A Brief History of the Chemung Canal

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The tremendous success of the Erie Canal spawned a desire by many New York communities to build their own local canals that could connect to the Erie. A link with the Erie promised to bring wealth and prosperity to their doorsteps as connections with distant markets would allow goods to be cheaply transported and easily exchanged. A whole new world awaited. With so many communities seeking funding for canals, gaining approval from the state legislature meant overcoming a great deal of competition. Supporters for the Chemung Canal began petitioning the state legislature in 1825 to urge passage of the Chemung Canal, but they did not achieve success until 1829. Construction began on July 4, 1830. The first shovelfuls were turned in Elmira, N.Y. amidst great fanfare. There were many speeches and toasts given. Thirteen former soldiers from the American Revolution were selected to be the first to break ground. The great project had begun! Other canals soon followed, and the Chemung Canal became known as one of the lateral canals.

Work progressed quickly at first, but soon ran into delays as a shortage of workers, poor construction, and flooding all contributed to slowing completion. Many workers were Irish immigrants who labored under bad conditions for low pay. Desperate conditions bred desperate men. People who walked alone along the towpath sometimes found their lives in jeopardy as robberies and murders sometimes occurred. Much of the work was subcontracted. Some subcontractors underbid on the work only to find they could not afford to complete the job or pay their workers at the sum they had contracted for.

The Chemung Canal included many locks, and to save money the decision was made to use wooden locks. The wooden locks became a chronic problem throughout the canal's history. The wood rotted quickly, and the sides bowed and leaked due to the water pressure. On the first trial of the canal it was discovered that boats could not get in or out of some of the locks. The engineers, Holmes Hutchinson and Joseph Dana Allen, had to work out a way to reinforce the locks and make them work properly.

By May, 1833 the canal was ready and some boats traveled through its entire course. Then disaster struck. A heavy rainstorm generated a powerful flood that wreaked havoc on the newly finished canal. It was not until November, 1833 that the repairs were all completed and the Chemung Canal finally opened for business.

The Chemung Canal was four feet deep, 42 feet across at the surface, and 26 feet wide at the base of the prism. The Chemung Canal was mainly a freight canal since it was so short and had so many locks. It took two and a half days for a boat to travel the canal from Elmira to Watkins Glen. People who were traveling found it more expedient to take a stagecoach (and later a train) from Elmira to Watkins Glen, and then catch a steamboat north on Seneca Lake to Geneva and hook up to the Erie Canal rather than travel at a snail's pace on the Chemung Canal. The main freight on the canal was the plentiful local lumber and agricultural products. By the 1850s, Pennsylvania coal had also become a commodity shipped in large amounts on the canal. The increasing demands for coal led to a demand for bigger canal boats capable of hauling larger loads. During the Civil War the canal was deepened to six feet by raising the banks of the canal.

The canal proved to be very costly. Although the Chemung Canal had been one of the cheapest canals to be built in New York State, much more money was spent on repairs and upkeep than the canal ever returned in toll revenue. Frequent flood damage, rotting wooden locks, and silting in of the canal prism led to constant expensive repairs. When a new and faster method of shipping goods became available, the canal's days were numbered.

The Erie Railroad arrived in Elmira in December, 1849. Soon other railroad lines were built to connect to the Erie. Although shipping by canal usually proved cheaper, railroads offered the advantages of speed and year-round service. Canals closed by December every year to await the passage of winter. At first, the presence of a few railroads improved business on the Chemung Canal as the rail lines could deliver goods to be transshipped on the canal, but by the late 1850s the spread of railroads began to lure business away from the canal. The Civil War brought a reprieve for the Chemung Canal as war demands allowed the canal to set records for tonnage shipped. The end of the war and the increase in railroad track mileage spelled doom for the Chemung Canal.

After the Civil War, the Chemung Canal, and the other lateral canals, found the state less interested in bearing the expense of maintaining them. One by one the lateral canals closed down. The Chemung Canal closed its lock gates for good by November, 1878. Although the canal had a short life, it still had a tremendous impact on the region. The canal fostered the development of many businesses and industries in the communities along the canal. The lumber and coal industries thrived thanks to the canal. Many mills located near the canal to send lumber and flour to markets all over New York. Groceries dotted the landscape along the canal to cater to the boatmen and canal laborers. The Chemung Canal made Corning one of the busiest inland ports in New York State. Both Corning and Elmira grew in population thanks to the canal. The canal linked the communities to a thriving market economy, and paved the way for the coming of the railroad.

Some contemporary newspaper articles about the Chemung Canal:

The Geneva Gazette announces passage of the Chemung Canal in 1829
Elmira Gazette reports on the progress of the construction
Murder on the canal, 1831
Elmira Gazette advertisement for boat rides on the partially completed canal
1841 Havana Journal reports a riot by Irish canal workers
Elmira Republican reprints a Havana Journal article about an 1850 riot by Irish canal workers
Lock 1 in Havana gives out in 1867 (Havana Journal)
Havana Journal reports on the terrible 1857 flood
List of canal revenues versus expenses
Havana Journal announces the closing of the canal