
The captain had told me he could not promise me a berth. Accordingly on entering the cabin I found the berths all occupied and some half-a-dozen passengers lying at full length on the floor. Finding a couple of chairs, I placed them together and very quietly disposed myself across them with a blanket[,] which I chanced to find in the cabin[,] under my head.
After lying in this manner a long while and listening to the chit-chat and laughter about me I at length began to sleep. After sleeping for awhile, I knew not how long, I awoke, flattering myself that I had enjoyed a good long nap, but was much disappointed on looking at the watch to find that I had slept only about 10 minutes. By this time I was so tired with sleeping as to be glad to get up and rest.
After resting awhile I put one of my chairs away and lying down on the floor put the other under my head. But before I could get to sleep, I found that the water had leaked into the boat so fast since pumping that it began to come through the cracks of the floor about me so that I was obliged to get up and then sat up until 12 o'clock, about which time we arrived at Clyde.
Sept. 21. — After a short tarry at Clyde we again went on, the boatmen pumping out the water as we went. After they had pumped out the water, I found it rather lonesome sitting up, so I began to think of taking another nap. Accordingly on looking around at the other end of the floor I saw a sheepskin and I also found a valise, so spreading the former on the floor and placing the latter under my head I again laid down to sleep, and slept about an hour, when waking I saw the man sitting near[,] to whom the sheepskin belonged. I therefore arose and offered him my chance which he very readily accepted. I then sat up til day. Thus passed one night with only about one hour's sleep. Passing through several villages we arrived at Palmyra about noon where we made a short tarry. Pulling thence we arrived at Pittsford at about 10 o'clock in the evening where I left the boat and took lodgings at the Inn.
Started the next morning for West Avon. When within 2 or 3 miles of that place I fell in company of an Italian only 11 months from Italy. He had a quantity of wax fruit done off with an exquisite finish which he was peddling. I arrived at Avon between 1 and 2 o'clock p.m. where entering a public house I enquired for the Engineers on the Genesee Valley Canal. I there learned they were 14 miles up the river at a place called Mount Morris.
Accordingly I set off for that place where I arrived at about 8 of the clock in the evening. I met a boy just on the outskirts of the village of whom I enquired whether the engineers were in the place. He said they were and that I would find them at Beach's Tavern. So I enquired out the house, it being dark, and went on to the stoop where there were some 4 or 6 young men whom I took to be members of the engineering party. I enquired for Mr. Allen and one of the gentlemen immediately arose and leading me upstairs showed me into Mr. Allen's room where I found him studying.
As I entered the room he arose and appeared much surprised to see me, giving me a most hearty shake by the hand at the same time. My friend Mr. Eddy very soon made his appearance and appeared much surprised as well as pleased to see me. After a long talk in relation to the affairs about home, I at length retired with Mr. Allen to rest.
Sept. 23. — I arose this morning not very much refreshed by my night's lodgings, having been troubled last night with a pain in my legs arising from weariness which prevented me from enjoying my rest. The weather is quite dull and rainy. The rain ceasing towards noon, I went out with Mr. Allen & Eddy, together with the rest of the party to which they belong, to their work, which was about four miles out of town up the valley towards Dansville, where Mr. [Henry S.] Dexter, resident engineer of the Genesee Valley Canal, the head of the party, stayed last night at the house of a friend. On Mr. Eddy's asking him if his party was full, he said it was. So I went with the party that afternoon and stayed with them at a private house overnight.
Saturday, Sept. 24. — Leaving my friends Allen and Eddy, I returned this morning to Mount Morris where after dinner I went over to the store and purchased 2 sheets of paper on one of which I wrote a letter to my parents. When Mr. Mills came in with his party to dinner he told me he thought he could give me a station in his party next week as a rodman. So I stayed at the tavern during the afternoon and had considerable conversation with a Mr. Dickinson, who has been in the party with the Engineers during the summer, but has quit with the intention of going home and attending school the ensuing winter. Just at night Mr. Dexter's party came in to stay over Sunday.
