The Towpath

by Arch Merrill



To the dwindling little band of men
who in a bygone day
"navigated on the Eire Canal"
And to all the friendly people
along the old Towpath who
were so kind to me, this
book is dedicated.


Tugboat Log
Ditch of Destiny
Rock-Ribbed Town
Queen of Orleans
On the Square
Reapers and Romances
Cradle of the Stars
"Young Lion of the West"
  Mother of Monroe
The Fair Port
The Erie's Last Stand
The Grand Dame
Of Rappings and of Roses
"Once Upon a Time"
Bonnie Banks


tugboat     Tugboat Log

WELL, I "navigated" on the Erie Canal—for 14 hours.

But I don't think I was cut out for a canaller. For one thing, it means getting up too early.

The hands of the clock in the canal guard gate house, just west of the Genesee, pointed to 6:30, when I boarded the steam tug, Matton 21, on the raw morning of May 28 in the year of our Lord, 1945, and of the Erie Canal, 120.

To me, 6:30 a.m. is an hour that just does not exist. Ordinarily I get home from my stint at the newspaper office at 3:30 a. m. High noon is my usual hour for arising.

So it was a sleepy-eyed seeker after lore of the Towpath who scrambled awkwardly aboard the gasoline barge that the Matton 21 was pushing through Erie water from Utica to Tonawanda. After being a landlubber for two score years and ten, one does not start even 14 hours "before the mast" with marked agility or grace.

Of course, in following the Towpath from Medina to Clyde—the territory covered in this ramble—the ideal conveyance would have been a sleek packet boat with its hull painted a gleaming white and window blinds a rich green; a packet boat hauled by two horses trotting tandem with a driver astride the rear animal; a packet boat whose approach was heralded by the blast of a bugle and. the strident cry of "Low bridge, everybody down!"

I might as well have wished for Cinderella's coach or Ben Hur's chariot. The hands of the clock can't be turned back a century. This was 1945 and not the packet days of 1845. Besides, the Towpath itself is only a memory now.

So I "hitched" a ride on a steam tug plying the modernized and undramatic Barge Canal, sans the trappings and glamor of Packet-Towpath days.

* * * *

In case you're figuring on going out to the canal bank and hailing the next passing boat for a ride, I warn you it's not that easy. My ride was the result of considerable correspondence. I was armed with the proper credentials from Ralph Matton, secretary-treasurer of the Matton Line of Waterford, when I nearly fell on my face getting aboard the gas barge his tug was pushing.

It was through the good offices of Theodore J. (Ted) Zornow of the Zornow Coal Company of Pittsford that I kept track of the movements of the Matton 21. The tug takes on coal at the Zornow yards. The morning I boarded her she had just received a four-day supply, 24 tons. Zornow told the captain he was to have a Medina-bound passenger, a reporter, at the Rochester west guard gate. The captain waggishly told the crew it would be a woman reporter. That explained the keen disappointment on the faces of the tug crew when they saw their passenger.

The Matton 21, a staunch craft, was built in 1908. She has seen service in New York's busy harbor as well as many years on the more quiet stretches of the canal. I was told it was the only steam tug operating on the Barge Canal this year. The rest are Diesel-powered.

I had visioned a day of lolling on a sunny deck. But I had reckoned without the weather gods that decreed the coldest, wettest spring in a generation. The wind blew violently out of the west; there were intermittent showers of rain and constant showers of cinders from the Matton's stack. So this passenger spent most of his time in the pilot house chatting with the steersmen, with frequent visits to the galley where Tony, the cook, served coffee at all hours.

The tug was bucking a strong, wind-whipped current and beIieve it or not, there can be considerable current on the Ditch you think so placid. We were not able to maintain even the orthodox four miles an hour "speed."

In all the canal books I've read, the boatmen were pictured as rough, profane, brawling characters. I found the crew of the Matton 21 nothing of the kind.

The captain, fortyish Thomas F. Van Allen of Troy, is a gentlemanly, self-possessed, capable mariner who for 24 years was pilot and captain of a boat on the Hudson River Night Line of blessed memory. He has been on the canal the past six years. In his Hudson Line days, he met all kinds of people, politicos, magnates, sportsmen—even newswriters. He particularly remembers an arable Canadian who spent part of one night on the Hudson chatting in his pilot house. That passenger's name was Mackenzie King. Captain Van Allen was, at the wheel when the last night boat made the New York-Albany run.

The mate and co pilot, Napoleon "Poley" Miner of Schuylerville, has been "boatin' it" for nearly half a century. He was virtually raised on the inland waterways, This graying, black-eyed, slender veteran of the canal told many a tale of the long ago, when he relieved the captain at the wheel.

There were two engineers and two firemen, one a fellow Rochesterian, husky Edward Strong of 284 Clinton Ave. S., a veteran of the canal and lakes service. Firing a steam tug is no weakling's job. There were two deck bands, one a mere lad of about 17, and the other, a quiet, brown-eyed older youth, who had been in the bloody siege of Guadalcanal and did not like to talk about it.

