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