An afternoon at the “Oxbow” on the Erie Canal

Way back in the late-1970s, my wife and I lived in an apartment in Fairport, N.Y. near Rochester, and I used to enjoy running along the nearby Erie Canal in warmer weather and cross country skiing along the canal in the winter. One day, I was traversing the canal path between Fairport and Pittsford and came upon a section of the canal that was unusually wide and I was surprised to see a string of small cottages lining the opposite canal bank and a couple of islands in the water. Wow! As a lifelong Rochesterian, I thought I was pretty familiar with the Erie Canal, but I was completely unaware of this unique, little community. I put it out of my mind for decades, but lately, with the help of the internet and some hiking shoes, I’ve been able to do some investigating.

The Erie Canal originally had many twists and turns. This particular section was coined the “Oxbow” because of its “U” shape. Ensuing projects to straighten, deepen, and widen the canal resulted in a “lake” at the Oxbow, making it a prime spot for those seeking a recreation haven. By the late 1880s, a number of summer cottages had been erected along the southern bank of the canal at the Oxbow.

A relatively recent local newspaper article (see far below) states that by the end of the 19th-century, the Oxbow had become a “popular spot for local businesses and organizations to have picnics and baseball games. Early in the 20th century more cottages were built, and the trend accelerated with the Barge Canal construction project. By 1918, the Oxbow was a full-fledged vacation spot for people from Perinton, East Rochester, Penfield and beyond. Many of the simple cottages were constructed from the lumber of dismantled railroad box cars.”* The number of cottages on the Erie at the Oxbow eventually grew to sixty.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, when people were forced to make do with less, the small and unpretentious cottages were converted to year-round dwellings, but the lack of sewers and other amenities made life on the canal bank difficult. Kids who lived on the Oxbow were looked down upon by their classmates at school. The Oxbow “lake” was also becoming smaller. In the 1940s, New York State began depositing the silt that had been dredged from the canal bottom into the lake, eventually creating two islands that can be seen today. In the 1960s, families began to leave the Oxbow and, one by one, the abandoned, derelict cottages either crumbled or were destroyed by suspicious fires. The last resident of the Oxbow, Florence Rutter, died in 2012. Her cottage, the last of the sixty, burnt to the ground in 2014.

Today, there’s only a few traces left of the Oxbow community. Remnants of the Oxbow Road still exist along with some of the old telephone and power lines (see photos below). The disappearance of this once-thriving community-within-a-community reminded me of how fleeting and impermanent this life is.

“Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” – James 4:14

oxbow-1950s

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A modern map showing the Oxbow “lake” and islands, dubbed “Coyote Island” and “Snake Island” by the locals. Sixty cottages on Oxbow Road once lined the canal bank. I took the photos below as I walked the old Oxbow Road.
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My wife and our dog, Gracie, stand on the remains of Oxbow Road near an old telephone/power line pole.
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A couple of telephone/power line poles are some of the last remnants of the Oxbow community.
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Taken from Oxbow Road looking south. Cottages would have been on the left and that’s Coyote Island on the right.
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This piece of land jutting out perpendicularly into the canal is probably the foundation of a small former cottage
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This carved out rock once served as a planter for an Oxbow resident.
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Above: Florence Rutter’s residence at 27 Oxbow Road, the last cottage standing at the Oxbow, was destroyed by fire in 2014.

HISTORY: The Oxbow: From vacation spot to ashes

22 thoughts on “An afternoon at the “Oxbow” on the Erie Canal

  1. So much wisdom and truth in this post. What admonishments to “love not this world or anything in it” and resist attachments and deep rooting. May God help me, I’ve been living in the same apt for 35 years!
    Thanks brother Tom, God bless you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Lisa Beth! Yes, the Lord graciously shows us through many examples that we should not be deeply rooted to this world. Thank you and God bless you, too!

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    1. Thanks, Bonnie! I always remembered seeing those cottages along the “Oxbow” forty years ago, so I was glad I could find the information on the internet and even do some exploring along the former site. It’s amazing that sixty families once lived at the Oxbow but there is barely any evidence that survives.

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  2. So much history with the Erie Canal. I often think of US history taught to us as kids about the 1800s. But I love this post for capturing more recent history. This reminds me of how devastating the depression was to the US during that time, and also how people’s finance can change at the drop of a hat or even the prestige and lack of prestige of a place…

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    1. Thanks. Yeah, the Oxbow was an interesting little community. The rest of Fairport looked down their noses at the inhabitants as โ€œsquatters.โ€ The Oxbow residents didnโ€™t own the land their humble cottages sat on. They paid an annual lease fee to the state. Since there was no plumbing, the residents had to carry their waste to a common septic tank each day.

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  3. Wow, thank you for your research! This was a fascinating read! (With an appropriate quote of James 4:14! Amen!)
    Never had a thought where in the US you were located, so while cooking dinner and reading this I Google Map searched “Oxbow and Erie Canal” and duhhh, in 2017 my hubby and I visited Detroit for a 12 day tour, then flew to Boston for 3 days and took a train trip down to NYC for a further 3 days. So I should have remembered where Erie Canal was as we glimpsed it at times, besides Lake St Clair and the Detroit River. I was getting the same feelings while reading this that I had there as I wanted to visit Belle Isle, but Detroit had a freaky massive downpour on our free day during the tour and was washed out ๐Ÿ™ disappointed too as I wanted to see the Michigan Railway station, which I’ve heard that the Ford Motor Co has now refurbed. Anyway, I’ve gone on…sorry! The elderly lady’s cottage looked pretty decent, made of brick, but crazy they didn’t have sewerage etc, even when they were holiday stays and the way the residents were treated and thought of. Thanks again! ๐Ÿ™‚

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    1. Thank you, Cassie! I definitely enjoy quirky aspects of history like this “lost” community along the Erie Canal. Yes, from the photo, Florence’s cottage appeared to be fairly substantial. There’s a WordPress blogger who posts exclusively about the Oxbow and he posted old photos taken by the State of all of the cottages and many of them were somewhat ramshackle compared to Florence’s.

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