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Canal Break!

December 9th, 2014

Looking north through the gap in the north wall of newly completed Barge Canal. A break occurred at Bushnell's Basin on May 19, 1911. [PHOTO: Perinton Municipal Historian collection]
By Mike Governale

On May 19, 1911, a 150 foot long break occurred in the wall of the New York State Barge Canal at Bushnell’s Basin. Construction on this section of canal had just been completed eight days earlier.

According to an article in the Monroe County Mail, it was a canal worker, John McCarthy, who at 4pm discovered water pouring through a narrow crack in the canal bank…

According to an article in the Monroe County Mail, the canal break washed away a house, a barn and many orchard trees. [PHOTO: Perinton Municipal Historian collection]
Perhaps not comprehending the gravity of the situation, John gathered some planks and shovel to try and patch the breach. But before a repair could be made, the break widened and John’s tools were washed away in a rush of water that would quickly carve out a 30 foot deep channel, draining a 3-mile long section of the canal into Irondequoit creek.

In addition to a house, a barn and many orchard trees being swept away, the supporting bank of the Rochester, Syracuse & Eastern trolley line was also washed away in the flood. 500 feet of track were left suspended in mid-air. A load of passengers on the 5pm trolley were narrowly spared thanks to their motorman who was able to apply the breaks and stop the car just in time. The article does not mention what happened to John, but I assume he lived to tell the story to the newspaper reporter.

This break was attributed to the fill that was used along the edge of the canal. Apparently it was too soft to hold up to the massive water pressure. But this would not be the last incident. Another major break would soon take place in the same vicinity.

In September of 1912 another break occurred at Bushnell's Basin during work to widen the canal. Printed in Rochester Herald October 4, 1912. [PHOTO: Perinton Municipal Historian collection]
In September of 1912 another break occurred at Bushnell’s Basin during work to widen the canal. The reconstruction work led to the collapse of the culvert that was built under the canal to allow Irondequoit Creek to pass through. This canal break released thousands of gallons of water leaving mud and giant concrete slabs strewn about the area. In the photo above, several people can be seen inspecting the damage.

This view is looking east along the canal bed. The bridge over Marsh Road is visible in the distance. [PHOTO: Perinton Municipal Historian collection]
This view is looking east along the canal bed. The bridge over Marsh Road is visible in the distance.

Here's the same view as in the previous photo, taken in 1986.
Here’s the same view as in the previous photo, taken in 1986.

Here, men are rebuilding the big flume where the break occurred. Printed in Rochester Herald October 4, 1912. [PHOTO: Albert R. Stone]
Here, men are rebuilding the big flume where the break occurred.

Another view looking inside the flume. [PHOTO: Albert R. Stone]
Another view looking inside the flume.

Another view looking inside the flume. [PHOTO: Albert R. Stone]

But wait, there’s more…

On October 29, 1974 the bottom fell out (literally) while a new sewer tunnel was being built underneath the canal, again, at Bushnell's Basin. [PHOTO: Perinton Municipal Historian collection]
On October 29, 1974 the bottom fell out (literally) while a new sewer tunnel was being built underneath the canal, again, at Bushnell’s Basin. An estimated 200 million gallons of water spilled out in a burst some likened to Niagara Falls. The Marsh Road bridge is in the distance.

This view shows the water pouring out of the canal from below. A wall of water about two stories high ripped through residential streets damaging 69 homes. [PHOTO: Perinton Municipal Historian collection]
This view shows the water pouring out of the canal from below. A wall of water about two stories high ripped through residential streets. This time 69 homes and dozens of cars were damaged or destroyed. Total damages were estimated at 1.2 million dollars. But luckily there were no major injuries.

• • •

UPDATE: In a Facebook external link comment, Beth Moore Rhodes pointed to a recent D&C story external link that highlights this area’s external link struggle with flooding to this day. Thanks Beth!

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, December 9th, 2014 at 11:26 pm and is filed under Rochester History, Rochester Images, Transit + Infrastructure. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

6 Responses to “Canal Break!”

  1. Barbra Ann says:

    Excellent story!

  2. Karen says:

    Many years ago, when Captain Wiles (the father) used to pilot the Colonial Belle for scouts and school children,he told the story of an unfortunate woman who was doing laundry when the ’74 break occurred. The woman was forced by the rushing water, out through an upper window, and then she landed in a tree, clad only in undergarments. She was fine, luckily, but you could tell that Mr Wiles just loved telling this story.

  3. Gary says:

    There have been a series of breaches ever since the canal was built. Several others happened in the 19th century. One time a hermit, who refused to leave his cabin, died in the flood. This area was called the Great Embankment, a mile-long earth berm across the Irondequoit Creek valley. It was the greatest engineering challenge of Erie Canal construction and delayed opening of the canal for a couple years, during which Bushnell’s Basin became the canal’s western terminus. That’s why all those little brothel buildings are there (now Abbot’s, etc.). The canal was created atop the berm, up to 80 feet above the valley. Notice when you drive through on Route 96, you’re looking at treetops. It was a massive engineering project, as no heavy earthmoving equipment existed at the time. The canal has always been in danger of breaching its walls there, especially where Irondequoit Creek flows beneath it. That valley is wide because it was the prehistoric bed of the Genesee River, before that was altered during the last Ice Age.

  4. One of those 19th century breaches was written about in a diary kept by a fellow named Nathaniel Kellogg Fairbank. He describes a break in the canal at Bushnell’s Basin on May 29, 1850. The next day, upon visiting, he “Found a great hole 100 rods long & 40 feet deep about 700 men at work on it. . .”

    http://www.rochester.lib.ny.us/~rochhist/v40_1978/v40i3.pdf

    (page 8)

  5. Pat says:

    I remember the 1974 break well. I lived on Irondequoit Bay at the time. Irondequoit Creek flows into the bay. I was standing outside talking to my neighbor, who said something must be wrong somewhere because the level of the bay had risen several inches within the last hour or so. We turned on the radio, and that’s when we found out about the canal break.

    As I recall, it happened before school ended for the day. If it had happened just a bit later, many children would have been walking on those streets, either from school or from the bus, and no doubt there would have been some injuries or deaths. They were very lucky indeed.

  6. Ruth Nederlk says:

    This is so interesting. Never knew about these breaks. Love being able now to know this history.


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