And there was Tony, the cook, who once had owned his own restaurant. Cheerfully he ladled out coffee all day. Canal men are inordinate coffee drinkers. They feed well, too. I had two tasty, substantial meals in the little galley. We had STEAK for dinner and there was plenty of butter. Remember this was May 1945.

On the gasoline barge of 400,000 gallons capacity that we were pushing, empty, up the long and lockless level between Rochester and Lockport were two employes of a big oil company. They have their own cabin on the barge. Like the creel of the Matton 21, they, work the six-hour shift that has been traditional for men, horses and mutes on the canal ever since the Ditch was dug.

* * * *

It's a lonely life on Erie water. Not often does the crew touch the green shores that are so near.

The men look forward to occasional night stopovers in towns. That means a break in the monotony of the six-hour trick and the slow, steady haul across the state. It means bowling and movies and maybe a few beers. "But," the captain said, "there are no drunks on this boat." Most of his crew are family men, with a sense of their responsibilities. A longing for home and family possesses them.

The old days, when there was a fight at every lock and canallers were the roughest, toughest tribe in all the land, are gone as irrevocably as are the towpath and the mules those brawlers drove.

There was a brief halt at Spencerport where Tony and one of the deck hands went ashore for grub and the morning newspapers.

They know most of the canal towns from brief stopovers. They can spot each village from afar by the church steeples. The buildings beside the old waterway fascinate them and they speculate on the age of the weather-beaten structures. Some of them were built in De Witt Clinton's day.

And ruins of once busy warehouses leer at the passing boats from a few gone-to-seed towns beside the slow waters.

The animal life on the green shores holds much interest for the boatmen, too. They told about the deer that swam for half a mile ahead of the barge; of the swarm of bees that all but nestled on the pilot house; of the mink, woodchucks and muskrats they see along the banks. The day I rode the tugs, we all exclaimed at the sight of a dozen pheasants, half of them cocks, in a field rear Knowlesville. "Oh for a gun!" cried one of the younger men.

The boaters get to know people who live beside the lazy waters. Down near South Greece, after we had passed through the cheerless chasm that canal folk call "The Rochester Rock Cut," is a trim white house. The captain and "Poley" both told of the boy and girl who live there and who have waved at them for seven years. "We used to toss them magazines and the comics we saved for them."

But the day I traveled the Long Level, there was nobody waving from in front of the white house. "The kids have grown up. The girl's away at school and the boy's working," the captain said. "They were little things when we first knew them."

There were times when the steersmen pulled the whistle cord and not for any bridge or guard gate. It was just a greeting to old friends on land, who have come to watch for the tug.

Steering a canal boat looks easy but it's an art. In the old days it was entirely up to the strong arms of the wheelsman. Now he merely touches the wheel and machinery does the rest. But he has to be ever on the alert. In passing through a guard gate where there is only four feet leeway on either side, a wrong motion might send a barge laden with half a million gallons of gasoline into an abutment.

Approaching a lift bridge calls for three distinct whistle blasts. The signal is a familiar one to dwellers along the canal. The bridge tender answers and slowly the bridge rises. But not so long ago, something went wrong with the electrical apparatus that controlled one of the lift bridges. The bridge just did not go up and the barge was drifting slowly down upon it. A crewman threw a rope over a snubbing post just in time.

That incident was passed off as part of the "day's work."

I found no traffic congestion on the Barge Canal in 1945. All the way from Rochester to Medina the Matton 21 met only two tows, both of them tugs pushing "gas" barges. They were the Annie L. Connors and the John J. Tucker.

By the way, I found out that the down-stream or eastbound boat always has the right of way, an old rule of the Ditch.

* * * *

That Towpath is still discernible at many points, although grass has pretty well covered it. Farmers and utilities use it at places for a highway—of sorts. Bank watchers walk it, looking for breaks or other untoward occurrences. Along the Long Level there are concrete posts every mile. Each contains a time clock that the bank patrolman rings, even as a night watchman making his rounds in an office building. These men, mostly elderly employes who in their time served the state in other capacities, cover a 15-mile stretch daily.

Farmers who live along the canal are continually filing claims against the state for damage done their land by seepage or breaks in the rubble-enforced walls. Sometimes burrowing muskrats cause these breaks. The Court of Claims calendar is always full of these water damage cases. But the old waterway also does many a farmer a good turn. In times of severe drought, many farmers have hauled away canal water to save their thirsty stock and their parched crops.

* * * *

"Poley," handling the wheel with a dexterity born of long practice, pointed to a section of still visible Towpath near Hulberton. "When I was 7 years old I rode one of my dad's mules there," he said.

"My father owned canal boats and I was raised on one, you might say. When I was a little codger, my mother used to tie me with a harness, attached to a strong hook atop the cabin so she could go about her housework, knowing I would not fall into the water.

"Our boat had awnings and flower boxes. It was white with green trimmings. Many families lived on the boats the year around, tieing up in basins for the winter in colonies like trailer camps today.

"I've been a boatin' all my life. I owned my own boat and mules before steam and the big companies took over and the Barge was constructed. I've seen great days on the canal."

"Fights?", and "Poley" grinned widely. "Yeah, I've seen plenty of 'em. Canal men were he-men in hee-haw days."

