The first settlement in the Rochester area on the west side of the Genesee River was King's Landing. The settlers led by Gideon King started their settlement in the spring of 1797. In the summer they built a road, called the river road, from King's Landing to Indian Allen's mills which were just north of the current Blue Cross Arena. A bridge was built across a deep ravine known as the Deep Hollow which was located just south of present day intersection of Lake and Driving Park Avenues. During the War of 1812 it was feared the British would use this road to march to downtown Rochester. The following is from Rochester History, Vol. IV, October, 1942 No. 4, pgs 16-17.
The news of the raid upon Oswego had reached the Genesee before the British arrived. At Rochester and Charlotte preparations were speeded to resist attack. The eighteen pounder was sent to Charlotte, the four-pounder to Deep Hollow - the ravine on the west side of the river above the lower falls, which then made a formidable barrier across the road from the lake. Certain that the enemy would march toward Rochester, the villagers threw up a breastwork on the south side of this ravine and named it Fort Bender, after Hastings R. Bender who had suggested it. They loosened the planks in the rough wooden bridge across the hollow preparatory to destroying it should the enemy approach.
This was the only fort ever built for the defense of Rochester. The population of Rochester was 15 in 1812 and had grown to 331 by December of 1815. What was in downtown Rochester they wanted to protect? The answer is the Main Street Bridge. Built between 1810 and 1812 it was the only bridge between Lake Ontario and Avon, twenty miles to the south. For it's lifetime of twelve years it remained the only bridge within twenty miles.
The east bank of the Genesee in downtown Rochester is higher than the west bank. The bridge surface was planks supported by wooden piers sunk into the bed of the river. The bridge was built level with the east bank with the west end accessed by a ramp from Buffalo Street. The following is a sketch of the bridge. The view is from the east looking west. Rochester's One Hundred Acre Plot was opened to settlement in 1812. The building in the distance is Rochester's first building, the Hamlet Scrantom cabin. Built in the first half of 1812, the cabin was located on the site of the present day Power's Building which has a historical marker on its Main Street side commemorating the event. A flood in November 1817 damaged the west side of the bridge. Extensive repairs were necessary with the bridge being replaced in 1824. The sketch below is from the History of Monroe County, 1877.
The second Main Street Bridge was built by Elijah Johnson. It was completed in December, 1824 and lasted until the Flood of 1835. With this bridge began the Rochester tradition of placing buildings on the bridge. From Rochester History, Vol. III, April, 1941, No. 2.
Two factors contributed to the growth of buildings on Main Street Bridge. One was the increasing scarcity of land in the desirable central locality about the bridge; the other - and the factor which made building possible - was the presence of those same rapids and low falls which had first attracted the seekers of mill sites. Had the Genesee been navigable at this point, the New York State law declaring the river a public highway would have prevented in all likelihood building on the bridge on the ground of impeding navigation. As conditions were, the common law principle that lots abutting on non-navigable rivers and streams extend to the center of the stream was generally interpreted as giving the adjoining property owners the right to build over the river….. The village itself now, in 1827, proceeded to build out from this wall along the bridge and erected one of the first buildings on the bridge in the form of a public market.
The Market Buildings….consist of an open platform, adjoining the bridge, of 20 feet, designed for a vegetable market; next, a raised platform, in a range with and corresponding to the sidewalks of Buffalo and Main Streets, of which the market will serve as a continuation. Next to this is the covered meat market, having in the center a walk of 12 feet wide, between two rows of turned columns, and on either side, the places for stalls, each 10 by 14 feet. The building is 40 by 80 feet, and built on the plan of the new market, in Boston - cost estimated at $3500.
By 1830 practically the whole north side of the bridge was occupied by buildings.
In 1834 a fire destroyed the buildings on the bridge and the bridge itself was badly damaged by a flood in 1835. The bridge had been called the Market Bridge. The following is from an 1832 map by Valentine Gill dedicated to Jonathan Child.
Plans were made for a stone bridge but these were abandoned although two stone piers were built and the east abutment raised to lessen the grade up Main Street hill. The bridge was completed in September, 1838.
Like its predecessors the new bridge was soon occupied along its north side by a row of stores. Most of these stores were devoted to the sale of inexpensive dry goods and ready made clothing, and during the next two decades the bridge was a recognized section of such commodities. The majority of the shops were small concerns, occupying sections of the one or two story wooden buildings. They more nearly resembled stalls than actual stores, having open fronts which were closed by shutters at night. These stalls or shops were constantly changing occupants as the proprietors sold out, dissolved partnerships, or moved to new locations every two or three years.
The south side of the bridge remained open although the rights to the south side of the bridge were being bought up. Twenty years of use had taken its toll on the bridge and in September 1854 the bridge was found to be "dangerous and unsafe' with its north sidewalk liable to give way at any moment.
Disputes over who should pay for the bridge and the materials to be used and the design delayed the construction of the new bridge. The millers wanted a minimum number of arches so not to impede river flow while the owners of building rights wanted a stone bridge with a maximum number of piers as possible to support the stone buildings they planned to build. These delays caused the bridge to be closed for two winters. In February 1857 a break-up of ice in the river further weakened the bridge supports and most of the wooden buildings fell into the river and were swept over the falls.
In spite of continuing arguments the bridge was completed early in the summer of 1857. The keystone of the last arch was put in place on July 29, 1857 and the bridge opened the following Sunday. The erection of buildings on the north side of the bridge began almost immediately but construction on the south side encountered a long delay. This may have been a good thing because on March 15 - 17, 1865 Rochester experienced the greatest flood in its history. Below is a picture of the Main Street Bridge during the flood. Note the buildings on the north side of the bridge on the right side of the photograph and the absence of buildings on the south side. The photo is looking west from the east bank of the river. The water at the west end of the bridge was 6 to 8 feet deep. The buildings on the bridge were damaged but the bridge itself had little damage. Following that is a print of a similar scene.
The bridge was repaired and remains in use today. Eventually buildings were added to the south side of the bridge so it was possible to cross the bridge over the Genesee and not realize there was a river under you. The following is a picture of the south side of the bridge in 1890. The second picture is a view of aqueduct and the south side of the bridge in 1902.
The picture below is a picture taken from the Andrews Street bridge showing the Main Street bridge after a 1940 fire.
The picture below shows the buildings on the north side of the bridge in the early 1960.s. The buildings were removed from the bridge in 1965.
Pictures of the current bridge and the Albert Paley railings follow.
Further information can be found in Historic Main Street Bridge by Dorothy S. Truesdale, Rochester History, Vol. III, April, 1941, No. 2. Most pictures are from the Rochester Images website of the Monroe County Library System or the Local History Division of the Rundel Memorial Library.
The following, an aerial view from 1929, is informative.
The bridge at the bottom of the picture is the Court Street Bridge. Above this is the Broad Street Bridge. The base of this bridge is the Erie Canal Aqueduct. The Barge Canal replaced the Erie Canal and was routed south of Rochester through Genesee Valley Park. The last canal boats came through downtown Rochester in 1919. The canal bed was converted to a subway and Broad Street constructed over it. Broad Street was opened in August of 1924. Note the subway tracks on the east bank of the river. The Rundel Memorial Library was constructed above the subway tracks at the SW corner of Broad Street and South Avenue. The building, not in this 1929 picture, was dedicated in October 1936. Above the Broad Street Bridge is the Main Street Bridge lined with buildings.