Episode 101: Bridging the Gap

Written, Produced, and Edited by Lali Albrecht and Molly Robinson

Bridging the Gap Transcript

The relationship between humans and the environment is historically complex and marked with copious instances of exploitation. Human survival and progress is marked by the continuous use of natural resources to benefit human needs, often regardless of the potential damage to the environment. This pattern is evident in many industrialization projects over the 19th and 20th centuries, including that of the Erie Canal. This canal, which aimed to provide a direct waterway across upper New York State, garnered a lot of attention from citizens due to its impressive engineering and scale.

Map of the Erie Canal (1903) [8].

In particular, the Irondequoit Creek Valley exemplified the environmental lengths at which engineers were willing to go in order to increase profits. This valley initially stood in the way of a convenient water route west. If the canal could not be passed across the valley, it would have to be re-routed across Lake Ontario. In a book about the Erie Canal, historian Ronald E. Shaw describes the views of James Geddes, the main engineer of the embankment, about the Lake Ontario route:

“[Geddes] reported the ‘obstinate’ insistence by the advocates of the interior route that with the use of Lake Ontario ‘there would be danger of the whole lake trade being diverted’ to Canada.” [6]

Geddes was concerned that the “lake trade” would lose money if the canal was not straight across New York State, revealing that he prioritized earning profit over altering nature. However, Americans were always impressed with the nature-defying engineering of projects like Geddes’ so he was able to continue with plans to cross the valley.

For most people, crossing this valley would be nearly impossible. However, where many saw a roadblock, James Geddes saw a challenge. He believed he could find a route across upstate New York that could be fed by the Genesee River. Instead of following the plan to cross Lake Ontario, he surveyed New York for a route that would be low enough in elevation to have the river feed the canal all the way to western New York. And he found that route – but there was one problem. In order for this route to work, the canal would have to cross the one mile wide, 70 foot deep, Irondequoit Creek Valley.

Once again, Geddes would not be deterred. He proposed building an embankment to cross the Irondequoit Creek Valley. However, this valley was difficult for construction in many aspects. The bottom of the valley was made of soft soil, upon which it would be difficult to build. The strong winds from Lake Ontario made the plan of a wooden aqueduct impossible. Yet Geddes was determined, and a combination of wooden beams and imported soil created an embankment. A culvert was also built, to protect the Irondequoit Creek, which ran through the valley. 

Part of the Great Embankment in 2004 [9].

Geddes’ plan had succeeded, but the canal commissioners were nervous about the completed project. The imported soil was mostly comprised of quicksand, and the subsequent instability of the structure caused the canal to be completely drained nightly for the first few days after construction was completed. The newly constructed embankment was likely to burst, endangering the people living in the valley below. However, Geddes solely focused on the glory that his project would bring to him. In a letter he wrote to William Darby in 1822, Geddes wrote:

“The [Irondequoit] embankment will, I think, receive the admiration of all visitors. I have seen, sir, the famous Harper’s ferry on the Potomac, and if the Philosopher of Monticello could see, when finished, said embankment, I trust he would pronounce it a sight still more worthy across the Atlantic, than Harper’s ferry.” [4]

Geddes was wrapped up in his own desire for greatness and therefore the threat of flooding was not a huge concern for him. Despite Geddes’ oversight, the fears of the canal commissioners, and the fragility of the structure, the embankment held up until reconstruction in the early 20th century.

In 1911, Americans began preparing for the next stage of engineering advancements, by expanding the Erie Canal to create the Barge Canal. This included streamlining the Irondequoit Embankment. Geddes’ original plan depended on natural ridges that lined the valley that would provide natural support for the embankment. The new plan decided to take a direct path across the gap. With the new era of engineering, the name of the Irondequoit Embankment was changed to the Great Embankment.

The newly constructed Great Embankment after the Barge Canal Era reconstruction was completed in 1911 [9].

Between the original construction and the construction in 1911, the attitude regarding the use of natural land remained unchanged. Nature was a thing to be altered, to be made into something useful, to be conquered. To Americans, these projects represented a bright future where people would no longer have to be subjected to the dangers of the natural world.  As Thomas McKenney, the Superintendent of Indian Trade in the 1820s stated:

“If a mountain is in the way of the canal, these enterprizing citizens make nothing of cutting it down; if a valley, they fill it up, and pass the waters across, in a bed cut out of the new made ridge; and in ascending, or descending, locks are resorted to. Thus do enterprize, and skill, and money level all things.” [5]

McKenney rightly points out how humans willingly would use technology to make their own lives more convenient, without regard for any natural landscape they might be changing. This mindset contributed to engineers not learning about the environment, instead building blindly through it. 

