June 1994

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The Great Water Bridges

The Story of the Magnificent
Genesee River Aqueducts


Donovan A. Shilling

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 the project.

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 is unrivalled.

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 aqueduct.

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 in 1838.

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 Nursing Home.

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
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