Sunday, Sept. 25. — This morning I, in company with Mr. Allen, attended service at the Methodist Church. The sermon was delivered by an elderly man whose name I did not learn. He gave a very interesting and instructing discourse from 'Remember the Sabbath day to Keep it Holy,' at the close of which a collection was taken for the benefit of the widows and orphans of such as have died in the ministry.
Monday, Sept. 26 — Just as Mr. [Frederick C.] Mills, the chief engineer, was leaving town to go to his work this morning he came to me and said that I would better stay a few days in the place as one of his party would quit in the course of the week and then he would give me a station. But finally he said I might go right out in the field with them and he would set me at work. So I went out and took the rod and commenced keeping book at the onset.
Our party took dinner at the house of an old Dutchman who sat a very good table for which we paid him 12½ cents each. At night a part of our party stayed at a private house and the remainder went on to a tavern about 1 mile, among the former was myself.
Tuesday, Sept. 27. — After taking breakfast we started for our work where the rest of the party from the tavern soon made their appearance. We all went to the fore-mentioned tavern for dinner. When night came we were some distance beyond the tavern but we returned and took lodging with our landlord. We passed through one man's farm in the course of the day, who thinking that the canal would be located across his farm, and thus in his opinion injure it, went immediately to the tavern and offered to sell it for 35 dollars per acre, which before he would not have sold for $40 per acre. In the evening I wrote to my father for my trunk &c.
Wednesday, Sept, 28, 1836. — I was much surprised this morning on waking and looking out at the window to see the snow between one and two inches deep all over the ground and somewhat deeper on the roofs of the buildings. But the sun soon melted away some of the snow so that we started for our work soon after breakfast. The sun however soon clouded under and it was finally a cold, wet, disagreeable day, but we did not however quit our work till night. Just before we quit work four of our party among whom was Mr. Mills received a very polite invitation to lodge at one Col. Williams* and as they could not accommodate any more with lodgings the rest of us sought lodgings elsewhere.
Thursday, Sept. 29. — After taking breakfast with our host whose name was Thomson we went to our work where we were met by the rest of our party from Col. Williams. We run at a pretty smart rate until noon when we all went, by invitation to Col Williams for dinner. After dinner we were treated to a pail of most excellent fruit.
As the weather evinced strong symptoms of a storm we started after dinner for Portage where we engaged our board so long as we should work near there. In the afternoon we went out to see the falls and the high steep banks of the Genesee River. The latter were in some places from 280 to 300 feet above the bed of the river, composed of solid rock and nearly perpendicular.
Friday, Sept. 30. — Started after breakfast for our work which was about 2 miles from the village of Portage. On our way to work we spoke for our dinner at a log house on the way whither went at noon and took it, paying 25 cents apiece. After dinner we again went to Portage where we stayed over night. Perhaps I shall not find a better opportunity for a short description of Portage. It is situated on the Genesee River and is about 50 miles from Rochester via Geneseo, and about 20 miles from the latter place. There are 2 taverns, 2 stores and a tanner's shop in the place besides a blacksmith shop and some such other fixtures, &c. &c.
Saturday, Oct. 1. — Started out and run from Portage up to the top of the hill to find how much higher the ground is at the top of the hill than at Portage, and found it to be 260 feet. After dinner we started for Mount Morris in a wagon which we had engaged for the purpose. When we arrived a little before sunset, paying the driver 25 cents apiece for our ride: distance 14 miles. Here we found the other party under Mr. Dexter who had come in before us.
Sunday, Oct. 2. — Spent the day principally in reading in Young's 'Night Thoughts' and Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'
* Col. George Williams came to the Genesee Valley as a land sales agent in 1810. He first lived in a log house, but later built a brick mansion. He was one of the staunchest promoters of the Genesee Valley Canal, and resided near Portageville.
© 2000, Richard Palmer