They are gone now, those rough, picturesque days of the Towpath, the mules and the cursing, hard-drinking "hoggies" that drove them. Gone are the weighlocks, the cross-over bridges, the heel-path, the canal groceries and grog shops at every look, the battles over crossed tow lines and the battles just for the love of battle.

"Poley," Miner is of French-Canadian stock. His wife is dead.. His two younger children live with his aged mother in Schuylerville and go to school there. His oldest boy, in the family tradition, is on a Navy tanker in the Pacific. "Poley" was hoping he'd get home over Memorial Day. "But you never know in this business," he commented.

He figures he'll have to retire soon. How he will miss the feel of the wheel and the six-hour trick and the sound of the water sloshing against the tug. For he's been a boatin'" all his life.

What do tug men do in the winters after the waterway is closed? Well, many work on the tugs in the ice-free Eastern harbors.

It was 8:30 p. m. when the good ship Matton 21 wound through the serpentine curves that carry the canal through Medina Town.

The captain maneuvered the barge and tug up to the little used dock back of the rows of gray buildings, built of the enduring Medina sandstone, in the brisk, prosperous town that was born of the Clinton Ditch.

I jumped clumsily from the bow of the barge. Again I nearly fell. The crew waved and called: "Good-bye and good luck." I waved back. The Matton 21 steamed away.

I'11 bet I was the first passenger to land at Medina's canal dock in many a moon.

As I walked up an alley into the main street, I heard three familiar whistle blasts. The tug was signaling for the lift bridge. I could visualize the captain's strong hands pulling at the cord. To me it was farewell to a good ship and a swell crew.

Later on, when I followed the Towpath in other and faster conveyances—all the way from the gorge of the Oak Orchard to the bonnie banks of the Clyde—I kept a lookout for the Matton 21. I saw the Annie L. Connors again at Lyons, and the Tucker at Fairport but never a glimpse of my tug.

But always, in the days to come whenever I hear the hoarse whistles calling from Erie water, I will remember My Day on the canal, my 14 hours on 47 miles of the Long Level, my first day of many along the old Towpath.

Canal boat     Ditch of Destiny

ONCE upon a time many years ago, there lived here in York State men who had a splendid dream.

They visioned a Grand Canal linking the waters of Lake Eric and the Hudson River that flows into the Atlantic.

They sought out Thomas Jefferson and the Sage of Montecello told them: "You are a century too soon."

But the dogged Yorkers did not choose to wait another hundred years. They went ahead and built the Erie Canal.

President Madison told there: "Your scheme would exhaust the resources of the nation."

So New York built her canal alone—without a penny of federal aid. In 10 years it had paid for itself.

Backwoods wiseacres scoffed: "You can't make boats run uphill." They lived to see canal boats floating (uphill) past their doors in a steady stream.

In 1812, Tammany Hall, blind in its hatred of DeWitt Clinton, derided his "Ditch" in vitriolic doggerel that wound up with the line: "Why grin? It will do to bury its mad author in."

Thirteen years later, on Oct. 26, 1825. the windows of Tammany Hall rattled to the booming of cannon. That salute, relayed by guns that lined the Towpath all the way from Buffalo to Sandy Hook, proclaimed that DeWitt Clinton, governor of New York, was riding the Seneca Chief from the lakes to the sea, a "mad author" writing history in opening the longest canal in all the world.

So the Towpath, that had been conceived amid ridicule and disbelief and born of vision, faith and determination, became a pathway of national destiny. New York became the Empire State. Western New York blossomed sturdily out of the swamps and the dark forests.

Thriving towns mushroomed on the banks of "Clinton's Folly." Rochester, an insignificant huddle beside the falls of the Genesee, burgeoned into "The Young Lion of the West," the fastest growing town in America. Medina, Albion, Holley, Newark, and all the "ports," Brockport, Spencerport, Fairport, came into being. Pittsford, Palmyra, Lyons, older villages, quickened to new commercial life when touched by the magic waters of a ditch 42 feet wide and four feet deep.

Now, after 120 years, the Empire State regards with benevolent tolerance the waterway that gave it greatness. The canal is a financial millstone about its neck, an aged pensioner who must he supported all of its days.

Yet in balancing up the account, the ledger shows that the state and Western New York owe the old Ditch a debt they can never repay.

* * * *

When the 19th Century dawned, the canal bee was buzzing in many an American head.

The idea was not new. The Suez Canal was navigated by small craft as early as 600 B. C. The Romans built canals in Britain during their occupation of that isle. China dug her Imperial Waterway in 1289. The Italian De Vincis are credited with originating lockage in 1481. Europe saw a flurry of canal building in the 18th Century.

In 1792 the first canal was constructed in the United States, at South Hadley, Mass. That same year the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company was formed and soon had completed a three-mile, five-lock Little Falls Canal and another linking the Mohawk and Wood Creek.

But these were puny things compared with the great ditch of the Yorkers' dreams.

Many saw the vision. One was Cadwallader Colden, surveyor-general of the Province of New York, who as early at 1724 recorded the vague hope that Western New York, then a wilderness, might be penetrated by boat, independent of Lake Ontario.