However, on May 19, 1911, only eight days after the reconstruction finished, the first collapse of the canal occurred. A 150 ft section of the canal broke, draining a 3 mile section of the canal into the Irondequoit Creek Valley. Included in the damage was 500 ft of track from the Rochester, Syracuse, and Eastern trolley line. The 5pm trolley and its passengers would also have been swept away if not for the quick thinking of the conductor. Tragedy struck again in September 1912, when the culvert that allowed the Irondequoit Creek to pass through collapsed. Thousands of gallons of water were released, concrete slabs were tossed around, and a construction crew working on the site narrowly avoided death.

Canal break that occurred during reconstruction in 1912 [7].

Finally, on October 29, 1974, a section from the bottom of the canal fell out, and a surge of 200 million gallons of water were estimated to gush out, an image that some witnesses likened to Niagara Falls. A wall of water 2 stories high destroyed 69 homes and dozens of cars; thankfully, nobody was killed. The engineers underestimated the power of nature, or overestimated their skills and planning, and the residents of nearby towns paid the price for it.

Many lessons can be taken away from the story of the Irondequoit Embankment, ones that pop up again and again in stories of man and the environment. One of these lessons is that people in power often take massive risks and make huge decisions at the expense of those in lower social standings who do not have a voice in the matter. Unfortunately, these people of lower social standings often face the consequences of the risks taken by the citizens in power. It is the working class, the common man, who suffer when risks are taken. They were the people who had to live in the valley beneath the embankment, who were nearly swept up in the floodwaters, or who lost their homes. The people behind the construction of the embankment were only focused on the prosperity it could bring them. Additionally, the embankment construction demonstrates the destruction caused by greed and pride. The engineers and planners believed they were capable of anything and that nothing could block the path between them and success and prosperity. They were willing to do anything, and they manipulated the environment to their needs. Due to the unmitigated manipulation of the landscape, as well as their lack of knowledge of the environment, the embankment ended up causing widespread destruction. Future generations can look to the story of the embankment as a cautionary tale of hubris and greed.

Additional Resources

Works Cited

Farley, Doug. “Erie Canal Discovery: The great embankment.” lockportjournal.com. http://www.lockportjournal.com/archives/erie-canal-discovery-the-great-embankment/article_578b842a-7da5-5642-b343-35943298f552.html (accessed December 19, 2017)

Grasso, Thomas X. The Erie Canal and Rochester: Past, Present, and Future. Vol. 72. Rochester, NY: Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County, 2010. Accessed December 19, 2017. http://www.rochester.lib.ny.us/~rochhist/v72_2010/v72i1.pdf.

Perinton Historical Society. “The Erie Canal in Perinton.” perintonhistoricalsociety.org. http://www.perintonhistoricalsociety.org/history/erie-canal-2 (accessed December 19, 2017)

Town of Pittsford. “More about the Erie Canal.” townofpittsford.org. http://www.townofpittsford.org/home-history-articles-05_24_2006 (accessed December 18, 2017)

Notes/Sources

  1. Andrist, Ralph K. The Erie Canal. New Word City, 2016, https://books.google.com/books? id=o5SjCwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
  2. Bernstein, Peter L. Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005, https://books.google.com/books?id=UY_IswcYwvoC& printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
  3. Engineering News. Vol. 68. New York: Hill Publishing Company, 1912, https://books.google .com/books?id=q0tRAQAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
  4. Hill, Henry Wayland. Historical Review of Waterways and Canal Construction in New York State. Vol. 12. Buffalo, NY: Buffalo Historical Society, 1908, https://books.google.com/books ?id=6itGAQAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
  5. McKenney, Thomas Loraine. Sketches of a Tour to the Lakes: Of the Character and Customs of the Chippeway Indians, and of Incidents Connected with the Treaty of Fond Du Lac. F. Lucas, Jr., 1827, https://books.google.com/books?id=bDQBAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover& source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
  6. Shaw, Ronald E. Erie Water West: A History of the Erie Canal, 1792-1854. University Press of Kentucky, 1966, https://books.google.com/books?id=AwEyBgTzLrkC&printsec=frontcover& source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
  7. Governale, Mike. “Canal Break!” Rochester Subway. December 9, 2014. Accessed December 20, 2017. http://www.rochestersubway.com/topics/2014/12/canal-break/.
  8. Sadowski, Frank. “Maps of the Erie Canal.” Erie Canal – Maps. 2000. Accessed December 20, 2017. http://www.eriecanal.org/maps.html.
  9. Sadowski, Frank. “Images of the Erie Canal between Rochester and Syracuse.” Erie Canal Images – West Central Section. 2005. Accessed December 20, 2017. http://www.eriecanal.org/westcentral-1.html.

 

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