We know you know that the Erie Canal is of major importance to our community, but sometimes we just take it and its beauty for granted and think of it as a placid place for recreation. But did you know that a major feat of engineering took place in the form of the Great Embankment or that there have been three major breaks in the canal in or near that area?
The Irondequoit Valley was one of five major obstacles that had to be surmounted and rendered navigable by the canal. The original earthen structure was completed in 1822 and was heralded far and wide as one of the engineering marvels of the Erie Canal. It carried the canal 70 feet above the road and the creek. The Great Embankment, the area which we can see from Route 96 and spanned the Irondequoit Creek, was a work of great wonder since it was first conceived in 1808 by James Geddes. A young entrepreneur, names Sylvanus Lathrop suggested that a trough made of wood could span the chasm. That idea did not work for obvious reasons, but Lathrop made a good deal of money on the eventual completion of the project. Though plagued with problems, breaks and other disasters, it stands proudly to this day as a testimony to the foresight of the "engineers" who planned it and the hard work of the laborers who built it.
The first break was in 1911 that was caused when the water was put in the enlarged canal. The bank was new and composed of soil. Once the water started to flow, the earth and bank gave way quickly and washed out Marsh Road. It just missed hitting a trolley that ran in that area and water tore up the tracks.
The next break occurred in 1912 and there was no damage to homes because most of the water flooded farmlands downstream. The break happened right over a culvert of Irondequoit Creek. That old culvert was built in 1840 and when they put the new canal over it, they did not change it. It began leaking and the canal just went to pieces. Concrete pieces 8 to 10 feet thick were pushed all around and there was an enormous amount of water on both sides.
But the break that many of us remember and the one which caused the most damage, happened on a lovely October day in 1974. The whole street of Brook Hollow was affected with one home completely washed away and many others suffering tremendous damage. Other homes on neighboring streets also suffered damage with many basements covered with water, mud and debris. Miraculously no one was killed that afternoon, but one woman was caught in the rush of water as it washed away her basement wall and carried her right out of the sidewall and into her yard. She was able to grab onto a tree and call for help but not before her jeans and shoes were torn off and she was bleeding and bruised from the ordeal.
The break was caused by a contractor tunneling under the canal as part of a pure waters sewer line development. It was not until seven years later that the suit finally was settled against the Greenfield Construction Co. of MI.
The canal has caused disruption in the village at other times such as 1973 when the State Street Bridge was replaced and closed for two years. The North Main Street Bridge was closed and rebuilt in 1983. It opened a year later, almost one year earlier than scheduled.
Our Erie Canal is a jewel of which we should all be proud and tout it for what it was - an engineering marvel and completely paid for by New York State residents without one penny of federal funds! Within six years the canal had paid for itself and it was declared "forever free". However, a user fee was instituted a few years ago and is being re-considered at this time. Perhaps the words "forever" and "never" should not be used in connection with public or political issues.