Another was Gouverneur Norris, influential but impractical, who ventured the prediction that "at no distant day the great western seas wilt, by the aid of man, break through the barriers and mingle with the Hudson." But he believed natural gravity was the answer and did not realize the necessity of lockage.

In 1805 Jesse Hawley, who had been buying wheat in the Genesee Valley and conveying it by circuitous and uncertain routes to the Albany market, sat in the office of Colonel Mynderse at Seneca Falls and asked: "Why can't we have a canal?"

Mynderse retorted: "But where is your head of water?" Hawley strode to a map on the wall, traced with his finger Niagara Falls and Lake Erie and exclaimed: "There's your supply; there's your head of water."

The idea obsessed him and two years later, from his cell in the old Canandaigua jail where he was imprisoned for debt, Hawley wrote the 13 essays, which, under the name of Hercules, appeared in the Pittsburgh Commonwealth and the Genesee Messenger and fanned public sentiment for a waterway across the state.

There were formidable barriers to such a scheme. The Appalachian mountain chain stood athwart the path. Through the continental divide lay four natural passes, each an old Indian trail. The most northerly paralleled Lake Ontario and this was the route Hawley espoused. Lake Ontario was the more direct way but the young republic was then at sword's points with Britain, which ruled the lake's northern waters.

After the Revolution, land companies bought vast tracts in what is now Western New York. Pioneers, mainly of English ancestry, began making little clearings in the woods, rearing cabins, planting crops and founding scattered settlements.

But generally between the Hudson and Lake Erie stretched a forbidding tangle of swamp and forest. The only consequential towns west of the Mohawk were Batavia and Canandaigua, seats of the land companies. Roads were mere woods trails. The region was retarded by lack of transportation for marketing its products. Commerce generally followed the existing waterways southward to the port of Philadelphia. That was a long and expensive outlet to the sea.

Despite these difficulties, more and more covered wagons were rolling toward the setting sun, bound, not only for Western New York but also for Ohio and Michigan.

At the hour when from debtor's prison, Jess Hawley was sounding his call for a canal, the stage was set for the frontier to fulfil its destiny.

* * * *

Hawley's call did not go unheard. In 1808 the first legislation was introduced at Albany for a survey of canal possibilities. A paltry sum was appropriated—but the seeds were sown.

Able James Geddes of Onondaga made the survey. He saw that Morris' idea of making the canal on one uniform level was impossible. The waterway must be adapted to the rise and fall of the land in a series of level stretches, each closed by a lock to allow vessels to be shifted from one level to another. Soon the red stakes of James Geddes were dotting the countryside. Other routes were proposed but the one Geddes chose in 1809 was almost the identical one the canal eventually pursued.

About that time, the greatest actor in the drama of the waterways came upon the stage. He became the canal's chief advocate. He mobilized and led its supporters through stormy years. His political fortunes were forever after associated with the fortunes of the Ditch. He was a six footer, a brilliant intellectual of aristocratic lineage. Sometimes he was brusque. He had little patience with sluggish minds. His foes termed him haughty. But he was a leader and he was a fighter.

His name was DeWitt Clinton, variously state senator, mayor of New York, United States senator, governor, and candidate for President.

ClintonClinton fought down intrigue and calumny. He tasted temporary defeat. His enemies retired him to private life. They even kicked him off the board of canal commissioners. But Clinton used the canal issue as a springboard on which to bound hack to political power. He fought, night and day, with voice and pen, for his Grand Canal. And when in 1825, after the Ditch was dug, he poured a keg of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic, it was DeWitt Clinton's greatest hour.

* * * *

On July 4, 1817, the first spadeful of earth for the Canal was turned at Rome.

The 362-mile waterway was dug, in three sections and under the contract system, in eight years at a cost of over seven million dollars. The Genesee was crossed at Rochester by an aqueduct that was the engineering marvel of the time. Across the valley of the Irondequoit was built a great embankment 70 feet high.

The strong arms and strong backs of thousands of sweating men built that Ditch across the state. Some Yankees and Yorkers wielded picks and shovels and trundled wheelbarrows. Some Southern Negroes wrought in the narrow prism.

But it was largely the Irish who dug the canal. They were fresh from the peat bogs, those men who sang strange Gaelic tunes as they doffed their breeches to plunge into Montezuma mire. They dwelt in fever-infested shacks, at the mercy of despotic bosses. They made only 50 to 75 cents a day. Disease, accidents and drunken brawls took their toll and the missionary priests in their rich brogue sang the Mass over many a fresh grave in the new land. Still the Irish dug on and inched the great Ditch westward until it tapped Erie water.

There were no steam shovels, no concrete mixers. Courage and back-breaking toil built the canal. But Yankee ingenuity played its role. When quicklime failed to slack properly, Canvass White of Utica developed a waterproof lime.

Because the cost of blasting powder was too high, a machine, manned by seven laborers and a team of horses or oxen, was devised to yank out 30 to 40 large stumps a day, a tremendous saving in manpower and time. Tall trees were brought down by means of a cable attached to their tops and wound by a wheel, attached to an endless screw. Horse scoops were brought into use. A plow with an additional sharp blade was perfected to cut through the smaller roots.

