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Schuyler County History
The Chemung Canal


The Chemung Canal was an important form of transportation for about 35 years. The Chemung Canal has a long history of careful thought and planning to design a great navigable system. Although the canal was replaced by other forms of transportation, the Chemung Canal was an important part of the economy and was extremely important to the people living in surrounding areas.

General Sullivan was the first to propose an idea of connecting navigable streams of New York with those of Pennsylvania by artificial waterways, in his letter to George Washington, in 1779. In the years following, there were many proposals for a canal, which were never carried out.

In 1819, Governor Clinton made his annual message to legislature, making a speech about the canal. He expressed the popularity of the Erie Canal and recognized the need to connect south waters. There was again no action taken by the Senate.

In 1825, an act was passed which provided for examinations, surveys, and estimates to be made for several canal routes. Mr. James Geddes did the survey in 1812. He had explored the route of the canal in the past. In 1826, he reported that the canal route would be from Seneca Lake to Newton and the navigable feeder from Chimney Narrows to summit level of canal. He also reported that the distance would be 31 miles and the estimated price would be $240, 000, for wooden locks, or $407,598, for stone locks. “Mr. Geddes concluded that the construction of the canal would be a profitable venture for the State.”

The report from James Geddes was used by the Assembly committee in attempt to persuade Legislature to authorize the building of the canal. The reasons presented to benefit from building the canal was the need for coal, decrease in wood, and the nearing of a decrease in the manufacturing of salt. The petition was again lost in Senate.

            In 1829, petitioners renewed efforts to build the canal. Finally, On April 15 an act was passed. The act authorized the canal commissioners to construct the canal on the route suggested by Mr. Geddes, but the complete canal and feeder expense was not to exceed $300,000. One clause to this act stated that the route should be known as the “Chemung Canal” and that the tolls should not be less than those of the Erie and Champlain canals. With news of this act, the people of Elmira celebrated.

          Holmes Hutchinson began in June of 1829. He estimated the canal and feeder would be $331,125.00. He stated that ground and character soil were favorable. The most expensive part of the canal would be the dam at the head of the feeder, the deep excavation on its summit level, and the large number of locks from summit level to head waters of Seneca Lake.

            The plans of Chemung Canal began. The canal would be the length of Seneca Lake to Elmira for 19 miles and the navigable feeder would be the Chimney Narrows to the summit level for 13 miles. There would be wood locks. Also surveyed, was the line continuing from Havana to village of Jefferson (Watkins) for 3 miles. The estimate was for $16,035. In November 1829, it was advertised for proposals for contracts. There were many offers, the prices ranging from $245,000-$433,000.

            In February 1830, the Assembly requested that the canal commissioners report proceedings. They submitted Mr. Hutchinson’s report. It was ordered that the canal commissioners proceed with their work in pursuance of the act made in April of 1829.

            In 1829, the proposal was re-examined and in 1830 the proposal was received. There was $290,263 in contracts awarded. There was progress made in the first season with “experienced and skilled” contractors. There were many sub-contractors which were not paid for their labor on the canal. In 1832, work on canal was delayed, because of weather and the security of workers.

            After work was completed, during the winter and spring, the canal was ready for navigation in May 1833. The canal cost $314,395.51. The navigation of the canal was 39 miles long. There was celebration of a long awaited opening of the canal.

            During the time the canal was open there were many repairs and improvements needed. One reason for repairs was flooding, such as in 1833, 1839, and in 1857. In 1839, the chute was extended for a new length of 450 feet and a width of 46 feet. There was also the need for lock improvements numerous times.

            In 1841, there was a petition to construct a new channel. Joseph D. Allen surveyed the ground. A new route was completed and used for the first time in 1842.

            In 1842, A new act (chapter 114), known as the “Stop law”, prohibited all work on the canal, other than the work essential to retail of the canal in navigable State. This law was in effect until another act was passed (Chapter 325).

An act of 1848, allowed work to be done and completed a year later, making the Chemung Canal an artificial waterway throughout its length. This decreased the maintenance difficulty and expense.

In 1858 the Chemung canal connected with the entire system of canals in Pennsylvania, by the Junction canal being completed. This allowed people to reach the deposits of coal in that state.

In 1867, there was a need for better protection for shipping at Watkins, because boats were being sunk and cargo was lost. In 1868, an act was passed (chapter 718), appointing $30,000 for a new pier.

The small size of the Chemung canal and the deteriorating condition led to a gradual abandonment for coal trade in Watkins. Railroads took the place of the canal, such as the Fall Brook railway.  The canal was also threatened by the Corning and Geneva railroad.

In 1876, Legislation made an act (chapter 382) which appointed commissioners to make an investigation of canals and make a recommendation. The report stated that the Chemung canal was in bad condition and it would require large amounts to be spent to make them safe and useful again.

The Chemung Canal was opened part of the season in 1877 to allow lumber to be shipped. In 1877, Legislation enacted a law (chapter 404), providing abandonment of the canal, but not until the end of navigation in 1878.

In 1881, all material in locks, bridges, and aqueducts were sold. Portions of canal were divided to villages and companies.

            In 1881, Legislation enacted a law for $20,000 for construction of a new basin at Montour Falls and for reopening this portion of the old Chemung canal for business people. The waterway opened for navigation.

Through planning and support the Chemung Canal was opened. It had a long history of improvements and repairs as it served as an important form of transportation. New ways of transportation and bad conditions, forced the canal to be abandoned. The canal’s history will be remembered by all of the people that strongly supported the canal.

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