A Brief Look at the Genesee River in Rochester

The early Genesee River flooded frequently, typically in the spring. The worst flood occurred in March of 1865. The east bank being higher than the west, flooding occurred at the west side of the river, particularly near the Main Street bridge.

Image of the Main Street bridge.

This view is looking east to west, across the 1857 Main Street bridge, toward Buffalo Street which is covered with water. The dome is the second Monroe County Courthouse (1851-1894). To the right are the buildings which lined the north side of the Main Street bridge. The south side of the bridge wasn't lined with buildings until the late 1870's.

Image of the canal boat in aqueduct.

The above picture shows a canal boat sitting in the aqueduct during the 1865 flood. The buildings with the awnings in the right rear are on the north side of the Main Street bridge. Remember that today Broad Street has been build on top of the aqueduct.

How could flooding be prevented? One way was to build walls along the river banks but a more effective way was to dig the river bed deeper. This was done between 1914 and 1919.

Image of the blasting of the lip of the falls.

Albert R. Stone Negative Collection, RMSC

How much was the river bed lowered? This is a picture of blasting the lip of the falls. The 1838 book, Sketches of Rochester, gives the height of the falls as 96 feet. Today the falls is listed as 80 feet, so 16 feet is a ballpark figure for the lowering. Engineering reports from the time will give an accurate figure.

Image of work near Andrew Street bridge.

Albert R. Stone Negative Collection, RMSC

Work was carried out by isolating parts of the river. The Andrews Street bridge is in the right rear. At lower water levels the remains off these walls can be seen in the middle of the river. Judging from the size of the workers, 16 feet seems to be a reasonable estimate of the lowering.

Image of the railroad trestle to remove rubble.

Albert R. Stone Negative Collection, RMSC

A trestle was built to remove rubble from the river channel. This picture is the area between the Rundel Memorial Library Building and the Blue Cross Arena.

On the early Genesee River, rapids began in the vicinity of the present day University of Rochester pedestrian bridge across the river. Boats coming from the south unloaded here and materials were moved north over land. A settlement, named Castletown, was on the west side of the river. A question that can be asked is, how did the Genesee River supply water to the Erie Canal when we can see the river flows under the canal at the aqueduct? The answer is that the elevation of the river was higher at Castletown than at the aqueduct and a feeder canal was built along the east side of the river to bring water to the Erie Canal.

Map showing the dam used to ensure water flowed into the feeder canal

A low dam was built to ensure water flow into the feeder.

1875 map showing the Genesee and feeder canal

This 1875 map shows the Genesee River and the feeder canal running along what is now the University of Rochester River Campus, which is in the center and lower left center, with Mt. Hope Cemetery on the right.

Image showing the Lehigh Valley Railroad between river and feeder canal

Rochester Municipal Archives

This picture shows the Genesee River on the left, the feeder canal on the right and the Lehigh Valley Railroad tracks in the center.

Image showing the Lehigh Valley Railroad between river and feeder canal

Here we see the feeder canal at the Clarissa (now Ford Street) Bridge on an 1888 map. Wolcott Street is now Wilson Boulevard. At the corner is the Wolcott Distillery, maker of Corn Hill Whiskey.

Albert R. Stone Negative Collection, RMSC

Image of Wolcott Distillery Image of Wolcott Distillery serving tray with Cornhill Whiskey and picture of an elk Image of Wolcott Distillery serving tray with Cornhill Whiskey and picture of an American Indian Map of river and feeder near intersection of Mt. Hope and South Avenues

The above map shows the Genesee River on the left, the feeder in the left center with Mt. Hope Avenue immediately to its right. The intersection of Mt. Hope and South Avenues is in the top center and just above that the junction of the Erie Canal and the feeder. Note that at this point the feeder runs much closer to Mt. Hope Avenue than the river.

While the Erie Canal was an amazing success, it was seasonal, closed during the winter, and overtaken by other technologies, namely the railroads. Railroads came to Rochester about 1840. By the 1850's, most of the passenger traffic had moved to railroads and by 1900, freight traffic was running 10 to 1 in favor of railroads. Canal infrastructure became outdated and cities had grown up around it, making the canal more a hindrance than a help. In 1903 a state referendum approved building a barge canal which was largely completed by 1918.

In Rochester, the barge canal would pass south of downtown and barges would be brought to the city, north, along the Genesee River to the Erie Canal Harbor, which was located in the area where Corn Hill Landing is today. The terminal was built on the east side of the river.

1935 Plat map showing the Barge Canal Harbor, Canal Terminal, and Lehigh Valley Railroad Freight Station

It can be seen here as a reddish building at the rear left center of the postcard. With railroads on both sides of the river, the area had a very industrial feel. As part of the plan, the Court Street dam was built and the river deepened to provide sufficient depth for the barges. This part of the river is only scenic today because the Court Street dam has covered the rapids.