When the Erie Canal was done and a mighty column of traffic began to parade its shallow, narrow waters, it was truly said:

"They have built the longest canal in the world in the least time, with the least experience, for the least money and for the greatest public benefit."

* * * *

I think the building of the Canal was the most significant single event in the early history of the state and of this region. It also had far-reaching national import.

It forged an economic bond between the East and West that insured a Union victory when the Civil War came.

It built great cities, peopled great states, loosed a flood tide of immigration westward. It gave a rich frontier an outlet to the sea.

It made New York State an economic unit. It made New York City the commercial capital of the New World and ended the supremacy of Philadelphia.

It brought prosperity to the stunted backwoods of Western New York. It boosted the value of land. It cut the cost of freight from Rochester to Albany from $100 a ton to $10. Thirty-cent wheat in the Genesee Valley became dollar wheat. It reduced the time of travel between Buffalo and New York from six weeks to ten days.

And beyond question, the Canal made the cities of Rochester, Buffalo and Syracuse, as well as most of the smaller towns on its banks.

* * * *

It made some fortunes too. Canal contracts formed the basis for a few. Boat building became big business. Every little town had its shipyard and all the basins swarmed with the vessels. Soon the Mules and horses were bending their necks to the towlines of 1,000 canal boats. The horn of the boatmen kept the locktenders on the jump day and night. The weighlocks, those immense scales at the busiest ports, groaned under their burdens.

It was an era splashed with color. Thousands of men and boys took to the canal. They had to be tough—to stay on the Ditch. They drank, they swore, they fought—but they kept the canal boats churning Erie water and always "their hearts were young and gay."

At the outset the canal was not only a busy highway of trade. It also was a swank avenue of travel. The sleek, gaily painted packet boats, their horses a jingle with ivory rings and metal trimmings, gave the Ditch dash and color. The elite loitered on the decks of the packets in sunny weather and gave the Ditch tone. The arrival and departure of the passenger boats, which often were bitter rivals, were major events in canal towns of a century ago.

Elegant hotels rose beside the canal in the larger places, largely because sleeping accommodations were limited—and uncomfortable—on the packets.

Philip Hone of New York, the Lucius Beebe of his day, wrote in his diary in 1847:

"Canal traveling is pleasant enough in daytime but the sleeping is awful. The sleepers are packed on narrow shelves fastened to the side of the boat like dead pigs in a Cincinnati pork warehouse."

Those same packet boats in their time were crowded with men and women speaking many tongues, immigrants—German, Dutch, Scandinavian—seeking a new opportunity in a New World. Some of them stopped off in Western New York but the great majority went on to people the Midwest and contribute mightily to the progress of the nation.

The advent of the paralleling railroads in the 1840's and '50's sounded the knell of the passenger packets. The freighters survived the competition until the coming of the motor truck and the American mania for speed.

In the 1890's, almost every kind of craft, save lake schooners, plied the placid waters. Some were propelled by steam but most of them were mule-powered. Grain boats, heavily laden, eastward bound—empty ones scurrying back West for another cargo—tugs with the family wash flapping on the line—long, unwieldy timber rafts, the bane of the lock-keepers—freight steamers puffing along at ten miles an hour, taking on and discharging merchandise at every town—a few trim steam yachts and pleasure craft of less distinction tied up along the boat houses on the heelpath. … Clinton's Ditch was vibrantly alive 50 years ago.

Even as late as 1903, when the Barge Canal was born, there were 4,000 boats on the Canal, the majority owned by independents and most of theme dependent on long-eared power. The ever-growing use of steam, the trend toward big corporations and the eventual demise of the Towpath changed all that.

The Barge Canal expansion was not the first "streamlining" for the waterway. Seven years after the Seneca Chief's maiden journey, the Ditch had to be enlarged. For thirty years the work went on. It was widened to 70 feet and deepened to seven feet. The locks were enlarged and in some places the curves of the course were eliminated. After 1862 the canal could carry 270-ton boats, instead of those weighing only 30 tons. This improvement cost the state a matter of thirty-one millions.

But let it he remembered, to the everlasting credit of the old canal, that when tolls were abolished in 1882, "Clinton's Folly" had earned forty-two million dollars over and above the original cost, expense of enlargement, maintenance and operation!

* * * *

For nearly 30 years now, the Erie has been part of the state's Barge Canal system. Officially its still the Erie but everybody speaks of the present ditch as the Barge.

The big improvement was authorized in 1903 over the vigorous opposition of the railroads. It cost the taxpayers 176 millions to build it, to say nothing of the heavy burden since of maintaining a toll-free waterway. It was widened to 125 feet (94 feet in cuts) and deepened to at least 12 feet in all places.

The Barge Canal was pronounced completed in 1919. Where the old ditch followed an artificial channel built by means of excavations and embankments, the modern one utilizes streams and lakes wherever feasible.

