History in my own backyard

Sometimes we get so wound up in our daily routines, that we overlook or don’t appreciate some of the amazing things around us. We’ve all heard of the scenario of tourists coming from hundreds of miles away to check out something the locals have never bothered with. Our humble home is located about 1.5 miles north of the Erie Canal where it runs through the Village of Pittsford, New York. The canal was originally built in the early-19th century, mainly for commerce, but it’s now used exclusively as a resource for recreational boaters as well as walkers, runners, and bicyclists.

The Erie Canal played a huge part in the early development of the Rochester region and New York State in general. There were discussions of a canal linking the port of New York City with the expanding western frontier as far back as the 1790s, but it was Governor DeWitt Clinton who finally made the dream a reality. Plans were drawn up to link the Hudson River with Lake Erie over a 360 mile stretch that included several very daunting engineering challenges. Construction began in 1817 and was completed in 1825. Rochester was a small, frontier village when it was first incorporated in 1817, but the Erie Canal transformed it into the nation’s very first “boom town.” The Upper Falls of the Genesee River provided an ideal location for water-powered grist mills and newly-settled farmers throughout the region hauled their grain to the mills where it was processed into flour and transported via canal to New York City. The river would later be harnessed as a power source, enabling Rochester to outpace other nearby communities and become a burgeoning manufacturing center. The village of Pittsford, located nine miles southeast of Rochester, and originally settled in 1796, was also situated along the path of the Erie Canal, but it largely remained a sleepy, agricultural hamlet compared to its industrious neighbor to the west.

Rochester was once known as the center of the “Burned Over District” as numerous itinerant ministers traveled from town to town along the canal, preaching the Gospel and planting churches. Charles G. Finney,* a Wesleyan Arminian and Pelagian who popularized the “anxious bench” (precursor to today’s altar call), gained his notoriety with his well-attended Rochester revivals in 1830-31. The religious fervor in the area was part of what American historians refer to as the Second Great Awakening (1790-1840).

Railroads began to compete with the canal for commerce in the 1830s, but the Erie Canal, with its lower costs and ongoing expansions, remained competitive until after the Civil War. The canal underwent a major reconstruction and enlargement in 1918 in order to accommodate large barges and the new route entirely bypassed the old canal pathway that ran directly through Rochester. In 1927, innovative city leaders authorized the construction of a trolley line in the bed of the former canal path. The old canal aqueduct over the Genesee River and the 1.5-mile-long canal bed that ran through the city center were roofed-over by Broad Street and the trolley line became known as the Rochester Subway, which was utilized until 1956. Interstates 590 and 490 now traverse the former canal and trolley path from Monroe Avenue in Brighton (near Tom Wahl’s restaurant) to the east bank of the Genesee River. Careful observers can still spot vestiges of the old canal and subway system as they drive along the 490 interstate through the east side of the city.

The enlarged Erie Canal runs through Pittsford Village along the same route as the original 1825 canal. It’s such a nice resource. My wife and I have taken many walks along the peaceful canal over the years. There are several shops, restaurants, and small parks along the canal at Schoen Place. One would think there would be even more “gentle” development and public accessibility along such a great resource, but short-sighted planning is a consistent characteristic among civic leaders in Rochester and Monroe County. The vast majority of property that abuts the canal is privately owned.

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The Phoenix Hotel (c. 1820) in Pittsford was originally built as a stagecoach inn, but subsequently also served those traveling on the nearby Erie Canal. Anti-Mason activist, William Morgan, was fed a meal here before he was spirited away and murdered. The Marquis de Lafayette spent the night as a hotel guest.
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Old Lock 62, abandoned after the Erie Canal was rerouted in 1918, sits silently behind the Pittsford Plaza shopping center.
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A portion of old Lock 65 along Interstate 490 attests to the route having once been the path of the Erie Canal through the city of Rochester.
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The Genesee Aqueduct once carried the Erie Canal and, later, the trolley cars of the Rochester Subway over the Genesee River in Downtown Rochester. The “roof” over the 1.5-mile underground portion of the subway system became Broad Street.
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The “Sam Patch,” a tour boat designed to resemble an old canal packet boat, navigates the Erie Canal at night at the Port of Pittsford.