Picture of NYS Barge Canal terminal and south entrance to new trolley and fright subway system.  Looking south on Genesee river, Rochester, NY

1935 Plat Map

Picture of the Barge Canal terminal

Albert R. Stone Negative Collection, RMSC

Barge Canal Terminal

Picture showing a barge being loaded

Albert R. Stone Negative Collection, RMSC

Loading Barges

With the Erie Canal diverted around the city, local politicians mulled over what to do with the old canal bed. It was decided to run an electrified rail system in the old bed. In the center city the seven foot deep canal bed would be deepened and a concrete cap built on the top. This is what we refer to as our "subway" although it was really just a hole with a lid on it and was only "underground" for a fraction of its length. This mid 1920's decision still haunts us today. Was building this "subway" a good idea?

When the "subway" was shuttered in the early 1950's the Times-Union ran a series of articles about its history. The articles are on a CD available at the Local History Division of the Central Library. The articles should be read to see what people were thinking. Was the thinking "knee jerk", trying to solve immediate problems or longer term planning for the future? Admittedly the future is hard to predict but what is Rochester's track record?

A Times-Union headline from August 7, 1950 tells the story of the canal and subway.

Newspaper article titled: De Witt Clinton's Big Ditch Made Rochester, Almost Bankrupted City a Century Later

Another shows how bad we are at predicting the future, how quickly things change and the tendency to bog ourselves down with big projects instead of staying light on our feet and being responsive to the change we know is coming, as change seems to be the only constant although what that change will be seems elusive.

Newspaper article titled: What the Subway Means to Rochester and Towns in Rapid Transit Zone

Hind sight is 20-20 but it does show that Rochester's population maxed at about 360,000 and Monroe County's at about 750,000.

Table of Census Data 1830 to 2017

The current proposal for the plaza at the north end of the Rundel Building is interesting. When the "subway" was being built it was proposed a combination station and parking garage be placed at that location and the roof, which would be near street level, used as a public plaza. This is a very historic area. It is to be hoped that history will be recognized in the reconstruction.

Newspaper image titled: Use of Old Canal Bed For Trolley Station Suggested By Drawing Made By Architect

The current proposal makes sense because the area is now unstable and needs to be stabilized and upgraded.

The Rochester Auburn Railroad opened to Canandaigua in 1841 and to Auburn a little over a year later. The station was a wooden shed but the railroad became part of the NY Central System in the early 1850's and a new station was eventually built. The station was on the west side of the river, east of Mill Street where the Inner Loop runs today.

Drawing of Central Railroad Depot, Rochester NY

Ballou's Pictorial Drawing Room Companion 1855

A station was built in the early 1880's on the east side of the river near St. Paul Street. In the December 31, 1908 Democrat and Chronicle, William Wilgus, proposed building a train station over the river.

Drawing titled: View of Proposed Station from Main Street.  Street and Row of Building on Each Side of River as Suggested by Mr. Wilgus. Newpaper article titled: Passenger Station Above River.  Plans for a Magnificent New Terminal.

The proposal, which seemed to have some elements of the White City built for the 1893 Columbian Exposition, was greeted enthusiastically. Scrantom Wetmore published and sold postcards.

Picture of postcard: View of Proposed Station and Boulevard from Main Street, Rochester, N. Y.

In the June 2, 1909 Union and Advertiser, Ernest Margrander, proposed putting a new city hall and library over the river between the Main Street bridge and the Aqueduct. The project would be "Without Cost Ultimately to the City". George Eastman was in favor of building over the river to make a Civic Center. When the city proposed building a new city hall on the former site of the Public Market on Front Street or near the corner of Union and University he bought the former Kimball Tobacco Company building and allowed the city to use it as a city hall annex. He apparently wanted to delay the decision.

Panorama picture of Court Street bridge and Aqueduct area

Panorama 1914

The Court Street Bridge is on the left and the Aqueduct in the right. The foreground is currently occupied by the Rundel Memorial Library building. The building in the center rear is the former Kimball Tobacco Company. That site is currently occupied by the Blue Cross Arena.

Newspaper clip: Engineer Has Design for Placiing Library and City Hall South of Main Street.  Embraces the Wilgus Plan for New York Central Station, but with More Elaborate Approaches -- Invites Criticism. Without Cost Ultimately to City.

Eastman was interested in a plan by Harland Bartholomew to build a Civic Center over the River.

Newspaper clip: Bartholomew Plan a Dream or Reality.

In 1911, several city planners, were brought into Rochester and produced a book, City Plan For Rochester. The book can be downloaded from the Monroe County Library web site. One should look it over and again think about its suggestions in light of what we know happened.

In 1965, Henry Gillette, a former mayor and city councilman, suggested building a parking garage over the river.

Newspaper clip: Architect Hits River Parking Plan.

An interesting look into early city planning was written by City Historian Blake McKelvey in 1944. Some of the insights seem relevant today.