Generally it follows the route blazed so many years ago by Surveyor Geddes' red stakes. I saw at several points besides the present canal, clear traces of the two older routes—the Clinton ditch of 1825 and the enlarged Erie of 1832-1862. At Macedon water still flows in the second ditch. Still standing in a few places in this region are remains of locks built 120 years ago.

The most pronounced change in route hereabouts was in Rochester where the new waterway swings south of the city, crossing the river at Genesee Valley Park instead of by the old aqueduct downtown. Subway trains whizz by at breathtaking speed where crept the mule and horse-drawn barges of yesteryear.

* * * *

You can't turn back the clock—save in your memories

Not long ago I followed the old path, chopped by the imprints of countless hooves, through the towns that were mothered by Clinton's Ditch, from Medina in the orchard country to Clyde in the land of the drumlins.

Whenever I spoke of the old canal, its mules, its "hoggies," its weighlocks, its heelpath, tired eyes sparkled and voices softened by nostalgic memories, would murmur:

"I can see them now, as if it were only yesterday."

That yesterday was a pleasant one on the banks of the Erie.

Many a man, no longer young, would say: "Why, I learned to swim in the Canal"

They hold in fond remembrance long gone summers when the old ditch was their swimming hole and fishing ground; winters when it was their skating rink.

There are memories, too, of excursions and picnic parties on the quiet waters.

So on the ledger, along with all the figures and dollar signs, there is jotted down a sentimental entry to the credit of the Grand Canal.

mules      Rock-Ribbed Town

My "Canal Zone" began at Medina.

Before I left Rochester by tugboat for that Orleans County port, western terminus of my Towpath trek, I was told that:

"You will find Medina a mighty busy, substantial, friendly town. But you won't find anything unusual there."

Evidently my informant was no follower of the Robert L. Ripley "Believe It or Not" newspaper feature. Twice in recent years has the name of Medina, N. Y. appeared in that amazing compilation of the unusual, gathered from all corners of the earth.

Once the Ripley caption read: "A road runs under the Erie Canal at Medina, N. Y."

The other time it was: "A church stands in the middle of a street at Medina, N. Y."

Culvert Road is the name of the highway that pierces the high embankment east of the village. At that point Erie water courses over a concrete bottom.

"The church in the middle of a street" is St. John's Episcopal and the street is Church Street. The 118-year old edifice stands squarely in that thoroughfare just before Church Street joins East Center Street. There the street splits, with either fork bypassing the historic brown stone church.

I found also at Medina the most picturesque scenery encountered on my Towpath ramble. Of necessity a. canal generally follows level country. And flat lands are seldom picturesque.

But in the very heart of Medina, the frothing waters of the Oak Orchard Creek tumble over a 15-foot fall, set in a rugged chasm that is a miniature Genesee Gorge.

Man has enhanced the impressiveness of the scene with a massive aqueduct and high retaining walls to carry the winding canal across the ravine. Man also has harnessed the waters of the Oak Orchard for electric power and made a little lake called Glenwood, north of the village, before the stream joins the far mightier lake called Ontario.

I did find Medina, just as described in advance, "mighty busy, substantial and friendly."

But commonplace? Hardly.

* * * *

MedinaMedina's history is unusual—in that it goes back some 40 million years, quite a spell in any reckoning.

In that distant day, in what the geologists call the Silurian period, the waters of the great ocean covered all this region. The ancient sea was shallow along what is now Lake Ontario. Little by little, streams deposited sand grains in the watery depths. Those grains merged and solidified through the centuries until, when at last the salt waters receded, they remained, deep down in the bed of the erstwhile sea, in the form of the enduring rock that geologists and builders the world over know as the Medina sandstone.

Erosion gradually cut away the tons of rock that overhung the sandstone until the Medina strata lay just beneath the surface, waiting only the probing hands of the men who dug the Erie Canal.

Dr. J. Edward Hoffmeister, eminent University of Rochester geologist, explained that the Medina underlies this whole area. At Letchworth Park it is down 3,000 feet. It tinges with red the walls of Rochester's river gorge. It extends from Buffalo eastward across the state to beyond Syracuse. It ranges in color from light gray to reddish brown, with variegated hues as well.

Because in Orleans County, the ancient sea was shallow, the sandstone was nearest the surface there and most easily brought out. That is why an almost continuous line of quarries sprang up along the Clinton Ditch from Medina to Holley, to maintain for 80 years an industry that made the name of Medina famous in many lands.

* * * *

The first settlers came to the Medina region so long ago their identity is difficult to trace.

Archeologists for years have been fascinated by the remains of an ancient fortification, enclosing a three-acre circular tract and bordered by a moat or trench, some three miles south of Medina.

From the many relics uncovered there, Dr. Arthur C. Parker, director of the Rochester Museum and a foremost authority on Indian lore, believes "Fort Shelby" was built by "pre-Confederation Iroquois" who dwelt there before Hiawatha welded the Big Five into a League of Nations.

Dr. Parker also points out that while the Red Men may have built the embankment to repel human enemies, it is also probable the fort was to protect the settlement against the bears, wolves, panthers and wildcats that roamed the wilderness.

