Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

Canal Discovery w/ Doug Farley

February 20, 2010

CANAL DISCOVERY: The Irondequoit Embankment

One of the challenges that faced early Erie Canal engineers was how to cross the Irondequoit Valley running between present-day Pittsford and Bushnell’s Basin near Rochester. Taking the canal across the valley without adding one 150 feet of up-and-down lockage was imperative. The only thing that made the task even remotely possible was the presence of several natural ridges, or “eskers”, created by retreating glaciers that could carry the canal at least partway over the 70-foot deep valley it would have to span.

Principal Erie Canal Engineer James Geddes had long advocated linking these ridges together with great earthwork embankments and running the canal across the top. The Canal Commissioners were hesitant to approve such a bold plan, but finally realized that they had few other options and authorized work to proceed as Geddes had proposed. The resulting embankment would allow the Erie Canal to cross the broad Irondequoit Valley without the use of locks and still flow downhill from Lake Erie, maintaining that body of water as the “endless” supply of water that would fill the canal from Buffalo to Montezuma.

The Irondequoit Embankment, built entirely during the season of 1822, consisted of three natural ridges joined together by two man-made ridges, the first was 1,320 feet long and the other was 231 feet. The canal ran along the narrow summit for 4,950 feet, passing 76 feet above Irondequoit Creek, which flowed through a 245-foot-long culvert. Since the valley’s soil was unsuitable for such enormous earthworks, small mountains of earth had to be hauled in from elsewhere. Even so, there was a prevailing lack of confidence that the embankment would hold up. From its completion in October until the close of the 1822 season, the work was drained nightly. In the 1840s for the enlarged Erie Canal, a more direct route tried to straighten out the serpentine path, but was still far from the shortest route across the depression.

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Canal Discovery w/ Doug Farley
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