The History of the Genesee Valley Canal

The Erie Canal reached Rochester, NY in 1823. In 1825, Governor DeWitt Clinton requested the study of a navigable route connecting this new waterway to the Allegheny River, which then could connect to Pittsburgh and from there to the Ohio River, the Mississippi, and the Gulf of Mexico.  

One route considered was along the Genesee River valley to Olean. Citizens along the proposed route organized and petitioned for its construction.  New York City businesses, envisioning a means to obtain coal from western Pennsylvania and a lucrative shipping route to the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys, also petitioned.

Not until 1834 did the Legislature authorize a survey, which resulted in two alternatives – one along the west side of the Genesee River valley and one along the east. Both required the same number of locks and were estimated to cost about $2.0 million. 

In 1836, the State authorized construction, but left the exact route unspecified. The Genesee Valley Canal opened between Rochester and Mt. Morris in 1840. All along its course,  canal development stimulated commerce and community growth.

From early in this canal’s history, railroads complicated matters. In 1841, the State refused a request to substitute railroad for part of the canal, believing the canal would bring both improvement and profit to the State.  

Loading Bluestone
Loading Bluestone

Engineering challenges abounded, including the construction of 49 locks within 11 miles; removal of 600,000 cubic yards of earth to maintain constant canal elevation; the failed attempt to tunnel through rock in Portage; and the 400-foot wooden (?) aqueduct across the Genesee.

Reservoirs were constructed to supply the canal with water. Black Creek was dammed, creating Rockville Lake. Oil Creek was dammed; the Oil Creek Reservoir (known today as Cuba Lake) was, when built in the 1850s, one of the largest man-made lakes in the world.  The summit level of the canal north of Cuba, at 1488 feet, was the highest canal elevation in the world.

Constructed at a cost of $6.7 million, the 107-mile canal was profitable in only one year – 1854 – when 158,940 tons of cargo was transported on the waterway. In 1874, a constitutional amendment permitted sale or abandonment of most State-owned canals. The Genesee Valley Canal was thus abandoned in 1878. Two years later the canal lands between Rochester and Olean were sold for $11,400 to a newly-formed railroad company, which was backed financially by the Buffalo, New York, and Philadelphia Railroad.