* * * *

Visit the Orleans countryside in the blossom scented springtime when the orchards are one vast tent of pink and white or in harvest time when they—and the rich black mucklands—yield their stupendous bounty and your find it hard to believe that this fertile plain was once the most forbidding and desolate of landscapes.

But nowhere were the woods thicker, the swamps more deadly with fever germs, the frontier more isolated, the roads rougher. Yet land-hungry settlers, mostly of the English stock, pressed on into that wilderness.

They bought tracts, with little down payment, from a Dutch syndicate, the Holland Land Company, which had acquired 3,600,000 acres in the western end of the state. That vast holding, was called the Holland Purchase, with Batavia as its capital.

Shelby Center to the southward was founded in 1803 and salt works were established at the brine springs near the present Medina soon after, but there was no Medina—until the Grand Canal came.

The first buildings were those hastily thrown up along the red stakes of Geddes' surveyors, to house the canal diggers. In 1823 Ebenezer Mix, pioneer surveyor and shrewd business man, laid out the village which was named Medina, probably after the sacred city where rest the bones of Mohammed, the Prophet.

There's another tale, undoubtedly apocryphal, about the town's name. It concerns a boarder at the pioneer tavern of Uri Moore, who had a servant named Dinah. This man, entirely by mistake, opened the door of Dinah's room one night. She screamed out in fright. The boarder retreated in confusion, calling out "It's me, Dinah." Others in the house heard the remark. "Me, Dinah," became a byword in the little settlement and according to the legend, gave the place its name.

When in 1824 the Ditch was opened from Brockport to Lockport and flat-bottomed passenger and freight boats began to ply the shallow waters, Medina burst into bloom. The houses that had been built to shelter canal diggers were taken over by more permanent settlers. More dwellings, warehouses, stores sprang up, mostly around the docks. Prosperity came to the countryside, emerging from the woods and swamps, for now the farmers had a road to market—the Canal.

The 1830's were boom days in Medina. In 1835 the Eagle Tavern, three stories high and of stone, with a gilded bird atop its belfry, arose beside the Canal. It was the most pretentious hostelry in the region. It had two bar rooms, one, well appointed, on the main floor, catering to the gentry, and a plainer one, in the basement where common folk gulped down the native whisky—at 3 cents a glass. The hotel burned down in 1841.

And it was in the lush 1830's that the quarrying industry was born.

* * * *

That industry, like the village itself, was an offspring of the Canal.

When Artemas Allen snared the contract for building the canal aqueduct across the Oak Orchard gorge, the plan was to haul the stone all the way from Canandaigua. Allen began nosing around the gorge and found right on the spot far better stone for the job than any Canandaigua could offer. The water line that went into the aqueduct was made from stone burned in log heaps and ground with an upright revolving stone.

Word spread of the abundant stone deposits. In 1837, John Ryan, who came to Orleans County on foot from Williamsport, Pa., opened the first quarry in the Medina area.

Soon the canal banks, within the confines of Orleans County, were lined with pits. The first stone cutters were English. Later the Irish went into the quarries. Then the Poles came and much later, the Italians. Medina became a melting pot for many racial stocks and assimilated them all. The Poles and Italians remained after the quarries closed, to form considerable segments of the community.

It was the English quarrymen who built St. John's Church, (at first it was called St. Luke's), out of the native sandstone. In the beginning the foundations were roofed over to provide a place of worship. Little by little the stone cutters built, in their spare time, the stately edifice that stands today, after 118 years, "in the middle of a street."

There's a tall tale that in the early days a prankish wind blew the oblong-shaped stone tower slightly off its base and that while the flock was considering ways of righting it, another wind blew it back securely into its old position.

For many years Attorney Leroy J. Skinner was associated with the quarrying interests in the area. None knows better the history of that industry's rise and fall.

The heyday of the quarries was in the decade that began in 1890. The collapse came around 1912. At the turn of the century there were 50 of them in the county and 2,000 acres of sandstone quarrying lands. At first virtually all the stone was shipped by canal. The great slabs, blasted out by gunpowder, were hoisted by derricks on to flat-bottomed boats, open at the center. After 1853 when the Falls Line of the New York Central was built, considerable stone was transported by rail.

Astute, historically minded Lawyer Skinner looked out the window of his office and in fancy saw again, after some 30 years, the long swing wagons hauling the slabs up Main Street to the freight house.

Those wagons rumble no more; most of the old quarries are full of water in which swim many fish. Nobody can figure out how they got there.

But the staunch Medina rock can be found almost anywhere. It is in Sibley College of Cornell University. It is in Anderson Hall and in Sibley Library on the old University of Rochester Campus. It is in the Federal Building in Rochester's Church Street; in the harbor breakwaters of Buffalo and Cleveland; in the pillars of the Brooklyn, George Washington and Williamsburg bridges; in the steps of the State Capitol at Albany.

Rochester's graceful old St. Patrick's Cathedral, now torn down, was built of the gray Medina. In Rochester's Main Street, down under the more modern paving, are the old Medina blocks. They went, too, into Cleveland's busy Euclid Avenue and into the streets of Havana, Cuba, after the war of '98.