*For more on revivalist, Charles G. Finney, see “The Disturbing Legacy of Charles Finney” here.

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30 thoughts on “History in my own backyard

    1. Thanks, Beth! I’m definitely a history “nerd” and can easily get carried away, so it was a major effort to keep this post below 1000-words. Glad you enjoyed it! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. 👋 Hope you’re having a good day, brother! We had a heavy rainstorm yesterday and water came in through the basement window once again. I was cleaning that up with my shop-vac and then noticed one of the water pipes in the basement was leaking so a plumber is on his way. An unusual couple of days. I finally figured out how to stop that rainwater from coming in the basement window and will be working on that tomorrow. There’s a post in all of this somewhere.

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      1. Oh no! Sounds like a lot of work for taking care of homes in NY! Next week I plan to coat my roof but it doesn’t sound like we have things that crazy when I read your blog over the years

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      2. The plumber is here now. Cha-ching!!! But I think I can finally solve the ongoing problem of rainwater coming over the gutters and coming down into the basement windows. I should have thought of the idea long ago! It’s so tough to clean up the water with all of the stuff we store in the basement.

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      3. Success! The plumber fixed the leaking pipe and I fixed the gutter so that rain water will never flow down into the basement window ever again! Thank you Lord for the idea! 💡💡💡💡💡💡💡

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  1. Wow, the photos are amazing brother! Ugh, Finney though…probably one of my least favorite men to research. Whenever I do my stomach always ends up turning in knots. Thank you for sharing this history with us all, my friend! I hope to one day see this area of the country.

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    1. Thanks, sister! That was fun to tell a little bit of our local history. Finney is still highly revered by the Wesleyans, Nazarenes, and other Arminians around here and his name is still somewhat prominent in these parts. The pastor at the Baptist church we attended thirty years ago used to refer to Finney with admiration and he regularly lumped him in with D.L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham when referring to the great American evangelists.
      You and the family are quite the travelers! I rarely get outside of this little corner of Western New York.

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      1. We were able to visit NYC one time, it was great fun but I wish we had gotten to see the other parts of NY. We frequently get sent notifications for assignments in NY but the process for hospital licensing there is pricy and complicated. That’s why we haven’t gone to CA or HA yet as well. The Virgin Islands are the only place that doesn’t require a state license, I’ve been hoping for that one for a while! Especially during the -30 degree weather this last winter. 😂

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      2. Yup, everything in NY is pretty pricey compared to the other states, except for CA and of course, HI. Many Rochester retirees go down to FL for the winter. We get more snow here than anywhere else in the continental U.S. because of our unique location near lakes Erie and Ontario. Nope, I’m not bragging about that!

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      1. Don’t know if you’ve ever been to Boston but that’s a great destination for a history buff. So much to see. Being a Rev. War buff back in the day, I really enjoyed our visits there.

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      2. Gotcha lol. Hope you enjoy your trip today! To answer your question on my blog, I’m doing sermon prep today and hoping to finish early so I can visit my sister visiting our area to play board games! She lives in Padres territory nowadays lol…

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  2. I have thoroughly enjoyed the history lesson with pictures. You made it interesting to read, your enjoyment in sharing was evident. Thank you Tom.
    I didn’t know much about C Finney but I do now . Wow I had no idea. 😳

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    1. Thanks, Crissy! It was fun to write about the Erie Canal because I do enjoy it. The history of the canal and the Rochester Subway were pet interests of mine back in the day. Finney was an “interesting” character. He is well thought of among believers in these parts, but when the particulars of his theology are examined, we can see many heterodox beliefs.

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  3. Dear Tom, thank you for your history lesson on your area. The only time I visited N. Y. was in 1984. Visiting N. Y. City as a chaperone for our youth choir mission trip (daughter included) was not a pleasant experience ~ stayed at the YMCA. We can attribute the emotional “altar call” to Finney. Blessings for your weekend and Lord’s Day.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Fran! Glad you enjoyed the history lesson. The Big Apple downstate is definitely in a category by itself. Finney is an interesting character and wouldn’t receive half the accolades if believers actually examined his theology. Thank you and blessings for your weekend as well!

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