by Susan Zehnder, Education Director
This summer, groups of local students visited the Chemung Valley History Museum. They looked for museum artifacts and documents on a scavenger hunt; heard the true story of the building’s exploding vault (see The Exploding Vault published January 11, 2016); and toured our new exhibit Getting Around: Transportation in Chemung County. They also challenged their engineering skills by designing, building, and testing simple canal boats.
Sometimes an unexpected question or answer gives us to pause and think about history from a different perspective. One of those moments came as we talked about canal boats. When students heard Chemung Canal, many thought we were talking about the bank. But I’ll bet you back in the 1800s, every kid in the area knew about the Chemung Canal.
|Drawing of Elmira including canal and boats
Brief history of the Canal
Inspired by the robust success of the Erie Canal to the north, plans were made to build a canal between Elmira and Watkins Glen. This would connect Elmira’s Chemung River to the Erie Canal, and tap into the growing wealth and prosperity the canal was beginning to bring to western New York. Supporters of the Chemung Canal petitioned the state legislature who granted them the go-ahead in 1829. Construction on the canal began July 4, 1830. A fairly modest sum of $300,000 was allocated for the project, which in today’s money would be close to 9 million dollars. The proposed canal would be the least expensive canal to date.
It took three years for construction crews to dig the 20-mile canal. Like other canals, it was shaped like the letter ‘u’ and only four feet deep. It reached twenty-six feet across at the base or bottom of the canal and spanned forty-two feet across at the surface. Canals didn’t need to be deep, because traffic on them consisted of canal barges or flat-bottomed boats. Canals were also fairly narrow because tethered humans, horses or working mules pulled them on towpaths along shore. Initial cargo consisted of lumber and agricultural products from the area until increasing demand for Pennsylvania coal dictated the canal be deepened to accommodate larger boats. To do this, workman simply raised the side banks another two feet. Navigating the Chemung Canal took boats two and a half days. They had to travel through the forty-nine locks situated from Elmira to Watkins Glen.
|Chemung canal pathway on right side of map
When active, the canal brought prosperity to the area. However, yearly rains damaged the canal, and by 1878 it fell into disrepair. While the canal had been one of the least expensive to build, it had become one of the most costly to maintain. By this time railroads were shipping goods and moving things faster and farther. The Chemung Canal was abandoned and parts of its rights-of-way sold off.
|Barge boats at dock along Chemung Canal
Today, parts of the Catharine Valley Trail follow some of the original Chemung Canal towpaths, and the Clemens Center Parkway navigates another part of the canal’s pathway. Unlike the better known Erie Canal to the north, little physical evidence is left of the 20-mile long canal that started in Elmira.
This summer and fall various Erie Canal events are taking place. The Erie Canal challenge https://eriecanalway.org/explore/challenge is promoting biking, hiking and walking along the pathway at distances of 15, 90, 180, and 360 miles. Although they don’t mention the Chemung Canal, their website does include where to rent kayaks and places to explore near Watkins Glen and Montour Falls. At both places you can see short parts of the Chemung Canal still visible. Mostly the Chemung Canal is a memory.
This map of the Catharine Valley Trail and link share more Chemung Canal hiking and biking opportunities in the area to explore yourself.
The Chemung Canal Bank Company started operations in 1833, the same year the nearby canal opened. The very first bank statement issued ten days after opening showed the bank had assets of $318,525 and deposits of over $10,000. A year later, the bank moved into its first permanent home, on East Water Street, now the site of the Chemung Valley History Museum. One of the bank’s founders, an entrepreneur and financier by the name of John Arnot, had emigrated from Scotland and settled in Elmira. He took over as bank president in 1852, and the bank changed its name to the Chemung Canal Trust Company in 1903.
|Former Chemung Canal Bank, now home of The Chemung Valley History Museum
It’s easy to assume everyone knows these things, but for people new to the area-which if we think about it includes young students, history needs to be shared. Keeping that memory fresh is what we do here at the Museum.