Everywhere in Medina you see the stone that made its name famous. It's in her City Hall and in her State Armory. There's hardly a wooden building in the business district. Even those of brick have sills and copings of the sandstone. There's a house in Bates Road whose entire floor is one solid block of Medina.

Around 1900 Skinner was a leading spirit in a move to consolidate the 50 independent quarries into a cohesive unit. It was not a success. Then a powerful rival, Portland cement, came into the picture. One by one the once busy quarries along the Ditch closed down.

Leroy Skinner told how early religious exhorters used to call the town "a city founded on a rock."

Pioneer blood flows in his veins. His father came to Orleans County in 1830 on a packet, he recalled, adding that, "My father often told of people going westward on the canal in home-made flat-bottomed boats with their families and goods, tugging the boats by hand along from the old towpath. Sometimes the good-natured canallers would allow the prospectors to hitch on behind their boats."

I had a chat with another long-time resident of Medina. His name is Charles D. Hood and the sign on his office door says "insurance." He was for years a newspaper correspondent and was once a publisher. Charley Hood has flowing white hair, an old-fashioned flowing white mustache and an old-fashioned flowing black tie. He also has an old-fashioned courtesy and kindliness to strangers.

He, too, has seen many changes in the village. He remembers boyhood fights with the Irish lads on "Paddy Hill," busy days at the docks when hundreds of barrels of apples were hauled by canal; when there were 10 passenger trains daily on the Falls Road. Now there is one a day each way. He spoke with nostalgia of the interurbans of the Rochester, Lockport & Buffalo Railway. One can gill see the old tracks peeking out from under the paving at downtown corners.

When the Million Dollar Highway wound its way through the fruit belt, the trucks and autos sounded the doom of the interurban cars.

Hood recalled colorful times in Medina in the heyday of the quarries and of the canal, when there were some 35 saloons in the village. Mix quarrymen, canallers and transient fruit pickers, stir well with alcohol on a Saturday night and you have a steaming dish for the constabulary.

I found another Medinian who is steeped in local lore. But I had to seek him out in Rochester, Russell Waldo, a veteran newspaper man, at present is holding a responsible job with the Bausch and Lomb plant although he retains his home in Medina.

He told me about Andrew Downey and his circus. Downey is dead and his circus was absorbed years ago by the Sparks shows, but many an oldtimer will remember when the show boats, built in Medina, and with "Downey Bros. Shows" painted boldly across their sides, sailed the Ditch and pitched their tents in every canal town. That was shortly after the turn of the century. Maybe oldtimers in Clyde "way down east" on the waterway, will remember when Andrew Downey, armed with a tent stake, acquitted himself creditably in the face of a near riot.

You can't travel 20 miles in any direction in these parts without coming across a bridge or a road that the late William "Dude" Gallagher built. He began as a mail carrier and became a contractor of note. Today his name lives in an important trucking company.

Medina beats no drums nor does it concern itself unduly with its past: It is one of the briskest towns I found along the Towpath and the hum of industry fills the air.

It has five iron works, two furniture factories, two large canneries, among its industries, besides being the center of a rich fruit and vegetable region. When the quarries gave up the ghost, Medina did not shrivel and die. It went on making other things. For did not the old exhorters, when speaking of Medina take this text from the book of Matthew.

"And the rain descended and the floods came and the winds blew and beat upon that house; and it fell not, for it was founded on a rock."

* * * *

The rock-ribbed village, according to its 1945 boosters, numbers 6,200 souls. The Federal Census of 1940 puts the figure at 5,871.

Medina has a daily newspaper, the Journal. It has had one for 60 years, probably the smallest town in the state to boast a daily.

East of Medina is Knowlesville, also born of the Clinton Ditch. It was named after its first settler, William Knowles, who cleared land there in 1815. Three years later canal surveyors pitched their tents—and drove their stakes—on Knowles' land. In 1825 settlement began; first, a house or two; then a warehouse; a tavern and Knowlesville emerged as a thriving early canal port. The first boat load of wheat ever shipped from Orleans County came out of the now somnolent port of Knowlesville.

* * * *

I was not the only stranger in Medina that bright but chilly day before Memorial Day.

Bands were playing martial airs and Main Street resounded to the rat-tat-a-tat of machine gunfire. For Medina was host to the "Here's Your Infantry Show," starring 80 young overseas veterans. They set up their bazookas, their machine-guns and their other Jap killers on the principal street. People poured in from Knowlesville, from Albion, from Waterport, from Middleport, from all over the region. That night a share battle on the outskirts drew a great throng.

But amid all the fanfare, Medina characteristically never lost sight of the real objective of the spectacle—the Seventh War Loan.

A War Bond contest was being waged in the village school. If the kids made their quota, they'd get the afternoon off.

That afternoon the streets swarmed with school kids.

And on every Medina lip, the talk was not so much about the warriors and their weapons, although they evoked much admiration, but rather about the way the school children had done themselves and the village proud in accounting for nearly $4,500 in War Bonds.

Verily, Medina, child of the Clinton Ditch, "is a house founded upon a rock."

It is the rock of an exalted community spirit.

To Chapter Listing

To Next chapter

To On-line Books Page

Home To GenWeb of Monroe Co. page.