The Crooked Lake Review

July 2008

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Water Navigation

before the Canals


Richard Palmer

The following newspaper article is interesting in the fact that it reveals the Genesee River was being navigated generations years prior to existence of the Genesee Valley Canal. If, indeed, the river was navagible for 80 or 90 miles, it explains the purpose of the existence and name of Portageville where Durham boats and/or batteaux would have necessarily been carried around the Genesee Falls.

The Genesee River was but one of many natural streams used with but few artificial improvements. There was considerable forwarding of flour by long, shallow draft Durham boats. The primitive land and water systems of the day were slow, rough going, dangerous and expensive, especially in the low water times of summer.

In most cases rivers and tributaries in upstate New York were only navigable during periods of high water resulting from spring run off. Other rivers besides the Genesee used as trade routes pre-dating the advent of canals included the Canisteo, Cohocton, Delaware, Mohawk, Oneida, Oswego, Seneca, Susquehanna, Tioughnioga, and some tributaries such as Tonawanda, Tuscarora and Wood Creeks. There are also many references to batteaux and similar small boats (later, steamboats) being employed on the Finger Lakes.

Later, there were efforts to improve the natural waterways, but with few tangible results. As the country became thickly settled, dams were built which destroyed the use of them as water highways. In some cases, however, sluiceways were built to allow the passage of boats. Subsequent canals utilized some of these old water trade routes.

Rochester Telegraph, Dec. 29, 1818

We are indebted to J. Hawley, Esq., collector of the port of Genesee, for the following statement of exports from this river since the opening of the navigation last spring.

Flour, 25,996 Bbls.
Pot and pearl Ashes, 3,613 do
Pork, 1,173 do
Whiskey, 191 do
Double butt staves, 214 M.

The whole number of arrivals since last spring at this port have been 235, the vessels average about 25 to 30 tons burthen.

The above statement, while it presents a most flattering account of the rapid growth and increasing prosperity of the surrounding country, shows at the same time that at no distant period, the commerce of the Genesee must be respectable.

The time has but just passed away when the country where these products were raised was a wilderness—when the Genesee River was only known as the dividing line between Ontario and Genesee counties—and even now, we believe that the knowledge of the advantages which those who live on its banks possess for commerce, manufacturing and agriculture is limited still to a very small portion of the country.

Perhaps in no part of the world are finer lands for farming purposes than lie on this river—and for manufacturing, it is hazarding but little to say that its advantages are unrivaled. It ought not to be omitted in this place, that the Genesee River is boatable for 80 or 90 miles above the falls. Salt to a considerable amount has been transported in boats up the river, which have bought down in return, flour, potash, lumber, brick, &c.

Boats of 25 tons burthen, well built and covered, ply during the summer season between this and Gardou, between which and the Allegheny River is a portage of only 30 miles. This route when the waters of the Allegheny are high, is perhaps on account of the saving in distance, &c. preferable to any other for families moving from the eastern to the south western states, and will doubtless be used for this purpose.

Wayne Sentinel, Palmyra, Wed., Aug. 4, 1824

The steam boat “Erie Canal,” from Utica, which passed this village a short time since, has arrived at Geneseo, Livingston county, having entered the river through the feeder at Rochester. This is the first boat propelled by steam that ever navigated the waters of the Genesee, and the captain states that he found no difficulty in ascending the river.

© 2008, Richard Palmer
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