Monday, October 5, 2009

The Chemung Canal

Elmira, New York has a history in transportation innovations. Before the age of rail, canals delivered goods cheaper than overland travel. The success of the Erie Canal, completed in 1825, spawned a series of lateral canals to connect other communities to its trade. The Chemung Canal was one of the first proposed for State Legislature funding in that same year. Approval was not granted until 1829, and the first shovels were dug on its construction in 1830 by thirteen Revolutionary War veterans. Completed in 1833, The Chemung Canal was open for business. It linked Elmira to the Erie through Seneca Lake via Watkins Glen in a notoriously slow and consistently problematic history which lasted through the Civil War into the late 1870's.

Th system of locks were built of wood, which bowed and rotted. Silt continued to push in on its four-foot-deep bottom, requiring expensive maintenance. And yet, the lucrative trade in lumber, Pennsylvania coal and other regional products generated enough business to make Elmira an up-and-coming town by the time of the Civil War. The Erie Railroad had come to Elmira in 1849, linking the township with New York City and points east, and then by 1854, north to Rochester. By the Civil War, rail had placed its iron foot on the area in a dominant stance, and the age of the canal had well begun to decline.

The route took canal boats, pulled by mule teams, along a 42' wide path from the Chemung River through Elmira, Horseheads, Millport, Havana and finally Watkins Glen. The Horseheads toll station stood where the fire station is today, just past Hanover Square. To this day, traces of the old canal can be seen along Route 14 toward Watkins Glen, near Catherine Creek.

1872 marked the year that a portion of the canal was refilled in downtown Elmira, but parts remained active through October 1878. In Elmira, little remains of the canal's history except for the trust company by the same name. What killed the canal also took the life of the Chemung Canal's first toll taker, Thomas Maxwell. In 1864, Maxwell was struck down by a locomotive in Elmira.

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