One of the challenges that faced early Erie Canal engineers was how to traverse the Irondequoit Valley near Rochester. Taking the canal across the valley without adding one hundred and fifty 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 that could carry the canal at least partway over the valley it would have to span. 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 so bold a plan, but finally realized that they had few real options and authorized work to proceed as Geddes had proposed. The Irondequoit Embankment, built entirely during the season of 1822, consisted of three natural ridges joined together by two man-made ridges, one 1,320 feet long and the other 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 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 ironed out the serpentine path, but was still far from the shortest route across the depression.

In the early 1820s, before the Erie Canal was completed, Hartwell’s Basin was the western terminus of the canal. After the full canal opened, William Bushnell operated a fleet of canal boats from the area, and the name was eventually changed to Bushnell’s Basin. In its heyday, the port at Bushnell’s Basin was a major shipper of agricultural products and a stop for the Rochester and Eastern Trolley line on its route between Rochester and Canandaigua. Richardson’s Canal Inn (now an exclusive restaurant) started life as a hotel on the canal and trolley line.

During the 20th century, canal engineers designed the third iteration of the Erie Canal with a seventy-foot high embankment that was built up directly through the valley, on top of the creek, for a distance of one mile. This section of the canal became known as the Great Embankment. At the bottom of the valley, Irondequoit Creek still flows under the canal to this day. The Great Embankment successfully reduced both distance and travel time for barges and freight boats that traversed the Erie Barge Canal.

Barge Canal engineers used giant steam shovels from 1905-1910 to create this 70-foot high giant causeway across the valley. Once the Great Embankment was finished, the builders removed enough dirt from the top of the embankment to create a trench along its top that would hold 12 feet of water. This mile long trench was lined with three separate layers of concrete with crushed stones in between, forming a watertight seal. Also, a special underground tunnel was created to serve as an inspection walkway that allowed the walls of the embankment to be monitored for signs of leakage. These walkways are accessed by special stairways and manholes leading from the surface level.

The canal engineers realized that a 70-foot tall manmade berm would certainly be a weak link in Erie Canal maintenance. At each end of the mile long trough they placed steel guard gates. If there was a canal breach in this section, the large gates would be lowered to minimize water loss to the canal.

The Great Embankment did suffer at least two disastrous breaches that caused a great deal of property loss. During the construction process in 1912, the first break in the walls occurred. This required a massive reconstruction of the Great Embankment and subsequent clean up. Another serious flood occurred in 1974 when the floor of the canal burst through the concrete trough and into a sewer tunnel that was being dug under the canal. Water flooded into Bushnell’s Basin and devastated many homes before the guard gates could be closed.

Doug Farley is director of the Erie Canal Discovery Center. Contact him at 434-7433. The Discovery Center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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