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King's Bend Park beginnings and early Erie Canal


From the beginning of the republic, George Washington pushed for a waterway linking the Hudson River with the Great Lakes. Why? Because of a commercial dream. Such a passage would mean free flowing goods between East and West. The West could be developed and settlers could travel cheaper and faster on a waterway and Canada would not be a destination as it could be if the route were to be the St. Lawrence River. But there was an apparently impenetrable barrier between New York and the Great Lakes: uncharted wilderness of the Appalachian chain and the Niagara escarpment.

Critics, Thomas Jefferson, among the loudest, called the whole idea ludicrous, impossible, downright insane! Where would the money come from? Who was capable of engineering such a project? President Washington couldn't even get a Potomac Canal, which was only a few miles long, and the talk of a waterway 350 miles long was "little short of madness"!

New Yorkers were determined but realized there would be no money coming from the federal government. New York was forced to go it alone. $600 was appropriated from the NY Legislature and Judge James Geddes of Onondaga County determined a route from Albany to Lake Erie. (It eventually cost a total of 6 million dollars - all paid for by New Yorkers). He argued that Lake Erie would bind the Northeast to the Midwest instead of Lake Ontario to Canada. The 2nd War with England, that of 1812, cemented that position. After that war, the former New York mayor, DeWitt Clinton and a group of citizens formed a Canal Commission listing the benefits of building the proposed canal. Clinton was elected Governor in 1817 and he spearheaded the building of the canal within ten years, despite the ridicule of his critics who ridiculed it by calling it "Clinton's Folly".

There were no engineers only surveyors by the name of James Geddes and Benjamin Wright who were named chief engineers. A young man by the name of Canvass White showed great promise and was sent to Europe to research canals there. He walked over 2,000 miles along canals in Great Britain and returned home with much information and instruments.

Aware that the eyes of the nation and foreign investors were on them, the canal builders decided to begin at Rome, New York where the going was easier. Construction began on July 4, 1817. Between 2,000 and 3,000 men were at work on the project and in five months, the 15-mile stretch between Rome and Utica was completed. Tremendous obstacles were met along the way. How would the problem of the elevation be addressed? It was decided that locks that could lift a boat to the next level would be constructed. But were they to be made of wood or stone or earth? Would proper cement have to be imported from Europe? Luckily Canvass White discovered a deposit off the proper stone from which hydraulic cement could be made in Chittenango and later in Pittsford.

The canal project turned into a "seat of the pants" operation. One invention after another appeared as obstacles arose. A stump-puller and a tree cutter were developed as well as a plow and scraper and a dumping wheelbarrow. All of which had never been needed before and therefore not yet invented.

Labor was a problem. At first, Gov. Clinton wanted to hire only local farmers and workers. The problem was that the farmers had to leave canal work to tend to their own farms. One of great boons to the labor force was that by the early 1800's, nearly 10,000 Irish were arriving annually in NYC and when they heard about the workers needed for the canal they flocked to upstate New York.

The obstacles they faced were almost too much. Poisonous snakes and Native American warnings about the haunted Montezuma Swamp almost stopped the workers, but they pressed on. In 1819 mosquitoes attacked the men so that their faces and hands were swollen beyond recognition and they could not hold their tools. That summer, over 1,000 men died of Genesee Fever, the name they gave to malaria.

Amazingly, the work continued. Two large natural obstructions faced the men. One was crossing the Irondequoit Creek near Bushnell's Basin and the other was the mighty Niagara Escarpment near Lockport where a series of five locks had to be built to raise and lower the boats to the level of Lake Erie. This was accomplished by using blasting powder and saltpeter and was very dangerous work

We know that the crossing of Great Embankment was suggested by Sylvanus Lathrop to be constructed of wood. That never happened and the whole crossing of Irondequoit Creek was built of earth - load after load of earth brought by farmers in wheelbarrows or buckets or whatever other conveyance they could find. Finally the Erie Canal was opened through Pittsford in 1822. It was 40' wide at the top, 26' wide at the bottom and it was only 4' deep. Almost as soon as it was finished, it was outgrown and needed to be enlarged. That happened in subsequent years of 1850's and 1916 -18.

The original circuitous route took a turn near where Jefferson Road is now located. It occurred on the property of John King and was known to canalers as King's Bend. A watercolor picture painted by George Harvey allegedly depicting a packet boat at King's Bend, is owned by the NYS Historical Society of which there is a copy outside of the Historian's office in the lower level of Town Hall. There is now a similar one but painted in oils now owned by the Memorial Art Gallery. When a name was being considered for the new park created by the Town of Pittsford, it seemed inevitable that it should be named "KING'S BEND PARK".