Just about 30 minutes from Ithaca is a 12-mile long recreation trail that is equal parts history museum and nature exhibit. The Catharine Valley Trail follows the trackbed of the old Chemung Railroad which, in turn, follows the towpath of the historic Chemung Canal (1833-1878) that once connected Watkins Glen to Elmira and Corning.
It might not occur to someone biking and hiking on the Catharine Valley Trail south from Watkins Glen, through Montour Falls, Millport and Pine Valley that this picturesque track was once an important artery of commerce. The Chemung Canal connected Seneca Lake at Watkins Glen to the Chemung River in Elmira. By joining the Erie Canal system with Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River watershed, it opened a portal to trade and business that transformed the local communities on its path into boomtowns. Today, canal boats seem impossibly quaint and slow, but the canal system was the internet of its time. The roads then were rough and unreliable and subject to impassibility due to weather, making shipping and travel hard and expensive. After the Erie Canal opened in 1825, though, the Finger Lakes region was consumed with canal fever. With a canal, a single mule could pull up to 30 tons – as much as a modern tractor trailer. Towns along the canal route seemed to spring out of nowhere. Rochester was the fastest-growing city in America by 1830. And so many communities, including Elmira, Penn Yan and Ithaca, vied for the chance to tap into the new canal system.
The states were on their own back then for big public works projects like canals, so a full-court lobbying effort, mostly by business leaders from Elmira, Watkins Glen and Geneva, was waged in Albany for the money and authorization to build the waterway. Ultimately, permission was given in 1830 to build the Chemung Canal. (This was a source of bitter disappointment to Ithaca, which had hoped to make the Erie Canal-Susquehanna River connection through Cayuga Lake.)
Engineering and building the Chemung Canal was no small feat. While the distance between Elmira and Watkins Glen is not great, the elevation climbs over four hundred feet. The canal and feeder canal had 51 locks, with 44 locks between Horseheads and Montour Falls, a distance of 15 miles. (By comparison, the Erie Canal had 83 locks spread over its 363 mile course.)
The trailway is a state park, maintained by its staff and volunteers. The remains of mills and the old houses and buildings in the communities along the trail invoke the ghosts of 19th-century industrial America. Nature has reclaimed most of the canal and it’s become a haven for wildlife and waterfowl. It is not unusual to see herons fishing or painted turtles sunning themselves. Primeval natural beauty and historic remnants run the length of the trail. The canal was dug by hand, using picks and shovels, over the course of three long years. Difficulties plagued the project. The soil, while easy to dig, was also loose and often gave way, creating landslides. There were rattlesnakes. There was also the unexpected: south of Montour Falls, the canal had been surveyed to run through a Seneca Native American burial ground. The workers moved the graves to a small hill nearby, along the trail, located near where B.C. Cate Elementary School is now.
The canal transformed the area. Businesses flourished and the population exploded. The surrounding territory was almost completely deforested for lumber now that there was a way to transport it. Barges loaded with Pennsylvania coal passed through the canal. Also, since the canal system now connected towns – from Millport to Corning – to New York City, imported goods from all over the world appeared in stores for the first time.Life changed for those along the canal, often in unexpected ways. Canal workers were notorious for fighting, drinking, staging cockfights and various other forms of mayhem. In fact, transient canal workers made their presence felt well out of proportion to their numbers throughout the life of the canal. Pay for canal diggers ranged from $17 to $26 a month, plus whiskey, which was provided throughout the work day. Frequently, they were kept segregated. There was an area called “Ratville” between Millport and Pine Valley where workers’ shacks were concentrated.
Ultimately, the success of the Chemung Canal was short-lived. Though certainly better than the primitive road system of the early 1800s, it couldn’t compete against the coming of the railroad network. The canal was seasonal (April to December), suffered from dry periods and was expensive to maintain. Because of the many locks, travel was slow. A person could certainly walk faster than a boat could move on the Chemung Canal. The decision to use less-durable wooden locks, as opposed to stone locks, also proved to be a costly misjudgment. After a spike of activity during the Civil War, the Chemung Canal experienced a steep decline in business and was finally abandoned in 1878.
In the end, the Chemung Canal never generated enough in tolls to finance its own construction and maintenance but it brought, for a while, an enormous influx of commerce and people to the region. Time and technology passed it by, but the echoes of its activity can still be heard in the old houses and buildings of the canal boom towns on the Catharine Valley Trail.